Self-Service Business Intelligence: Dissolving the Barriers to Creative Decision-Support Solutions

Self-service is all the rage in the world of business intelligence (BI), but it’s no fad. In fact, it’s the only way to make BI more pervasive, delivering insights into every decision—important or mundane—that drives your business. It’s the key to empowering users with actionable insights while removing many mundane BI development and maintenance tasks from IT’s crushing workload.

In mid- 2009, I published a Forrester report describing key benefits, use cases, and approaches for implementing self-service BI, under the broad heading of “mighty mashup.” Forrester customers have responded very favorably to the discussion, asking for advice on whether, when, and how they should adopt this approach. Going forward, Forrester will deepen our discussion of self-service as a best practice to be incorporated into enterprise BI Solution Center (BISC) teachings.

As a BI analyst, I’d like to think that self-service is the premier best practice for pervasive analytics in this decade and beyond. Nevertheless, I’m always tuning into alternate viewpoints, such as this recent blog post by Wayne Eckerson of The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI). According to Wayne, an excellent analyst who I’ve known for years, the key to successful enterprise BI adoption is something he calls the “principle of proximity.” At heart, that refers to the need to co-locate BI analysts with business subject-matter experts in support of agile development. Only by requiring daily physical proximity among these professionals, he argues, can you assure ongoing BI alignment with key business imperatives.

Generally, I have no beef with that core prescription, but somehow it feels like it doesn’t go far enough. Even the tightest proximity among teams doesn’t eliminate the “telephone tag” issue, under which messages are garbled in the “mouth to ear” and “ear to brain to mouth” hops in the interpersonal communications equation. If you think that’s a minor problem, cast your mind back to offices you worked in where people physically saw each other every day (e.g., the fictional workplace in the TV show “The Office”). Then compare those claustro-offices with some of the more virtual, distributed environments in which you’ve been employed. Now ask yourself which type of work environment is more or less conducive to innocent misunderstandings. It’s hard to state definitively, one or the other--isn’t it?

But if we take the “principle of proximity” to its logical extreme, we get the benefits of agile development without the risk of telephone-tag-related misunderstandings on requirements. And what’s that logical extreme? It’s self-service BI, where the BI developers and business analysts are one and the same person. To the extent that every business analyst can develop his or her own reports, dashboards, predictive models, and other applications without having to “throw them over the transom” to IT counterparts (even those in the same physical room), there’s less opportunity for miscommunication. Just as important, analytic applications can be developed, deployed, and iterated more rapidly and inexpensively.

In the self-service scenario, the core development issue becomes one of user creativity. If each information worker has the full BI arsenal at their disposal, they must always ask themselves whether they have connected all the conceptual facets of their business problems and crafted the right one-off analytic applications. On one level, that might call for BISCs to provide users with support in approaches to creative problem solving. On another, it might call for companies to provide users with interactive BI visualization tools to help them explore rich analytic information sets from all possible angles.

In that context, then, the telephone-tag issue blurs into the “right brain/left brain” phenomenon: What kernel of creative insight gets lost in translation as you throw a problem over the transom in your mind?