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Business Intelligence The Self-Service Way

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The current market slowdown has put increased pressure on margins for most organizations. Today’s organizations are feeling the rising input costs, higher interest rates and tight money supply. Large companies may experience flat demand or even a decline from global oversupply in the next few years. The role of business intelligence (BI) to provide agile, adaptable and efficient business decision-making has become very important to meet these business challenges. Businesses will struggle to have the leading edge in the market if decision-makers cannot get the correct timely information to act upon. Most business users and decision-makers rely heavily on the IT department in order to get information and make day-to-day business decisions. This not only causes inordinate delays in decision-making, but also places dependency on IT. This increases the overall investment cost of BI for the organization. All these factors translate to higher operating costs, reduced productivity, customer dissatisfaction and, most importantly, higher levels of dissatisfaction among employees in organizations.

To gain an advantage over competition, organizations must innovate ways in which business users can quickly and easily get required information. This means a BI environment in which business users can get rich, accurate and real information at their fingertips as easily as we get information from a Google search. For this to happen, business and IT need to work together to create a self-service BI environment that enables business users to access information with minimum support from IT for their day-to-day operations, so as to increase the overall ROI on BI for the enterprise. The need for such self-service BI has become less of an aspiration and more of a requirement in today’s competitive business scenario.

Prioritize Self-Service BI

Most large organizations have multiple inconsistent BI environments, and a single data warehouse does not adequately cover all the lines of business. This is because the data warehouses in most organizations have been developed disparately, with the silo approach in mind. Business users do not have access to consolidated, unified data from which they can make fact-based, objective, relevant and timely decisions. In many companies, one single data warehouse cannot meet the BI needs of all groups. When a data warehouse does not adequately cover all lines of business, the users have to get data from different sources and consolidate it in one place, leading to several spread marts within the same organization.

Business users spend much time explaining what they need to their IT teams, and after they get the report or data, they spend time filtering the required information from the data they receive. The primary reason for this is that the design and technology choice in their existing architecture has limitations in terms of data structure in the data warehouse and limitations on report formatting capability at the front end. The nonavailability of standard formatted reports and difficulty creating ad hoc reports increases dependence on IT.

With all this difficulty and delay to access information with their existing BI environment, business users have reduced the usage of BI in many organizations. In such an environment, business users make many critical business decisions based on intuition and with reliance on fewer facts, making their business decisions more risk prone. The existing BI architecture, which has been developed over a period of time with a tactical approach, should be reassessed to come up with a long-term BI strategy. Organizations should become aware of and work toward achieving self-service BI by placing it on their priority list before the alarm bell starts ringing.

Create Self-Service BI

The approach for self-serve reporting is based on designing the intuitive information delivery layer, which will provide data analysis capabilities directly to users. The approach should have an end-state vision where business users can view the key performance indicators at strategic or tactical levels, like balanced scorecards, and can drill down to the operational level to understand process performance as well. The design should allow business users to correct or optimize the process and achieve incremental excellence. Business users should be able to use the English language on a Google-like search and get the corresponding information in a single window - for both structured and unstructured information. This search-based approach combined with centralized enterprise-wide metadata helps business users get the information in an accelerated manner. On the back end, the data warehouse schema and online analytical processing (OLAP) models should be redesigned to hide the database complexity. The BI reporting tool should be standardized to a single vendor. All this provides easy reporting capabilities to the end users for information analysis. The successful definition and implementation of the self-service BI program is achieved in four basic steps.

The first step is an as-is assessment of the existing landscape with respect to people, process, technology and governance. This study takes a deep dive in existing information delivery capabilities and their associated architectures. The data for the as-is study is gathered from existing system documentation and interviews and discussions with subject matter experts, business users of existing BI reports and the existing BI IT support team.

The second step is identifying the to-be needs. The various business units across the organization that access information from the existing BI environment and the potential users of BI are identified, forming groups of about 10 to 12 key users for each business unit. A focus group is made diverse with users from cross-functional areas to get an unbiased and overall organizational perspective. Focus group discussions are conducted with these users, revealing pain areas and possible suggestions on how to access information for their day-to-day work without IT support. All the needs that come out of these focus group discussions are documented, and they become the to-be needs to enable self-service BI.

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