JUN 19, 2008 3:57pm ET

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Business Intelligence The Self-Service Way

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The third step is the definition of the to-be BI state. This is based on the to-be needs gathered along with business and IT consensus regarding the business capabilities and technology solutions necessary to support defined corporate strategies. Based on the as-is assessment and to-be needs, analyze how various BI needs within the organization can be consolidated to create a single centralized BI reporting environment. This step translates into architectural and structural changes in the data warehouse design. In case there are several BI tools across the organization, a single vendor BI tool standardization approach is recommended. If the existing BI tools within an organization do not meet the current business requirements, a new suitable BI tool is recommended with a business case.

It is critical to understand that a single BI reporting tool is not an enabler for self-service BI. It’s only for standardization and rationalization, eventually providing a centralized competency framework. There could be recommendations on the report delivery process, like establishing a report certification model. This approach brings consistency and discipline to the BI environment across the organization.

The fourth and last step is creating an implementation roadmap for transition to the future self-service BI architecture. This includes a phased rollout plan incorporating both time and cost estimates in the form of multiple BI projects. This approach to self-service BI leads to a search-based reporting environment that is centralized, metadata-driven, easy to navigate and efficient.

The Challenges

Though challenging, in order to create an information-centric culture, it is critical to implement a strong data governance framework. Data governance should be spread across master data management, metadata management and data quality management. I have seen organizations struggle to develop a true data governance council, which considers all these factors.

Standardization to a single BI vendor tool or introduction of a new tool to achieve self-service BI has challenges on the technology side. It becomes difficult to make all business users happy by offering a single BI tool. Today, many BI vendors in the market have expanded their products to address most BI, planning, performance management and predictive analysis needs. However, there are some areas like planning and predictive analysis where a few niche players are considered best. A single BI vendor tool would not be able to effectively address all reporting, analytical and planning needs of users.

The other technology challenges are for organizations that use packaged BI and data warehouse solutions that come tightly integrated with their enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications. The data visualization and reporting features of such packaged data warehouses are not on par with some of the prominent BI reporting tools on the market. The leading BI reporting tool vendors offer connectivity to packaged data warehouses, but there are many limitations on the technology front during such implementations.

On the process side, the challenge is that few organizations have established or widely accepted processes to access information. In many organizations, users get the required information quickly by bypassing formal processes and using their personal currency. Establishing a common process would require some effort to get information. Process-related changes are critical in achieving a self-service BI environment, but they are also the most difficult to implement.

The most daunting challenge is on the cultural front. Although people within the organization may not be satisfied with the way their BI needs are being addressed, they resist any change because of their comfort levels with the existing BI tools and the learning curve involved. Any change in terms of technology creates excitement among business users but, at the same time, generates fear of learning a new tool or adapting to a new process. Business users try to avoid the additional responsibility of creating the report themselves. They also forget how to use the tool, even after being trained. In a short time span, they either stop using the tool or call IT for assistance like they used to do. The organization then finds itself exactly where it was before.

The IT team might think that tool standardization across the organization would put their jobs at risk. There could also be pressure groups within the organization trying to push their own sets of thoughts and ideas on how to achieve self-service BI the ways they see best, putting the organization’s goals second. To make things worse, too many conflicting ideas exist in the market that create confusion. Ideas like standardization versus working with disparate systems, single vendor or rationalization versus best of breed, hosted solutions versus managed, centralized versus distributed and unstructured versus structured data add up to make the customer more puzzled and lose direction from the correct way to achieve self-service BI.

The Benefit of Embracing Self-Service BI

The most visible change that organizations have seen by implementing self-service BI is more agility in their business. Business can react to market changes or even take advantage of market situations more quickly with self-service BI because they have faster access to BI. The increased speed is a result of lesser dependency on IT and quick and effective access to decision-making data. Data that typically takes a few days to generate can now be accessed in a few clicks. There is better overall control of the data, and many organizations have been able to clean hundreds of repetitive, unused reports from their BI environment. In the self-service environment, data is organized and structured in a better way on the back end and displayed better aesthetically on the front end, so business users can easily access information. New features in the BI tools transform mundane reports and give them new life.

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