Interface: The End of the End User

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End user. It's a term we hear every day in the business intelligence community. Who reads our reports? Who uses BI tools? Who makes decisions? The end user.

But here's the problem: There are no "end users" anymore. With good BI, and especially with newer business discovery or self-service tools, no user is at the "end" of anything. Every user is the start of something new.

CTOs seem to think of users as being at the end of a technology process in which IT supplies hardware and software, and users take what they are given. If this ever was the case, circumstances have certainly changed. Users adopt mobile devices and even BI tools independently, and network administrators appear to be running to keep up with these new demands.

Some users sit at the end of a "chain of custody" of data (or rather, data governance teams assume they are at the end of a chain). These users receive reports and analyses, and where there is a decision management process downstream, it is assumed that their data goes no further. Yet, users have always redistributed information outside administrative protocols as simply as exporting to Excel.

Even more clearly, these users are not at the end of the business process. There's little point in providing a report just for the sake of someone reading it. If a user acts on any report, they set a new process of their own into motion.

Business users take BI further with social collaboration. They discover and provision their own technologies ahead of the IT curve. They share data. It's simply mistaken to erect an invisible wall to mark where the process, or the technology, or the data simply stops.

Around 10 years ago, my IT department supplied all the software and hardware I needed for work. When I changed jobs in 2011, things were different, and not only because I moved to a smaller company. My new IT department still delivered a preloaded laptop, but also some critical processes that used online services.

Meanwhile, colleagues were suggesting tools for note keeping, file sharing or chat that were "unofficial" standards. These "apps" were not provisioned IT and didn't require their involvement to install and use, yet IT knew about them and advised on configuration where needed.

This all sounds familiar, but it is a transformative change. Business users are now actively choosing and using technologies and often insist on their choices. Barack Obama famously resisted not just an IT team but also the Secret Service. "I'm still clinging to my BlackBerry," he said after his inauguration as President. "They're going to pry it out of my hands." He still has it.

Users are no longer unreceptive consumers: They are knowledgeable active users who actively influence IT strategy. They are no longer at the end of the technology value chain.

This behavior also befits trends in BI software. In the 2011 Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence Platforms, Gartner acknowledges "vocal, demanding and influential business users (who) are increasingly driving BI purchasing decisions, most often choosing easier-to-use data discovery tools over traditional BI platforms - with or without IT's consent."

Just as companies may have "bring your own device" policies, there are few compelling reasons why BI tools cannot be supported in the same way. IT departments can still deliver enterprise reporting, and there will be spreadsheets in Excel, open source or online. IT can provision traditional or self-service BI tools if they wish. Just as with devices, active users will choose the tool that suits their practice and thinking style.

On my traditional desktop machine, I worked with Microsoft Outlook. In that one application, I had email, notes, a task list and a calendar, all connected to my enterprise Exchange server. Today, on my iPhone and iPad I have an email app, a notes app, a task organizer app and a calendar app for the same purposes. Each app is just how I want it: focused on a great user experience for one aspect of my work. However, they are all still connected to my enterprise Exchange server. This tells me that IT's role does not lie in managing my apps, but in supplying the services, security and data I need to be effective in my corporate environment. How I work is up to me.

In this transformed world, the roles of BI users and administrators will similarly evolve. IT will be the providers of quality data and services to users. Active users will choose their apps to suit their needs. They will build analytics around the data services from IT. They will share and collaborate. And they will not be the end of anything, but rather at the beginning of something new and very exciting.

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