Imagine this scenario: a hospital needs to cut costs. To save money, the hospital’s executives decide to reduce the amount of paperwork associated with patient files. Doctors and nurses are no longer allowed to immediately view patient records themselves. Instead, every time a doctor or nurse has a question or wants to know more about a patient’s medical history or even a blood type, he or she must ask one of the hospital’s new patient adviser for the information. Though they’re not trained health care professionals themselves, and in fact they have no experience in medicine, the advisers are the only people at the hospital who have access to patient data. Doctors and nurses have to submit requests and then wait for hours, sometimes days, for the advisers to get back to them. In the meantime, the sick go untreated.

Obviously, no one would ever choose to run a hospital this way. Yet far too many businesses operate under similar principles. IT and analysts handle data analytic requests. An impenetrable wall separates the IT department, which processes reports and analyzes data, from business users who actually need to use this information to succeed. With data analysis in the hands of the few, rather than the many, questions fester for weeks. Moreover, the growth and creativity of individual employees and the company as a whole are impeded.

In today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, companies that either don’t use data or use data incorrectly are left behind. Business intelligence has to be quick, smart and – most importantly – accessible to everyone. When the bottleneck is removed and everyone can help himself or herself, the ability to use data to drive all decisions, large and small, can become a way of life. Companies that use self-service BI, in which employees are able to get and understand the information they need when they need it, far outpace their competitors.

User-Driven Innovation

Self-service BI is predicated on the idea that data analysis is done best by the people that are actually involved in running business operations. Routing all requests through IT places a curiosity tax on the business users, penalizing them for asking questions. Self-service BI does the opposite. It rewards people who want to know more and who desire to explore hidden connections so that they can create a more efficient and profitable business.

Until now, business users found themselves with a combination of canned reports from business intelligence systems coupled with their intuition. Analytics was sometimes viewed with suspicion, and business users wondered where the data was coming from, and how to be sure that the model they were looking at was valid or accurate. The problem was that with analysts running the show, users couldn’t explore for themselves. New technologies are making it possible for users to do their own analytics, taking the burden off IT and analysts, who can then add value in other ways.

Providing business users with the ability to answer their own questions means that no time is wasted trying to extract the sticky knowledge from their brains. Business users already know the context because they live and breathe it everyday. Forcing users to explain what they’re searching for, when sometimes they don’t fully know themselves, is akin to making a jazz musician clarify why he played a particular note or rhythm.

Thus, the most immediate benefit of self-service BI is user-driven innovation, a term coined by MIT Professor Eric Von Hippel, whose research has shown that putting the tools to build solutions in the hands of users unlocks tremendous creativity. If business users have access to data on demand, they can then explore it independently, formatted in the manner that makes the most sense to them. This empowers users to build solutions, to seek more in-depth correlations and to innovate – in short, to do a better job and provide more value.

Beyond Excel

Self-service analytics isn’t just about transferring data to an Excel spreadsheet. Data alone is not enough. Just because users have data doesn’t mean they have extracted meaning from it. Typical reporting systems are great at the basics, when questions are predefined and the variables are known. A clothing store can plug weekly sales figures into Excel and see whether sales are higher than in prior months.

What’s lacking in this scenario is insight. Ad hoc reporting is not true self-service BI. If business users have to extract information from a data warehouse only to plug it into Excel, then they have to devote too much time for too few results. And that only scratches the surface of the problems with standalone spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are disconnected, solitary ventures. Self-service BI isn’t like that. It not only lets businesses serve themselves, but it also lets them share the results. And unlike Excel, self-service BI is visual and offers true engagement.

Professor Ben Schneiderman, who leads the Human Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, has conducted numerous studies, which confirm that human learning and understanding improve through visualization. Visual data analytic systems are able to contextualize information in a way more static systems cannot. It’s the difference between trying to envision the shape of the continents based on someone else’s description versus just using a map. Visualization reduces the need for lengthy explanations. It doesn’t force business users to put abstract ideas into words before they can even attempt to find solutions. It fosters consensus as users interact with the data in real time, ask each other questions and reach agreement as everyone sees the answers.

At the end of the day, self-service BI isn’t about making companies more tech savvy. It’s about making them more profitable. It takes data out of the IT cave and awakens every member of an organization to the potency of visualization and how analytics can lead to success on a daily basis. Employees are better able to explore the market conditions that may be affecting their business. Even those not probing the data can gain from the information extracted by co-workers and other business users.

Traditional BI makes even the shrewdest business user subservient to IT. Self-service BI, on the other hand, lets employees augment and capitalize on their expertise. No one would think a doctor could be effective without access to information about his patients. Likewise, every business should empower its employees with the self-service information they need to prosper.

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