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Self-service BI is an important topic which is top of mind for most BI leaders today. It is a term which has been around for a long time but expectations of what it means and what it can deliver has evolved. In the 8 years I have worked as a product manager of BI software, I have talked to many customers about their needs around self-service BI and I have seen a gambit of expectations and solutions. But at the core of all of them is a need to move information access out of IT and into the hands of those tasked with, or wishing to, make informed decisions.

What is influencing Self-Service BI?

New technology and new user expectations are driving a shift in the definition and outlook of self-service BI. I believe, with the quick and ubiquitous access to information accessibly through Google, the entire planet has rediscovered their thirst for knowledge (I am clearly using the term “knowledge” loosely) and added high expectation for quick, easy access to information. These expectations have transcended into the BI space as well. This demand is not only coming from top executives, or members of the Office of Finance, but is permeating into a diverse group of users and roles.

In addition, each organization is facing a growing diversity of data to derive value from and challenges with encapsulating it all within a central data warehouse. In fact, much of it will never make sense to house in a centrally manage store. And yet this data is no less valuable for contribution to decision making.

In response to these forces BI Leaders are seeking new solutions to deliver information to this broad audience in ways which do not overly burden the already small and stretched teams supporting their existing BI systems. Solutions must be sufficiently engaging and intuitive to be readily adopted, as well as flexible enough not to require all data be clean and modeled.

Who needs Self-Service BI?

Although the need for self-service access to information is unlikely to include an entire organization, it is a broader audience than most BI teams are considering. When I speak with customers, they are often focused on the needs of Finance or Business Analysts to be self-served but often forget to include the group that we have until more recently thought of as simply “consumers” of information. While Analysts are important, there is a broader, more diverse group of decision makers who can benefit from easy access to information.

Here I am referring to Managers. Not managers of people, necessarily, but a more broad definition of manager. Managers of products, supply chains, sales leaders and account managers, as well as marketing campaigns, to name a few.

This total broad group of users, if provided with appropriate experiences for accessing information could, carry out up to 80% of all existing BI requests, according to top Analysts.

Why is Self-Service BI Important?

Not only does self-service BI alleviate pressures on the IT BI teams, if done correctly, it will have a meaningful positive financial impact on company’s bottom line. As information becomes more accessible and complete, it becomes the back-bone for decision making processes across multiple layers of the business.

Often, decision makers are basing their decisions on guesses or instinct because information is not easily and quickly available to them. Or the data is incomplete and missing important information to drive new insights. This leads to missed opportunities for identifying growth or optimization from within the teams that are closest to the front-line and have the context to identify these opportunities.

For a self-service solution to be complete, it must deliver a diverse solution which can benefit a range of users. Not only provide a few Power Users with power tools but understand how to empower the Managers as well. Ideally, it creates a strong interplay of information between these two groups and tools.

How to Deliver Self-Service BI?

When delivering a self-service solution, it is important to recognize that this will not completely replace a need for traditional BI (dashboards and reports created and maintained by a BI team). It should be delivered as an agile complement to allow Managers and Analysts to have more flexibility in their information needs and integrate into the existing BI landscape to leverage those existing investments, instilling trust in the information.

Because of the varying skills and time for analysis, the solution should consist of two key experiences.

One experience, for Managers, should be focused on allowing them to quickly access the information they need. Many of them will want this not just delivered to the web but through a dedicated application on their mobile device. The solution should provide them the ability to build and customize their own views or dashboards but always allow them to move out of that guided analysis workflow into an unbounded exploration experience.

A second experience, for Business Analysts should focus on allowing more in-depth analysis and preparation of information. This user segment spends a lot of time in the tool and therefore expects a desktop solution which can also provide offline access. Business Analysts have requirements to do simple data manipulation (add calculated columns, combine data sources, create custom groupings, etc.) without scripting or complex workflows. A solution for them should make this manipulation simple and enable their transformations to be easily reapplied on refresh. The solution should provide for insightful visual analysis and allow them to quickly share their results into the Managers solution. The goal should be to allow them to spend more time supporting managers with their insight rather than complex data manipulation and building visualizations.

Both solutions need to integrate well within the Enterprise BI environment without being bogged down by process and complexity of such a system.

This is the first in a series of posts on this topic. In the coming installments, I will share results of our research on what challenges are facing businesses today, as well how SAP sees addressing this with our vision for self-service BI. I will also explore some on-going challenges with self-service success. How self-service can help make your overall BI program more successful and address common pitfalls. I am looking forward to seeing the dialog that unfolds.

Saskia Battersby is a General Manager of BI in Solution Management at SAP, with over 8 years of experience in BI Product Management including managing OLAP Intelligence, Xcelsius and most recently SAP Visual Intelligence.

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