Self-Service Business Intelligence: What’s New?

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Self-Service Everything

Over the last five or ten years it seems like everywhere I turn innovations in technology and a desire by corporations to manage the bottom line have conspired to “empower” me to serve myself. In most cases, I’m okay with this and view it as a step forward. I like being able to browse through choices online, find the best price and, at least for the moment, purchase something from Amazon without paying Texas sales tax. I like being able to use an app on my phone to find where a restaurant is located, see what people think of it, review the menu and get driving directions. I like the new touchscreen virtual concierges that some hotels have deployed that let me investigate where to go and what to do when I’m visiting a new city. And of course, with the exception of a failed attempt to refill my rental car in Newark (self-service gas is illegal in New Jersey), I’m fine with pumping my own gas and feel like I’ve been doing it forever anyway.   

I suppose the only major gripe I have around the self-service concept are those voice-recognition call centers that seem to struggle with the interpretation of the majority of words that come out of my mouth. I have found that it is most efficient for me to utter the word “agent” or “operator” early and often when confronted with this “advancement” in technology.   

Self-Service and Business Intelligence

On the professional front, as a 20-year veteran of decision support, data warehousing, data marts, and reporting and analysis solutions, I’ve been trying to enable business users so that they could serve themselves (versus total dependency on their corporate IT brethren) when it comes to getting the information they need to monitor and analyze the performance of their business. At the risk of oversimplification, I would say there are two key elements that must be in place to enable self-service for business users:

  • Data availability – I.e., a baseline set or source of trusted information must be built or identified. In practice this source is often found in the form of some type of reporting-oriented database or data warehouse. The challenge here is to keep up with the continual demands of the business to add additional content to that trusted data environment.
  • Identification of user audiences – When it comes to using information, one size does not fit all. An executive interacts with information in a different way than an analyst does. Designers of business intelligence (BI) solutions must deploy the appropriate tools and interfaces that match the needs and experience of the audience.

Microsoft Self-Service BI

The good news is that BI software providers have been busy enhancing and extending their offerings to address these critical success factors. Microsoft in particular continues to add key functionality to its core flagship products of Office, SharePoint and SQL Server. The even better news is that in many cases this means that current customers already “own” software that can further enable self-service BI. Key advancements in recent Microsoft releases include:

  • PowerPivot for Excel – The PowerPivot add-in to Excel was introduced with Office 2010. It allows business users to connect to data sources and perform complex analysis against large volumes of data. Information that IT has not been able to integrate into formal reporting databases can also be included.
  • PowerPivot for SharePoint – PowerPivot for SharePoint was introduced with SharePoint 2010 and SQL Server 2008 R2. This component allows business users to publish and share PowerPivot for Excel workbooks.  Published information can be used by other business users and can also be managed and monitored by the IT department using SharePoint. Over time, IT may decide to integrate information contained in PowerPivot with formal reporting databases, and therefore the two flavors of PowerPivot provide a means to address the data availability challenge.
  • Reporting Services Data Alerts (SQL Server 2012) – With SQL Server 2012, Reporting Services now operates as a service within SharePoint and allows data alerts to be established by business users. Reporting Services alerts allow each business user to define the conditions in which they would like to receive information. With data alerts, IT can create a general purpose report and allow each business user to define the report data scenarios that are of interest to them. The users are then automatically notified when these conditions are met.
  • PowerView (SQL Server 2012) – PowerView, a feature of SQL Server 2012 Reporting Services for Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 Enterprise Edition, is an interactive data exploration, visualization, and presentation experience. It provides drag-and-drop ad hoc reporting for business users and enables them to visualize and interact with information. PowerView reports are also always presentation-ready and can be saved as “live” PowerPoint presentations.

Final Thoughts

Achieving success in self-service BI is an ongoing process. Not everything you try will work, but if you establish a solid data foundation, and target user audiences with the right technologies, you’ll be well on your way to creating an environment where business users can get to trusted information without the intervention of corporate IT.   

As for self-service outside of the BI world, I will generally continue to embrace the new tasks and capabilities I have been “empowered” with. However, just like business users do, I will occasionally balk when asked to do something—like scanning items at the self-service checkout line—that is clumsy or ill-conceived.