The Elusive Promise of Self-Service BI

Why do business decision makers need to wait for IT to deliver performance reports on the business?  Why can't they build their own reports, and gain rapid access to answer the questions they have?

"The crucial-and frequently elusive-driver in the BI market is to empower every employee to quickly discover critical insights in the information they work with every day," says John Callan, director of product marketing at TIBCO Spotfire. "Self-service BI enables end users to access and analyze data through interactive and personalized BI interfaces without being dependent on IT resources for each iterative ad hoc query and customized report," he tells DBTA.

It's not that there are great technological barriers to self-service business intelligence (BI). "It's easier than it has ever been for business executives to create and access reports on the status of their enterprise," Nick Halsey, vice president of marketing for Jaspersoft, tells DBTA.


A recent survey conducted by Unisphere Research for the Oracle Applications User Group (OAUG) finds there are considerable demands from enterprises for reports, dashboards, scorecards, or planning models to help decision makers determine the health of their business. However, many respondents say they often end up waiting up to a month for reports. Organizations that make BI tools more readily accessible to a larger number of decision makers, however, report faster delivery of reports and models. 

However, the survey, originally conducted in 2007 with a follow-up in 2009, found there has been little movement in this direction. Overall, the largest segment of respondents, 47%, say that fewer than 10% of their employees have access or use these performance management tools on a regular basis, about the same as the survey 2 years ago. Only 5% report that a majority of their employees now access performance management tools- unchanged from the previous survey.

How long does it take now for decision makers to receive the information they need? Typically, business users must submit requests to their IT or data management departments for reports, dashboards, scorecards, or planning models. The time it takes until these requests are acted on varies, but few (15%) will see results within 24 hours. For a majority of respondents, the waiting time lasts between 3days and more than a month.

Of course, once the technical team gets to a user request, it's still going to take time until the application is in the user's hands. The survey finds, for example, that most new reports or planning models take several days to build.  Even when completed, the report or model still needs to be vetted through a corporate approval process. Most respondents, 72%, report that a report or model is not ready for the business user until it has gone through at least two to five iterations for approval.

"All employees in organizations are responsible for making sound decisions, and must base their decisions on relevant and timely information," Dan Kearnan, director of BI solution marketing at SAP, tells DBTA. "When users encounter difficulties accessing and using key business data, it can have a lasting impact on the organization's performance and its bottom line. Although many companies implement business intelligence solutions to fill this need, the majority of information workers are still underserved by traditional BI tools."

One of the issues is the difficulty of use and longer-than-expected training periods for BI tools, Kearnan relates. "As a result, many users turn to higher cost, non-self-service channels-such as IT or business analysts-to get their business questions answered. This reliance on IT is taking its toll. Users are frustrated by time delays, while IT is overburdened and under resourced. This results in underperforming and non-competitive organizations in which IT typically takes the brunt of complaints for poor access to information."

Companies "are mostly still trapped in the old paradigm of sending requests through IT for information and reporting," agrees Dave Rice, CEO of TrueCloud, LLC. "The biggest challenge isn't provisioning portals and dashboards.  It's the lack of a unified view of the enterprise that is lagging.  Most companies continue to operate disparate software solutions that simply don't integrate very completely.  So having a dashboard view of your sales is fine.  But it's still relatively ineffective when taken in the context of the entire enterprise."

It's not that organizations don't want to move to more of a self-service performance management culture, in which they are able to base key operational and strategic decisions around data presented from critical systems around their enterprises. Within the next five years, 35% of respondents overall would like to adopt a strong performance management culture, providing access to tools and solutions to a majority of their workers.

"Most progressive organizations now see the benefit in letting their end users directly access self-service portals, view their own dashboards, run their own reports, and perform their own analyses," Leah MacMillan, vice president of IBM Cognos product marketing, tells DBTA. "This is easier and faster for users, and reduces the IT workload."


The OAUG survey finds there is growing support toward enabling end users to build their own interfaces to performance management information. End user self-service is also seen as the best way to proliferate and promote these solutions While there has been little movement since the 2007 survey in making performance management tools available to most employees across the enterprise, the components of such capabilities are falling into place. For instance, there has been an uptick in the percentage of users across companies that can build their own reports, dashboards, scorecards, analysis, ad hoc queries, or planning models. In the current survey, 13% of respondents say that a majority of their end users now have these "self-service" capabilities, up from 10% in the 2007 survey.

Ease of access is an important consideration. "Data, information and insights are the drivers behind business decision-making," Justin Honaman, director of customer intelligence for Coca-Cola Customer Business Solutions, tells DBTA. "Many firms have continued to invest in business intelligence technology enablers-especially during the economic challenges over the last 12 months-as insights are becoming more and more important in driving strategic and operational business decisions.  Many BI tools offer solid user interfaces, but the key to successful access is educating the business user on how to make sense of large volumes of data, how to manipulate the data to answer business scenario questions, and how to create documents to communicate insights in a meaningful way."

It's not just companies competing in the open market who potentially stand to benefit from user-generated reporting. For example, the self-service performance management ethic is helping police departments - who need extremely timely access to reports - to effectively manage massive volumes of crime information and quickly gain new intelligence about key public safety trends and crime prevention, MacMillan relates. "Without self-service business analytics, command staff had to ask the technical team to produce reports which created a time delay and tied up limited resources. By using business analytics dashboards and self-service reports, officers now have secure access to critical crime information for new insight into targeted crime trends within minutes."

There is no doubt that most companies "have moved out of the ‘request report from IT' mode to self-service business intelligence," says Honaman. "The entry cost for BI is relatively low, especially when considering the business intelligence software solution landscape. Some more complex BI solutions still command high per-seat user costs but many niche players are able to implement and provide insights in weeks depending on the size of the data warehouse/data mart.  Companies that fail to invest in BI will be left behind by the competition, who are using insights for planning and execution purposes."

The rise of Web 2.0-type interfaces-built on standards such as AJAX and REST-also now provide fuel for end users to quickly assemble their own front-end interfaces with less technical assistance. Indeed, the OAUG survey finds that respondents overwhelmingly agree that such "self-service" aspects-empowering the end user to build his or her own customized interfaces-will go a long way to encouraging greater adoption of performance management tools and practices. Seventy-one percent agree that this is the way to go, up from 68% in the 2007 survey.


What are the top self-service performance management reporting challenges? Simply keeping up with changes in the systems and the metrics leads as the most time-consuming challenges, cited by close to half of the respondents. This appears to be a growing issue as well. About 42% of respondents to the OAUG survey say they face issues with interfacing with real-time information, versus the more historical data that may be available within a data warehouse. The third most common challenge is the availability of IT resources to develop and maintain the systems associated with performance management.

"There are several reasons why companies fail to invest or draw out decisions to invest," says Coca-Cola's Honaman. "First is business readiness. The business must ‘own' the solution, and for many companies, IT finds itself leading business intelligence projects and therefore, success rate is not high," he points out. 

The second barrier is the initial costs of deploying a self-service performance management environment. "Depending on the size of the business user base, and master data set, the cost to deploy an enterprise-wide BI solution can be high," Honaman continues. "In the current economic environment, capital is not readily available, and therefore many BI projects are delayed." The third obstacle is existing infrastructure.  "Many companies have made significant investments in technologies and architecture to support outdated systems.  Change comes with a price and may require other complementary system changes."

 Also, not all source data is easily obtainable for users to consume in their front-end applications, Gary Cokins, global product marketing manager for performance management at SAS, tells DBTA. "Some organizations have disparate databases from a binge of an earlier era of software purchases." Another stumbling block is dirty or inconsistent data, he adds.


James Pitts, CTO of Embarcadero Technologies, says the most important first step to take in moving to a self-service performance management culture is to confirm where the data located. With new applications and repositories of information being consumed by companies daily, I advocate first getting a handle on where your data is located by giving your employees the tools to find the data," Pitts tells DBTA. "Then, make the application and processes for manipulating that data visible to employees. Once you have established the location of the data, look for ways to consolidate data into central locations that are democratically accessible." Once critical data that will be part of self-service performance management approaches is identified, then make sure this availability is known across the enterprise, he advises.

Also, it's important to help end users deliver the information in a graphic, visually appealing format. "The old rule of table-formatted-only for managers over the age 40 is being replaced by graphics for all ages," says Cokins. "Everyone glances at the USA Today's front-page factoid in the lower left corner, no matter how silly the metrics displayed. Newspaper sports pages routinely display results, and devotees with greater appetites will access sports website to dig out more information."