Self-service BI catches on

The Great Recession caught most of the used-car industry by surprise. Many dealers assumed that the downturn would be short and mild, so they continued to add inventory at a steady rate. As a result, many used-car inventory-financing firms didn't make adjustments until it was too late.

Dealer Services Corp. (DSC), in contrast, got a heads-up from its newly deployed business intelligence system, says CIO Chris Brady. The self-service BI module of Information Builders Inc.'s WebFocus software allowed branch managers to see early signs of the economic slowdown, without having to get technical help from the IT department.

Self-service BI looks to be the next big wave in business intelligence. In a January 2010 report, Gartner Inc. pointed to growing demand among businesses for a "data discovery tool architecture" that provides end users with data and reports and enables them to navigate and visualize data in a "surf and save" mode. This means that data views can be stored for reuse or sharing. The self-service tools bring BI information to nontechnical users; they also benefit high-level analysts who need ad hoc reports right away.

At Carmel, Ind.-based DSC, which provides financing for about 10,000 car dealers, each vehicle receives a separate loan with its own conditions and payback schedule. "That's a lot of data," says Brady. The company originally used a basic transaction-reporting system, but that rapidly became inadequate as the business grew.

End users inundated IT with requests for more data and different views. The more technically savvy tried to do their own analyses with Excel spreadsheets, but that often resulted in inconsistent and inaccurate data, Brady explains. So the company looked for a BI system that would put as much querying power as possible in the hands of end users via Web-based query and reporting tools.

In addition to reducing the burden on IT and business analysts, WebFocus has increased the quality and consistency of data -- and has thereby improved the decisions that are based on that data, Brady reports.

When the recession hit, WebFocus' self-service module proved its worth by enabling branch managers to see which dealers had inventory that was aging past a certain point, Brady says. This was "a key indicator -- a very, very early warning sign," she adds.

Forewarned of the slowdown in inventory turnover, DSC was able to minimize the recession's impact. It tightened its lending standards and adjusted financial reserves. It also offered advice to troubled dealerships; one of the messages was "Stop buying SUVs; they aren't selling," Brady says.

As a result, "we definitely reduced our losses from bad loans and didn't start to see a negative effect until the very end of 2008," about six months later than competitors, she estimates.

One key factor driving the self-service BI market is the rapidly growing volume and complexity of data needed to make decisions. In today's volatile and cutthroat global business environment, business users need more information than ever, and they need it faster than ever.

Further, the recession has forced companies to lay off or stop hiring IT staffers and business analysts, forcing everyone to do more with less, says Jim Kobielus, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

As a result, many IT staffs face growing backlogs of information requests from increasingly frustrated end users. But self-service features such as browser-based interfaces, interactive graphics, drop-down lists and software guides can help. They buffer less-technical end users from the complexities of the underlying data infrastructure. This frees up IT professionals from having to spend "an inordinate amount of time" responding to requests for new data, new views or updated report formats, Kobielus says.

Consider the case of OraSure Technologies Inc. Before turning to self-service BI, the medical device maker's two-person data team couldn't keep up with end users' information demands, according to Scott Baker, Bethlehem, Pa.-based OraSure's manager of SAP systems. "We needed to get data into the hands of users in departments like sales, finance and budgeting, and give them tools so they could analyze data themselves," he says. "We used to create standard reports, and people were always saying they needed more information -- this but not that."

End users at OraSure can now create their own dashboards "on the fly," using SAP BusinessObjects' self-service system, Edge, Baker says. And BusinessObjects' Explorer module "lets you select the filters and data you want, and then presents it to you graphically," he says. End users can also create reports using SAP Crystal Reports or Microsoft Excel.

"BusinessObjects is good at buffering users from the technical layer," Baker says. For example, users "don't see [data] field definitions but terms they work with in their jobs, like 'quantity shipped.' "

The payback? End users have generated more than 160 reports themselves, Baker says. "That's 160 reports the IT group didn't have to generate," he adds.

A Broad User Base

Self-service BI isn't just for the "average" end user with limited technical and analytical expertise, says Forrester analyst Boris Evelson. Business analysts need to do predictive analytics, multidimensional querying and data mining. Knowledge workers and power users want to do ad hoc querying and generate their own reports and views. Self-service BI platforms enable them to do that while shielding them from the underlying data infrastructure, so they don't have to keep asking IT for help.

Flexibility was key at IXI Corp., a unit of Atlanta-based Equifax Inc. that provides risk and performance management consulting services. With IXI's old BI system, it was too difficult to make any changes to a data report, says Russ Ayres, the company's senior vice president of customer insight. Requests for changes meant that the underlying data models had to be revised and then approved, which was a slow process. Hard-coded data structures weren't cutting it with IXI's customers, whose data needs change on a daily basis, Ayres explains.

The company addressed these challenges by using Tibco Software Inc.'s Spotfire. IXI analysts use Spotfire to do rapid and flexible data querying across multiple data sources, Ayres says. On average, creating a new view takes a quarter of the time it used to, he adds, "so we're about four times as productive."

Despite their enthusiasm for self-service BI, IT executives acknowledge that easy-to-use BI tools can be dangerous because of the power they put in the hands of end users.

Data governance, security, and centralized monitoring and control of user interactions are critical for any BI system, but particularly for self-service setups that give less-technical end users direct access to the corporate data infrastructure.

"Governance is where we [IT professionals] come in," says IXI's Ayres. "When you give someone a loaded weapon, they can always shoot themselves. Someone could do a broad search across a 5TB database and bring a server to its knees, or worse. BI doesn't stop you from making the wrong choices; it just helps you make them faster."

To avoid this problem, Ayres' team has built a layer between the user and BI tools, "so you can dance around the playground, but within limits." For example, an employee might be allowed to run metrics in a data mart at some levels but not others, and he wouldn't be allowed to summarize across different levels.

Most of the major BI platforms support role-based access control, through Microsoft Active Directory or any other LDAP-compliant global directory. Packages offer different degrees of granularity: For example, a system might be set up so that a particular user group can access only a subset of data, or even just specific data fields.

SAP BusinessObjects provides role-based security down to the record level, says Baker. For example, a salesperson might see only customers in his territory, or a budget manager would see only the cost centers that she's responsible for, while a sales vice president could view reports from anybody who reports to him.

Breaking Down the Walls

The new frontier for self-service BI is the ability to enable different types of users to collaborate, not only by sharing reports and query results, but also by working together to define new ways of viewing and analyzing information.

At DSC, the IT staff regularly meets with a committee of end users, Brady says. "Branch managers tell us their best practices," which are then incorporated into reports and views. IT then uses WebFocus to replicate the best practices across the company. Self-service BI has "cut way down on the time from getting an idea to building a report that incorporates it, and having it show up on an end user's dashboard," Brady says.

At OraSure, the SAP team participates in business users' forecast meetings. "We talk to them about how they're using information, listen in on discussions of what they're finding, then we brainstorm: If you had this additional information, would that help you get to next level? We work with end users to figure out how to get the best information," Baker says.

OraSure employees collaborate primarily through face-to-face meetings and e-mail. However, Baker says that he is definitely interested in the possibility of providing more dynamic and ongoing interactions through Web 2.0 tools such as social networks, wikis and blogs.

So are a lot of other companies, according to Forrester's Kobielus. Businesses are starting to use collaborative mashups to enable teams of users to develop charts, dashboards or reports online, and then make them available on blogs, wikis or Facebook, he notes. Vendors currently offering such capabilities include Lyzasoft Inc., Tableau Software Inc. and JackBe Corp.

With proper governance and security controls in place, implementers say, self-service and collaborative BI can break down long-standing barriers among different departments and levels within an organization. This in turn promotes faster and -- most important -- more effective decision-making throughout the company.

Horwitt, a freelance reporter and former Computerworld senior editor, is based in Waban, Mass. Contact her at ehorwitt@verizon.net.

What the BI vendors offer

Self-service tools are becoming a must-have for successful BI vendors.

Starting in 2009, small, "visionary" BI companies like Tibco Software, QlikTech and Tableau challenged established BI vendors by introducing "intuitive, interactive BI tools" and "strong, interactive visualization tools for analysis," according to a Gartner report released last year.

The big players have fought back with their own self-service products: Microsoft's PowerPivot, SAP's BusinessObjects Explorer, IBM's Cognos Express and Information Builders' WebFocus Visual Discovery. Pure-play BI vendors such as Targit, MicroStrategy and SAS Institute also have self-service offerings.

However, prospective enterprise buyers should be aware that all self-service tools are not created equal. One of the key differentiators is ease of use, according to Forrester Research analyst Boris Evelson. While most BI vendors claim to have user-friendly and intuitive applications and tools, "what's intuitive to a BI professional is not necessarily intuitive to, say, a marketing analyst," he points out.

End users with limited BI expertise need tools that prompt and guide them through basic BI tasks, as well as customizable report and dashboard templates, he adds.

Other key features include Web portals for sharing information and natural-language interfaces for queries and searches.

Power users such as business analysts, on the other hand, want sophisticated BI tools, such as in-database analytics, that give them the flexibility to drill deep down into databases and create their own views and queries on the fly, but without having to deal with the technicalities of the underlying data infrastructure -- which would require IT assistance.

Cost is another major differentiator. Companies that already have a leading BI vendor's platform in place can usually add a self-service front end with minimal effort and cost, according to Forrester analyst Jim Kobielus.

Major BI vendors like IBM Cognos, SAP and Oracle offer entry-level products geared to companies with limited budgets and basic BI needs.

Microsoft's BI software -- based on SQL Server, SharePoint and Office -- is another low-cost option for small and midsize companies.

Some large organizations are turning to open-source BI platforms such as the BEE Project, Jaspersoft, Pentaho and SpagoBI. However, be aware that "open source does not always equal free software [and] you will get what you pay for," Evelson says. Some open-source BI products should be labeled "some assembly required," because the various components aren't fully integrated, he says.

Further, some open-source suites lack features and functions needed by large organizations, including robust and integrated security, scalability tools like load balancing, and connectivity to popular data sources, Evelson adds.

Finally, consider outsourcing. Software-as-a-service offerings are now available from some BI vendors, including Tibco (Silver Spotfire), PivotLink and SAP BusinessObjects (Crystalreports.com). In addition to cutting capital and IT staff costs, SaaS offerings enable a business to easily extend the reach of its BI system to remote end users, and to business partners, via the Web.

-- Elisabeth Horwitt

This story, "Self-service BI catches on" was originally published by Computerworld.

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