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Self-service BI brings benefits, challenges

Bottlenecks in IT departments from data deluge causing end-users to ask for tools to generate analytics reports without tech support, but managing use and data compliance tricky.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

The deluge of information generated within organizations, coupled with the pressure to make business decisions from the data produced, is spurring demand by non-IT end-users to be empowered with capabilities to generate their own business intelligence and analytics reports, observers said.

However, they also noted the drawbacks, such as the lack of data governance and overtaxing the company's computing resources due to too many requests from end-users.

Madan Sheina, lead analyst for information management at Ovum, said the growing volume of human- and machine-generate data has opened up greater opportunities, and more need, for BI and analytics.

At the same time, this data tsunami has created additional headaches for IT departments to integrate and deliver business analysis in a timely fashion to satisfy the needs of different users within the company, he told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail.

This has resulted in bottlenecks in service requests, Sheina noted, which is why self-service BI is the way to relieve the IT team's burden. By doing so, this will cut out the "unnecessary middleman" and give end-users direct access to data, analytics and report publishing tools to serve their own needs without support from their tech teams.

"More importantly, self-service BI gives users much greater control over their decision-making needs," the analyst stated.

James Foster, general manager of Southeast Asia for Solutions OnDemand and high-performance computing at SAS, agreed. He said as the power of data becomes more widespread, IT departments are being swamped with requests from line-of-business end-users for more timely access to key information for decision-making.

"[As such,] it can only be a good thing to have more decision-making capability embedded in the lines of business," he said. "Plus, the shift to self-service also has a positive effect on IT, freeing them to think more strategically and focus on value-added activities for the company rather than just 'keeping the lights on'."

Tan Ser Yean, client technical executive for Asia-Pacific business analytics at IBM's software group, added that self-service BI tools can help empower employees to work independently.

"Sometimes what they need isn't available in existing reports, dashboards or the data warehouse. This is when we need to empower users to get data from wherever it lies and let them have the agility to work with it independently," he said.

Self-service BI brings complexities
That said, deploying self-service BI tools requires a "delicate balance" since it means putting easy-to-use capabilities into the hands of business users while equipping IT professionals the tools and control they need to efficiently manage the data and maintain the backend systems, said Ovum analyst Sheina.

There is a level of technical complexity that underpins all BI systems and much of that complexity stems from integrating the data, he pointed out.

"Delivering a single, unified view of enterprise data is difficult on its own. Any seasoned IT professional will testify that the most complex, lengthy and expensive part of a BI project is getting the data foundation done right."

The lack of data governance is another concern, Sheina highlighted. Effective data governance, security and centralized monitoring, and control of user interactions are critical elements of any BI system, and even more so for self-service BI, he noted.

Hence, a company implementing self-service BI should "guard against giving users free rein", the analyst cautioned. If users have that freedom, this could lead to a spike in queries and requests that might bring one's server and network to its knees, duplicate reports and applications, reports that contain outdated or inaccurate data or unauthorized third-party access to the reports, he said.

Even if self-service BI is provisioned by the company, both IT and non-IT users may not make full use of the benefits and flexibility they now have, Sheina said.

For instance, IT professionals could be adverse to give up their control, fearing that non-BI end users will not adhere to best practices and they would have to clean up after their mess, he elaborated. On the other hand, non-IT end-users could resist the self-service system if they see it as an extra burden, even if it is easier and quicker to do the reports by themselves, he added.

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