The myth of self-service Business Intelligence (BI)

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written by owen on 2019-Mar-04.

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For the past couple of months I have been neck deep in dashboards, charts, sweet little lies and statistics in the so called Business Intelligence (BI) space. The likes of #tableau, #looker and #others have labeled themselves are self service solutions that anyone in the business can produce amazing dashboards and visualizations to solve the growing data stock pile that business enterprises face in this day. The more I look at it the more I realize that self-service is a marketing gimmick.
A recent article stated that

"No longer the sole domain of data scientists, business intelligence tools have gone mainstream. These self-service platforms combine data sophistication with powerful and easy to use front-ends designed to let everyone gain insight from your company's data."

Gaining insight has never been the purview of the common man. Or worse yet the common employee in a large organization who might be busy with a million other tasks. BI tools market themselves as being the path to "data democratization" freeing employees from the tyranny of the IT department.

In a similar vain an older article states;

"Self-service BI is a trend with a somewhat vague definition. In the most general sense, self-service BI tasks are those that business users carry out themselves instead of passing them on to IT for fulfillment.
The aim is to give the users of BI tools more freedom and responsibility at the same time. At its heart lies the notion of user independence and self-sufficiency when it comes to the use of corporate information, which leads to a decentralization of BI in the organization."

Both articles are wishful thinking. What they fail to point out is that this trend of enabling the common user is merely a way to sell BI tools into organisations. The gimmick works well on several angles;

    1. IT freedom IT departments are often slow, busy and expensive. So freeing them from the as many user requests as possible is attractive to management who end up buying BI tools for this reason. Management thinks it will improve front line user productivity by turning every user into a data analyst. This is rarely the case. Single source of truth, GDPR etc. Management often do not know their users. An enterprise with BI staff is not equal to a enterprise that has no BI staff + a self service BI tool. The 2 things are not interchangeable.

    2. User empowerment - Some users see it as a way to expand their job description and have a better influence on management decisions. Most users just want to get through the day alive. Empowerment is especially interesting for users who find excel and databases too complicated and time consuming. The point of conflict is that if users have no time to learn excel they will most likely also have no time to learn the data that they are looking at inside the BI tool. Dragging and dropping can reveal insights but with no base knowledge, how valuable will these insights be?

    3. It runs it self - both Management and Employees are sold BI tools as a "implement and go" solution to the data sea problem. Unfortunately business data is an ever evolving art of constantly pruning and expanding information as it is needed. Analysts spend most of their time looking at data, trying to find bugs, preparing data and ensuring it is correct. This is a time consuming process - time which neither management nor front-line employees have. No matter how simple the BI tool: data complications cannot be escaped.

    4. You can create anything - this is probably the biggest myth. BI tools are sold as a tool box of services and options in which you can create literally anything you can imagine but this often comes at a cost of time and training. The regular employees think they can become business analysts using a drag and drop tools. While management envisions pretty real-time reports coming out of every department, and corner booth. In reality most BI Tools require significant implementation funding, training and time dedicated to mirror the requirement of even a slightly complicate business process.


In most cases management does not trust that users will report the correct information but is willing to see what will emerge from a self service tool. IT departments are facing increasing requests and mounting costs. Users never see the BI Tool before it is bought into the organisation so problems discovered during training are often glossed over/hacked around because the tool is already bought and paid for. After training a few reports are put up, the consultants leave and what is left are canned reports that are interactive, updated incrementally and are frozen in time. The training provided is often short and ineffective, leaving only the self motivated and fast learners to carry the BI torch and fend for themselves. The promise of self service quickly gets forgotten as users either retreat to excel or move on to something else. Maintaining and updating the BI Tool and dashboards then falls back into the responsibility of the IT department. It all comes full circle.

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  1. Great read and I can imagine many of us share this view.

    by Strategic Analyst Guy 2019-May-01