Most people need BI apps, not “self-service”

As someone who has previously written (here and here) about how technology labels often don’t help us, you might think it a little odd to find me writing a post comparing one label (BI Apps) with another (self-service BI), but bear with me.

I came across an article written by a product marketing chap, which draws an interesting analogy between doctors needing patient information and corporate users of BI. The article is not recent, but we still see a trend, especially from vendors, claiming that self-service BI is everything business users need.

The author of the article asks us to imagine a scenario where doctors are not allowed to access data directly, but instead have to go and ask non-medical, data specialists for the information, sometimes waiting hours or days for the answers. Clearly, this is supposed to be a parody on the way BI works in some organizations and equally clearly this would be a ludicrous way to run a hospital.

After analysing the world of the doctor and the corporate BI user, the article assertively concludes: “No one would think a doctor could be effective without access to information about his patients. Likewise, every business should empower its employees with the self-service information they need to prosper.”*

Interestingly, a quick Google for a definition of self-service BI comes up with:

“Self-service business intelligence is an approach … that enables business users to access and work with corporate information without the IT department’s involvement (except, of course, to set up the data warehouse and data marts underpinning the BI system and deploy the self-service query and reporting tools).”

Why self-service fails and how dashboard provide the answer

So, it turns out we are being asked to imagine doctors using an ad-hoc query system directly onto the hospital data warehouse to get patient information. I think I prefer the initial scenario where they had to ask data experts to access this information.

The truth of the matter is, this situation is played out many times every day in hospitals around the world, where doctors use patient information systems (or PIMs as they are known) to give them streamlined access to the data they need to do their jobs. These systems allow them to get in, get what they need, get out and get on as quickly as possible; they select a patient and are immediately rewarded with all the relevant information they need without further thought.

Healthcare BI

Your operational business people (who make up the majority in all organizations) are just the same – they need BI that’s easy to use and requires no training, so they can easily get to the data they need to do their jobs. These are what I call BI Apps, and we are seeing clear signs that they are the next evolution of business dashboards.

Finally, maybe I am being unfair on the chap from Spotfire. Perhaps when he said self-service BI he actually had BI Apps in mind. If so, then it just goes back to the point that labels often just serve to confuse!


*This is a classic marketing “bait and switch”, but more on that another day.

6 thoughts on “Most people need BI apps, not “self-service”

  1. Eric Vallo

    Donald, I do like your vision as you discuss the truth (or myth) of self-service. I can’t help but also draw parallels between the idea that BI Apps walk a similar path of the idea of guided analysis, but hopefully in a nicely bundled package that deploys anywhere (ehem…mobile). I think one of the challenges that IT has to overcome is the idea that buying a BI tool like BusinessObjects, building a universe, and chucking out a reporting tool on top of it reduces cost. It might shave dollars off the IT budget because we are not cranking out content, but there are challenges unseen in gaining traction in a self-service model like the barriers to adoption you draw illustrations to above. Self-service is a niche, not a sledge hammer. I think you are a spot on that IT has to deliver tools tailored to fit the need. My two cents anyway…

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