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Author's profile photo Steve Rumsby

Is self-service BI really a good thing?

Self-service BI/Analytics is the new black, it seems. And why not? Why should decision makers have to ask IT people for a new report they want, or to load a new dataset into the EDW so they can mash it with some existing stuff. The quicker they can get their answers, the quicker they can make decisions that will help the business, right? Well…

The trouble with mashups is that unless you understand, preferably in some detail, all of the datasets involved, it is very easy to produce results that are, well, wrong. Take this story published in a UK newspaper last year – Just 100 cod left in North Sea. The BBC has an explanation for how this article came about – North Sea cod: Is it true there are only 100 left?. In summary, they were talking about adult fish and they based the definition of “adult” on the typical lifetime of a cod, but they took that typical lifetime data from a different part of the world where cod typically live twice as long! This mistake, along with other misunderstandings, meant their final number was a factor of 1,000,000 out.

Admittedly this is an extreme example, but it shows that it is easy to make mistakes through misunderstanding the data you are manipulating. An example closer to home – I did some analysis of Service Management data in our ERP system by feeding it into Lumira Desktop. One of the things I did was produce a profile of spend throughout the year, based on the costs on the service order and the date on the notification. The resultant chart can be seen in this blog – First experience with SAP Lumira. We spend more in July than any other month, by quite a lot. Except we don’t. The dates came from the notifications, which are generated in advance, in July, but the work is spread over the whole summer. There is a three month peak, not a one month peak. Fortunately I was just experimenting with Lumira rather than trying to predict our cash flow… 🙂

Enabling decision makers to make decisions more quickly is a good thing. But only if they are good decisions, based on good data, surely? Are we requiring that our decision makers are all data analysts? If not, how are these misunderstandings avoided?

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      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member


      I agree w you; remember recent problems with a small mistake in a spreadsheet that generates wrong forecasts for all the world.


      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      My comment got away from me, so it became a blog 🙂

      Author's profile photo Steve Miller
      Steve Miller

      I agree with you in most cases.... You can make data say whatever you want. 😉

      Author's profile photo Steve Rumsby
      Steve Rumsby
      Blog Post Author

      I know there are people out there that get the answers first and then make the data fit - statisticians, I believe they're called:-) At least they know how reliable, or otherwise, their answers are.

      What bothers me more are people that aren't doing it on purpose. Either they're joining up data that doesn't actually fit together - like using age distribution data from cod in the Barents Sea and applying it to cod in the North Atlantic - or they're using data from statisticians. Either way, they think they've got reliable data and reliable results, and make bad business decisions as a result. I find the whole scenario more than a little scary.


      Author's profile photo Edwin Vleeshouwers
      Edwin Vleeshouwers

      Well, it’s easy to just… try.

      And I admit… Sometimes, so do I.

      But listen to what Master Yoda said…

      Or the result may drive you mad.

      If you do not know what you do and why,

      "Do. Or do not. There is no try".

      Author's profile photo Astrid Gambill
      Astrid Gambill

      I hear you Steve

      End users have to be somewhat data savvy so they know whether the answers they are getting makes any sense or not.

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Let's be honest - all computer systems would be great if it wasn't for the users, data and functionality built in 😉


      Author's profile photo Srinivas Kari
      Srinivas Kari

      The main issue is not whether the data is good or not, but to what degree should end users/business men be given the ability to create their own reports. There are other issues also - what kind of users should get access to the data - you don't want important and sensitive information to be viewed by the wrong people. Should all information be available to everyone? Not always. There are many issues here.

      When we talk about self service BI, we must ask ourselves - why do we need self service BI? As the author above has pointed out, you save a lot of time by creating reports yourself, instead of waiting for a developer to do it for you. However, that answer is far short of the real mark. The real purpose of self service BI is to provide the tools, services, knowledge and experience of a consultant/tool/organization to a customer so that he can create his own experience.The ultimate goal for any tool would be to encapsulate and hide all the customizing work required and give the user a easy interface to create reports. Do away with developers all together. Good data is an issue, but the most important issue is to ensure that the customer can create his own experience. 

      Author's profile photo Martin Grob
      Martin Grob

      We heavily rely on self service BI in our organization. My team is to small to support worldwide all requests in a timely manner. I think it depends on how BI mature your audience is and what the target groups are

      Author's profile photo Steve Rumsby
      Steve Rumsby
      Blog Post Author

      I agree that there are users out there capable of getting this right, or at least capable of knowing how much to trust themselves to get it right. My problem is really with the current marketing push that seems to portray self-service BI as something we should all be giving to decision makers because they should be able to get data when they want, to support timely decisions. I just think people aren't considering the risks...

      As for not having the resources to do it centrally, well that's a trade-off, isn't it? Spending money on central resources vs. the risk of incorrect data analysis. Every organisation needs to make its own decision about that 🙂

      Author's profile photo Martin Grob
      Martin Grob

      Fair points! We gave all the analysts access to the self service but still based on templates we centrally provide to ensure the correctness and accuracy of keyfigure definitions. They do pretty well..

      All senior management relies on formatted reporting that we provide on the same data.. Truth is they would be overwhelmed with selfservice and too much analysis functions they rather pickup the phone and ask the analyst