Self-service BI catches on

It's all about helping business users collaborate and make faster decisions with complex information

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Breaking down the walls

One of the most exciting aspects of self-service BI is the potential for different types of users to collaborate: to share not only reports and query results, but work together to define new ways of viewing and analyzing information.

At Dealer Services, the IT staff regularly meets with a committee of end users, Brady explains. "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."

Self-service BI

At OraSure, the SAP team participates in business users' forecast meetings, Baker says. "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."

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 networking, wikis and blogs.

BI mashups on 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 solutions include Lyzasoft, Tableau and JackBe.

Collaborative BI promotes more creative decision making, by bringing users with complementary knowledge together: for example, meshing the high-level insights of knowledge workers with the direct customer experiences of sales, marketing and other front-line employees.

"If a customer is late on one payment, is that a problem or not?" Brady asks. The question can be answered only by taking into account the broader context of the auto dealer's past performance, as well as regional and industry financial factors.

At OraSure, SAP's self-service BI system promotes knowledge flow between end users and business analysts -- in both directions, Baker says. For instance, sales directors regularly send customer data to business analysts. "Somebody will create a report, export the information into a spreadsheet, then send it over and say 'take a look, here's what I'm seeing, do you see this as well?'"

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 importantly, more effective decision-making across the company.

[Next: The state of BI tools.]

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

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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