Table of Content
1) What Is Self-service BI?
2) Traditional vs. Self-service BI Approach
3) Top Self-service Business Intelligence Benefits
4) Practical Self-service BI Tools Examples
5) Self-service BI Best Practices To Follow
As the amount of business data is constantly growing, it is important that companies focus their efforts on managing the data and analyzing it with the help of business intelligence, designed to help business people draw insights from past performance, predict future events and avoid obstacles even before they have taken place. The investment in and use of the tools that can generate quality business insights have experienced long-term growth, regardless of the economic cycle. It has accelerated in recent years as enterprises are craving data to not just grow and improve, but also to manage their businesses on a daily basis.
The times when online BI was applied only by large enterprises due to complexity, costs and the skills required are long gone. Today small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are becoming significant BI buyers. In order to stand apart from the competition, reduce costs, and increase profits, a company must make intelligent decisions. To do this, these decisions must logically be based on trustworthy and relevant data, and this is exactly where BI comes in useful. As the applications, tools, and software become more affordable, the introduction of self-service business intelligence (SSBI) has made the in-depth analysis more user-friendly, so that everyone on the team can participate.
These notions will be the main focus of our article. We will explain what is self-service business intelligence, provide an overview and comparison between traditional and self-service BI, list the most prominent benefits, and explain what the tools used in BI should consist of to be able to generate proper business results. Finally, we will showcase the best practices that you can follow to obtain the best possible value and organize your adoption in the most efficient way.
Self-service business intelligence refers to the processes, tools, and software utilized by companies in order to empower business users to select, filter, compare, visualize and analyze data on their own, without the need for specialized and advanced IT training.
At any given point within the analysis process, the actual decision-makers have all the power and possibility to connect the data, perform the analysis, create visualizations or reports, and share their results. The analysis itself may vary based on the immediate needs of the information consumer when performing this process. In the background, a smart abstraction layer translates your interactions into database queries, supported by powerful proprietary analytical engines. Then you can make your data readable by turning it into meaningful visualizations. The resulting charts and tables can be easily shared via a dynamic KPI dashboard, meaning anyone in your company can view, understand and participate in the data extraction process – not just a trained IT or analyst department. The best self-service BI tools will additionally offer predictive analytics models within the software where you can easily tinker the data based on analysis you need to compile.
Traditionally, the whole process was done by technical and analytics professionals while business users were only given the role of setting requirements for reports and data that needs to be analyzed. Let’s see how this has changed.
Access to data was in the hands of IT, data scientists and analysts. The control, manipulation, extraction and reporting was in the hands of few people in a company that could work with data warehouses, write SQL queries, and analyze large volumes of data. Often, companies haven’t even had the chance to employ someone to work with their information, and all the tools they could afford were in the form of spreadsheets and static presentations. In recent years, things have drastically changed and software solutions have developed so quickly that everyone in a company can generate their own actionable insights. Let’s explore the differences between the traditional BI and the self-service approach:
a) Who requires what? Traditionally, business users would set up business requirements for generating a report or dashboard. Here is where their involvement pretty much stalls and the IT department takes over the rest of the process. The project/report must be approved, and, later on, the data is ready for extraction, transformation, and load (ETL) into the data warehouse. The IT or BI department generates the report or business dashboard while business users don’t have any control over this process. On the other hand, in a self-service setting, business users don’t need to be tech-savvy to process the data on their own. The IT team works closely with users’ requests to choose the best possible tool, but the analysis, reporting, and dashboard creation is completely under control of the user. Additionally, self-service features give various possibilities based on the level of knowledge a professional needs, so both an average user and the IT specialist can work in the same tool.
b) Who loads the data and where? Extracting and loading the data into a warehouse is mostly automated, but in the traditional setting, the IT department is responsible to extract the data out of the warehouse by writing SQL queries to generate reports. On the other hand, in a self-service setting, business users access data directly and have complete control over the analysis, creation of reports or dashboards. In a traditional setting, the whole analysis process was set up and controlled by the IT, but self-service enables the user to take control over the process with the help of a self-service BI software. While they do need to cooperate in some of the steps of data preparation, business users are enabled to help the IT department and unburden many of their tasks.
c) Who creates the report or dashboard? Modern business intelligence software usually is comprised of an intuitive, drag-and-drop interface, based on user-friendly navigation that enables non-technical professionals to build their own queries and generate comprehensive reports. In a traditional BI setting, this was done by IT professionals while the business user would approve or ask for changes in the report or dashboard. This process could take weeks, and often the IT department is already extremely busy with numerous other tasks. Generating reports became a tedious task that no one was happy with. In recent years, average business users have gained the ability to generate their own analysis, ad hoc reports, explore the data and interact with dashboards with the help of numerous visualizations. The process has become so simplified that the IT department doesn’t have to hold full control over the business intelligence of a company. Business users can take full advantage of self-service reporting tools and tinker the data on their own.
Traditional vs. modern BI have a different way of operating within a company, but the goal is the same: actionable insights. Businesses must consider the budget, workforce, and tools they’re capable to finance and maintain to be able to choose the best possible solution. We will focus now on the benefits of self-service business intelligence (SSBI) and follow with the most prominent elements that these tools have to offer.
a) Answer critical questions in seconds: Gone are the days of asking for a critical KPI and having to wait hours, if not days, for the busy IT department to pull the report. SSBI puts the user in charge of the data. Data can be accessed on the fly for real-time analysis and immediate actionable insights, giving your team a competitive advantage.
b) Combine multiple data sources: Comprehensive business intelligence often requires combining multiple data sources and performing cross-database queries. From online to offline data, a user-friendly SSBI setup will enable you to aggregate and analyze every type of data available in one central place.
c) Excel just isn’t cutting it: When you can’t access the data you need it is still common for users to shortcut their data management processes to get instant answers. Excel is a common go-to tool for short cuts. A 2011 study by Forrester showed that 88 percent of users rely “heavily” or “exclusively” on spreadsheets. Old-style BI is clearly not meeting their needs. While 2011 was years ago, it is safe to assume that in 2020 the number is still high, especially when it comes to ad hoc analysis. Though Excel was never intended to be a BI tool, it can be tempting to depend on spreadsheets for workflow from familiarity. Relying on Excel is a risky proposition because it requires a lot of manual data entry, leaving it prone to errors, especially when spreadsheets are passed around your organization. The days of exporting large datasets to spreadsheets to be converted into charts and pivot tables are over. With the new generation of Self-service BI tools, data analysis within spreadsheets belongs to the past.
d) Democratizing data: The entire team no longer needs to rely on a data analyst poring over spreadsheets, looking for clues to improve services. Self-service BI tools provide information for everyone involved in the project in an easy-to-share format. Because all team members can easily access the same data, SSBI makes the decision-making process more inclusive, puts everyone involved in the decision making process on the same page, allowing everyone an equal opportunity to impress the boss and customers.
e) Mobile matters: Business Intelligence means having the right data at the right time to make the right calls. Nowadays, that means accessing your data wherever you are, which often involves the use of a mobile device. Taking BI mobile is critical for companies to respond to issues in real-time and make informed decisions immediately. Continual access to dashboards means that you and your colleagues will always have the information you need, regardless of your location.
f) Free up the IT department: Old data, or different data structures, often bring the IT department back into the picture to clean up the data to make it functional. A common issue with this, is that it impacts how timelines are delivered. Across industries, the vast minority of users get their reports within one and three days of the initial request. With the fast pace of today’s business environment, a day long wait can render the initial question moot.
g) Data visualization is key: Data visualization plays a key role in buying decisions. Combining millions of data points and advanced math concepts to make a story that people will understand is not an easy task. When it comes to data visualization, simplicity and clear data presented will increase the level of audience engagement. The use of dashboards has become indispensable to filter and manage the vast amounts of data that modern companies generate.
h) Telling your story: While data visualization is part of your story, the topic of storytelling deserves to be a stand-alone bullet point. Data will be remembered only if presented in the right way and the right context. A story will always be more effective and memorable than a spreadsheet or a complicated dashboard. Have you been confronted with dashboards chock full of analytics that is not relevant to your question? It is a challenge to make data-driven decisions if you do not understand the story behind the numbers. Modern dashboard software enables the report creator to better understand the underlying data, and craft more compelling stories. Accessible anywhere, through mobile devices and desktops, dashboards drive better team collaboration and greater insights than traditional solutions like PowerPoint or Excel ever could.
i) Limit your risk: Many SSBI providers offer their tool as a software-as-a-service (SaaS). In comparison to traditional BI tools, this type of software provides a solution without the time, expense, and hassle of developing a BI infrastructure internally. There are no upfront investments required to start and no maintenance charges. Typically, buyers pay a monthly fee dependent on the required feature set, number of users and data sources, as well as your individual data volume. Companies no longer need to build their own data centers, hire large IT staff or buy expensive one-time licenses to get started. All you technically need to do is to sign up and commit only for a few months, and easily change the provider. Most vendors also offer a free trial so you can make sure the product is right for your needs before you commit.
These are just some of the invaluable benefits that self-service business intelligence has on offer. To extract even more knowledge out of the possibilities that these kinds of solutions bring to a company, we will now concentrate on the most prominent elements that self-service business intelligence tools need to attain for the best possible business results.
In this section of our article, we will present some of the leading elements of modern and professional tools that you can look for to make the most out of the benefits we mentioned earlier, starting with the connection of the data, analyses, sharing options and modern AI features.
a) Easy to use data connectors: You can easily connect your databases, flat files, CRM, helpdesk, marketing analytics, and many more, to a BI solution and immediately work with your data through a self-service solution. A drag-and-drop interface, as mentioned, enables an intuitive substance to modern software that would usually be handled by the IT department. Moreover, 2 types of connections (remote and the vendor’s data warehouse) ensures that you have the possibility to choose where to store your data and combine it with other datasets.
b) Intuitive drag-and-drop interface: We have already mentioned the intuitiveness that this kind of interface offers to any modern software used by business users. Thanks to this, you can easily select the data fields or variables from the tables within your data source and simply drag and drop into various analyzer sections (measures represented as Y-axis and dimensions as X-axis) and immediately build stunning visualizations. By creating your own dashboard, you can easily perform ad hoc analysis of your connected data, and send reports within minutes. Tools such as datapine additionally offer a SQL mode where you can build your own queries without any restrictions which is focused on more advanced users such as data analysts.
- Example of an intuitive drag & drop interface in action -
c) Predefined dashboard templates: An interesting find in the self-service realm is the possibility to utilize built-in dashboard templates based on your preferences, styles, charts or needs to visualize your data efficiently and fast. Sometimes, as a busy manager or professional, you don’t have time to create a full dashboard on your own and need immediate results. A dashboard creator simplifies the process and provides you with numerous dashboard creation options. Moreover, you can select the refresh interval and let your dashboard update data automatically. That way you can literally build and update your dashboard and data within minutes and create automated reports that will send your dashboard to the specified recipients without any complexities. You can see an example right here:
- Example of a professional financial dashboard template -
d) Multiple reporting options: Professional self-service BI tools will ensure that multiple sharing options are available and easy to use. Automated email reports will enable you to schedule the report based on your specified time intervals, a secure viewer area will provide external users to look into the dashboard only with filters you have made accessible, and a simple URL which you can copy and send to your respected receivers will make your data reachable at your fingertips. Additionally, an embedded option can enable direct embedding the dashboard on a website, intranet or other external apps, for example. As you can see, choosing the right reporting option for your needs is simple and intuitive.
e) AI-based tools: Artificial intelligence has enabled faster data collection than ever before and proved to be an invaluable resource in our cutthroat digital economy. Smart solutions such as data alerts that alarm the user each time a business anomaly occurs ensures a more relaxed working environment. If your company experiences an unexpected event or you reach a predefined goal, the tool will immediately notify you. Another beneficial AI feature is the increased usage of predictive analytics. You don’t need to ask for special calculations or wait for weeks to finish with the analysis – by simply entering the specified data points, the forecast engine will automatically calculate your business future. As we can see below on a practical marketing example, the user has entered specified data points based on the spent budget and date, broken down into marketing channels. The prediction option enabled the forecast engine to calculate and predict the next period of 6 months.
- Example of an easy-to-use predictive analytics tool -
After we have expounded the multiple options that self-service tools need to obtain for measuring success in the utilization of BI, now we will focus on best practices that have to be respected in order to extract the most value from business intelligence and adopt the software in the best possible way.
a) Involve all stakeholders and users: This point is crucial when adopting a software solution since the whole team needs to be on board, well informed and able to express their ideas and opinions right from the start when the software is still being in the consideration phase. Ask questions about the team’s way of work and how the tool should improve their current workflow. You can also develop use cases and personas to identify the way how users will interact with the software in their daily operations.
b) Develop a communication plan and timetable: It’s not easy to build a communication plan, but it is crucial to effectively implement a BI solution. Agile communication with the involvement of each stakeholder should be another priority that needs to be addressed carefully. Identify the type of information that is most important to each stakeholder, timetables for regular meetings and feedback, milestones that need to be taken to keep everyone well informed and on top of their performance. The more detail you can implement in this step, the clearer the implementation process will be.
c) Develop training and introduction materials: Although most software solutions provide documentation and tutorials, it might make sense to offer training sessions and introduction materials since you know your team best. As with any software, people need some time to get used to special features, menus, and other functionalities, hence, short exercises or example use cases, especially for team members who are new to the analytics topic, would make a positive impact into the development of each user that needs to utilize the BI software.
d) Choose a champion: One person responsible for leading the implementation of the BI solution is a perfect solution for any company, whether large enterprise or small business. If your team always has one person focused only on the task to successfully implement BI, there is less space for errors or communication issues between colleagues. Each employee will know who to ask about any issues or share their ideas, and the leader can then adjust accordingly and be fully informed about everything that happens during the implementation of a business intelligence solution within a department.
e) Agree on universal standards: Having set standards for analysis and reporting processes must also be one of the self-service business intelligence best practices to implement if you want to fully respect your company’s branding, presentation voice and achieve a cohesive approach in your BI efforts. The design of a dashboard with colors that correspond with your brand must be of utmost importance since you don’t want each dashboard to look so much different that it doesn’t appear as your company created it. Chart type usage is also a point that should be agreed upon since it would make sense to use one type for a specific visualization – the team would have a chance to immediately identify what kind of data will be presented in a line chart, bar graph or stacked column chart, for example.
We have explained what is self-service business intelligence, provided numerous tips and benefits that you can utilize in your BI processes and practical suggestions based on many years of our experience working in this sector. True self-service is right at your fingertips thanks to modern technological advancements that made software easy to implement, manage and access. If you want your team to try a true self-service solution and see how it can benefit your company, datapine has the answer. There is no need to employ a whole new team of developers, data scientists or IT specialists, you can try our software and experience the power of self-service, simply sign up for a 14-day trial, completely free, and see what datapine can do for you and your organization!
Take advantage of modern BI software features today!