The Pros and Cons of Self-Service BI

Although self-service BI is a hit with many adopters, some IT pros question the wisdom of putting too much power in the hands of users

One of the hottest trends in BI today is the move toward user self-service applications, particularly with respect to reporting.

The idea, vendors say, is to empower users by giving them tools that let them design and customize their own reports. A self-service application lets business power users construct their own views of data and gives them some leeway in terms of building and running their own reports.

One upshot, advocates say, is a model in which power users and business analysts can do their jobs with only minimal assistance from IT. “Basically, a self-service application puts more control in the hands of [users], which from IT’s perspective is a good thing,” says Michael Corcoran, vice-president and chief communications officer with self-service reporting pioneer Information Builders Inc. Instead of coding SQL queries or configuring access to disparate data sources whenever users request new reports or additional details, says Corcoran, the self-service model “puts more control in the hands of users.”

It’s a popular trend with many end users, such as those at regional insurer PMA Insurance Group. The company recently invested more than $1 million on its next-generation BI initiative, an effort that includes both an enterprise data warehouse and a front-end reporting tool from Hyperion Solutions Corp. The self-service model was extremely attractive to PMA, which planned to expose its Hyperion-based reporting solution to outside customers.

“Our system is called PMA Cinch. The idea is that it’s easy to use. It is basically providing risk-management and reporting capabilities to our external customers,” says Joe Flynn, assistant vice president of application development with PMA. “There are multiple levels of that based on the sophistication of the customer, starting with simple PDFs that they click on all the way to [creating] their own pivot tables and [drilling] down through multiple layers and right down into the actual data.”

Training turned out to be easier than expected. “We developed a self-service help process for this product when it first rolled out, and it involved online Internet-based training to learn how to use the particular services we were providing. But after going through this for the first ten or so customers, we found that a 15 minute conference call is usually all it takes [to get customers up and running].”

Not Without Danger

Although self-service BI is a hit with many adopters, some IT pros question the wisdom of putting too much power in the hands of users.

Steve Snodgrass, CFO and interim CIO with Graniterock, a Watsonville, Calif.-based provider of stone and quarried materials, says his Crystal Enterprise-based reporting solution can enable a high degree of user self-serviceability. Nevertheless, Snodgrass maintains, self-service can be a dangerous thing; in many cases—such as when users are reporting against an ERP system—self-service is a downright bad idea, he asserts.

“One of the nice things that you can do with a reporting tool like Crystal is lock down the parameters that [users are] accessing. If you give them access to the ERP system, the parameters they can access [inside of the ERP applications] are scary,” Snodgrass observes.

“There’s a lot to be said for not giving users open access to parameters. So there’s some quality control that goes into [making sure that’s done]. We have a process where before we deploy any reporting piece it’s reviewed by a third-party.”

Theodore Woo, a software engineer with a global IT services firm, has a similar perspective. In Woo’s experience, whenever IT has given business users more leeway to do something themselves, they’ve inevitably agitated for even more self-serviceability. Given the politics of the average for-profit company—where IT is viewed as a cost center—they’ll often get it, too, he says.

“What we’ve had happen is the customer group will come up and say, ‘There’s nothing you can offer us that is what we need. We want a direct database login, and we want to write our own reports',” he notes. “You don’t want that kind of stuff because obviously there’s no oversight of what that group is doing. They will write their queries however they want—without data management reviewing them for efficiency and security.”

Unless self-service applications boast truly impressive on-the-fly SQL code generation, Woo suggests that many power users will end up writing some or all of their own queries. That’s a recipe for disaster, he argues.

“If you let people run direct report generation against a database, you have no idea how efficient their queries are, and just letting them do that may affect the database itself. This can also affects the other interactive users [of the reporting application], because the overall performance is degraded.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.