"Self-service" is a term that implies ease of use. Yet too often, it's not easy enough.
While self-service business intelligence has been a hot tech trend for at least a couple of years, a new survey from Logi Analytics (registration required) finds that just 22 percent of business users can access and use self-service BI tools. Nearly 80 percent of business users report they mostly use spreadsheets, despite some well-known shortcomings of using spreadsheets for BI, including limited functionality and data inconsistencies.
Why aren't more folks using today's sophisticated self-service business intelligence tools instead of Excel?
It's never a surprise to see budget limits cited as a reason behind limited adoption. It sits atop the list of adoption challenges, cited by 48 percent of survey respondents. It's a bit more surprising, though, to see business user skill set is also mentioned by 48 percent of respondents.
Business Intelligence Training
Are self-service BI tools difficult to use and thus too challenging for the average business user? Maybe, but only 23 percent of respondents said they thought tools were too hard to use. It seems more likely that too many organizations think the "self" in self-service also applies to training.
Even tools designed to be intuitive work better if users are actually trained to use them. But organizations may gloss over the need for training. Alvin Wong, product marketing manager for Logi Analytics, said, "Training is always needed for any project. For self-service BI, it can be especially challenging since users can have such varying needs from a capabilities standpoint, and the questions they ask of the data is always changing and evolving."
This is spelled out more clearly in research from Inside Analysis, published in April of 2013. When asked about challenges of implementing self-service business intelligence, 73 percent of respondents to the Inside Analysis survey said self-service BI tools required more training than expected.
As business intelligence consultant Wayne Eckerson wrote in an analysis of the results: "How can something be 'self-service' if it requires the IT department to train and support users continually? That’s the conundrum of self-service BI. If you want to empower users, you first need to give them the know-how to service themselves, and how to do this varies widely, depending on the skills and experience of the business users. "
Even more important than teaching business folks how to actually use self-service BI tools is teaching them how to interpret the data and which data elements and fields to use for which types of analyses, Eckerson added. One of the folks who commented on Eckerson's piece echoed this idea: "My experience was, casual users are really confused about what to do with those tools."
Delving into the issue more deeply, Eckerson pointed out the need to match users with the appropriate self-service business intelligence tools and approaches. Unfortunately for IT organizations, which typically value standardization because it simplifies supporting and maintaining information systems, this will mean multiple tools.
Eckerson suggested business folks fall into two categories: casual users like managers, who need information to do their jobs, and power users like business analysts, whose job descriptions include analyzing information.
Casual users are perhaps the trickiest to satisfy, he wrote, because they fall under the 80/20 rule: They want basic interactivity delivered via a canned report or dashboard 80 percent of the time, while desiring the ability to create their own reports and dashboards just 20 percent of the time. The answer, he said, is to deliver departmental dashboards that offer interactivity and also appoint departmental "super users" who can help their colleagues produce reports.
The Logi Analytics survey, however, finds that 33 percent of business users want the ability to create and format a report or dashboard. This is nearly as many as the 39 percent who want to be able to read a report or dashboard.
Boosting Self-service BI Adoption
Of course, the best way for IT organizations to find out what their business users want from self-service business intelligence is to go out and actually ask them instead of relying on a survey or their own assumptions. Only then can they provide appropriate self-service BI tools and training.
Ask each business group to identify who needs access to self-service BI and to classify them as basic, intermediate or super users. This approach was used at 1-800-Flowers.com, one of the companies featured in a blog post I wrote for IT Business Edge on creating a business intelligence culture. The goal then becomes turning basic users into intermediate users and intermediate users into super users.
Other suggestions from the post: IT should use a little tough love by only creating complex analyses; offer some hands-on help for those who need it, but do not do the work for them. Create a business intelligence/analytics group within IT and corresponding groups in every business unit that uses BI.
I also like a smart tip offered by Gartner analyst Rita Sallam in an Enterprise Apps Today article published earlier this year. Noting that companies underestimate costs of business intelligence training and user enablement, she said, "Companies should be thinking about highlighting a BI 'feature of the day,' running 'lunch and learn' sessions or providing online videos - things like that."
Logi Analytics' Wong recommends self-service support and training, at least initially. "This means creating a set of assets that users can return to again and again for reference and get answers on their own -- self-service for self-service," he said. Logi uses this approach internally, Wong noted, and has won an award from the Society of Technical Communication for its developer support portal.
If extensive training needed is required, Wong said, organizations likely need to re-evaluate their self-service business intelligence tools.
"It may signify that the tools themselves are mismatched to the users. All too often, people simply have the wrong tools for what they need, or the tools are simply not easy to use," he said. "No amount of training will overcome this."
Ann All is the editor of Enterprise Apps Today and eSecurity Planet. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade, writing about everything from business intelligence to virtualization.