Self Service BI Doesn’t Mean Desktop Standalone BI

The Origins of the Term “Jumping the Shark,”
Which is the Turning Point When Something “Good” Goes “Bad”
(Click for the Video!)

Blogger Accuses QlikTech of Jumping the Shark

A colleague recently pointed me to a blog post on Birst’s website, that says QlikTech has jumped the shark.

The crux of his premise is that Qlik’s recent acquisition of Expressor Software means that Qlik is abandoning self-service BI and is instead now chasing Enterprise BI.  Qlik has acquired a “heavyweight” data shaping and cleansing tool, roughly akin to Microsoft’s SSIS, and this signals the end of their focus on end-user, self-service BI.  Or so goes the argument.

I think that argument completely misses the point, and provides an opportunity to further clarify what I think self-service BI looks like when done correctly.

“Wait, I’m an Excel Pro.  Why Do I Care?”

It’s a fair question.  This is a Birst employee picking a fight with Qliktech – two tools that most Excel pros have never even seen.  And most readers of this blog are Excel Pros rather than BI Pros. 

So should you stop reading now?  Maybe, but this does have some relevance to how you “pitch” PowerPivot to your broader organization.  So bear with me for just a moment.

1) Having the support of back-end database pros greatly enhances the results you can get with PowerPivot – I’ve written about this many times, but I will keep repeating it forever.  A single Excel Pro can do some amazing things on the desktop when armed with PowerPivot, but where PowerPivot will really blow you away is when it’s part of a broader system.  (One that includes “data shaping” support as well as a publishing server).  For more on this, click here.

Back-End Database Work is a
Turbocharging Supplement for PowerPivot

2) Understanding point #1 will help you greatly in your “sales pitch” to management and IT.  Let’s say your organization already has made some investments in traditional BI.  If you approach IT and say “give me PowerPivot and we won’t need BI anymore,” you will shoot yourself in the foot. 

First of all, BI is a very important mission for IT.  There’s a lot of job security and executive-level visibility associated with BI.  Telling IT that it won’t be needed anymore makes it sound like PowerPivot is a threat to their existence, and that’s not gonna help anyone.  So don’t say things like that.

Second, if you don’t have the support of data-shaping pros behind the scenes, you will be capping the PowerPivot benefits at maybe 30% of their full potential.  You benefit greatly from their help.  And actually, they benefit from your help too, because now their behind-the-scenes toiling will form the basis of much more visible and valuable insights than before.

So in short, PowerPivot should be “pitched” as making both IT and the Excel Pro, aka IT and “the Business,” much more effective.  It’s a “come together” rather than a divisive message, and it also happens to be the truth.  So I urge you to use it.

What’s Good for a PowerPivot Environment…

I’m not a Qlik user, but I’m pretty sure that the way in which PowerPivot benefits from a “total system” approach is true of Qlik as well.

Listen, Excel Pros (and more generally, members of the Business side of the house) just aren’t good at data shaping.  They’re also not very good at what I would call “data stewardship” – making sure things stay clean and understandable behind the scenes.

This is rooted in both technical weakness (we don’t know the toolsets) as well as in a healthy dose of “I don’t care.”  Business folks are very much focused on the here and now, where the rubber meets the road, and all of those other clichés that either make us sound down to earth or shortsighted, depending on your perspective.

And you know what?  The Business folks SHOULD be allowed that luxury of hyper-focus on what matters.  “Means to an end” stuff has always been the specialty of IT, and should remain so.

(In fairness, Excel Pros DO plan ahead quite a bit, but their horizons tend to be located at the frontiers of the current workbook or the immediate problem, out of necessity.)

And until now, Qlik has tried to put both of these tasks – backend data prep as well as front-end modeling and reporting – in the hands of the business user.  I think they will continue to offer their pre-existing end-user data shaping tools of course, but I never heard very good things about people’s success with them.  I don’t think that should surprise anyone.  It’s just not a business user task.

Qlik is smart to recognize this, and I like to think Donald has a hand in it.

I’m Just a Poor, Misunderstood PowerPivot High Priest Smile

I’ve tried many times to explain PowerPivot’s truly revolutionary qualities to traditional BI Pros, and my success rate is close to zero.  I tend to get attacked pretty quickly, actually.  “Shooting the messenger” is a phrase I have a lot of familiarity with these days.

The critical point that I need to work on communicating better, I think, is precisely one of the points from the prior section:  The Business is NOT good at data shaping and stewardship, never will be, and honestly shouldn’t have to be.  PowerPivot (nor Qlik nor Birst nor Tableau) has not changed any of that, and likely never will.  We still need the DB Pros, and in fact we need them even more now than before.

Funny, if I ever get that message ironed out, and stop irritating the BI Pros quite so much, I will suddenly earn the ire of people like the Birst blogger, who think that self-service BI means 100% by and for the Business user.  Can’t win! 🙂

A Clarified Definition of Self Service BI

Let’s give this a shot shall we?

“Self-Service BI Done Right” puts modeling and reporting in the hands of the Business while Data Shaping and Stewardship remains firmly an IT task.

But before you start thinking I’ve gone soft, remember that there is still Big Change Afoot in such a system.  Data Warehousing ceases to be an industry unto itself, and we shift more to a tactical Data Mart model, where IT is constantly interacting with the business and evolving/tuning a fundamentally simple “star schema” foundation.  If the Business doesn’t ask for something, it’s not in the Data Mart (except for quality and robustness of course). 

If no one asks for a Slowly Changing Dimension (or even a non-jargonized equivalent, such as “I need a table with the following columns”) you don’t build one.  And that means you will build many fewer SCD’s, IMO.  It also means that the data shaping component of a PowerPivot system is something a traditional (non-BI) DBA can participate in.

So there you go.  A dose of conciliation AND heresy in a single post.  It’s just the truth though, and not something that I claim to have invented.  It’s merely something I am reporting.

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