Self Service BI – Governance vs Flexibility

BARC-Research recently presented findings from their BI Trends survey for 2015.  Conducted across a sample of over 3,000 BI users and practitioners it found that Self Service BI had moved several places to become the third most important trend for 2015.

Information Builders describe Self Service BI as ‘a form of business intelligence in which end users are empowered to independently satisfy their own information needs’.   In it’s simplest form a Self Service BI strategy should begin with a business focus which aims to provide users with greater and faster access to the appropriate data whilst removing the reliance on IT, freeing them up to focus on other tasks.

As with all moves that seek to provide the end user with more flexibility and power, concerns have been raised regarding the maintenance of governance protocols surrounding the accessing and utilisation of data.

So, how do you manage the seemingly opposing forces of flexibility and Governance?  Can they in fact complement each other and provide an organisation with a powerful new analytics capability?  This article looks at this subject in more detail to determine if this is indeed possible.

Self Service Means Agility and Flexibility

Self Service BI empowers the business user to develop and deploy their own insights from data. The approach enables end-user data discovery without the continued involvement of the IT department much beyond the deployment of tools and creation of the relevant warehouses.  Arguably, one of the biggest advantages of a Self Service ecosystem is that IT departments are no longer inundated with mundane service requests, freeing them to focus on more strategic projects and deriving greater value added.

The Self Service agenda has been fuelled by the increased demand for insights from a wider range of business units. This demand is primarily driven by the fact that BI is now more centered around the consumers/users of the information as opposed to being around the business’s top-line goals.

Organisations are beginning to understand that leveraging the depth and breadth of data available to support internal teams is good for business. This liberation of business users through Self Service generally results in greater flexibility and speed of delivery and provides departments with the independence to be creative and precise in engineering their desired outcomes.

Can There Be Too Much Flexibility?

Increasingly, BI tools are allowing more user functionality though drag and drop. Users can now merge datasets, manipulate variables and metadata easily. So much so that Self Service capabilities go into the realm of traditional IT functions.

Over time this flexibility is likely to create challenges for the organisation.

Imagine multiple users across a number of departments all developing bespoke reports, regularly carrying out data transformations and creating new variables. Duplication is likely to occur over time along with potential data contamination and errors which eventually results in chaos.

Self Service environments often have a lack of auditability around data which reduces the ability to trace data lineage back to source. It is very easy to see how over time this confusion could raising questions about the reliability of the outputs.

Governance is a Necessity

Concerns about data reliability, process inefficiency and potential security breaches are the very driving forces behind the need for governance.

The Data Governance Institute (DGI) defines data governance as ‘a system of decision rights and accountabilities for information-related processes, executed according to agreed-upon models which describe who can take what actions with what information, and when, under what circumstances, using what methods.’

Governance should seek to:

Striking the Balance

However, when the full scope of its functions are employed, governance can be very restrictive and riddled with ‘red tape’, therefore contradicting to the very essence of Self Service.

The pace and trend of Self Service data discovery cannot be reversed, business users are unlikely to go back to relying on IT support to deliver intelligence and insights. At the same time, governance cannot be ignored and so a balance must be struck to allow both to coexist.

The fact is governance and Self Service are not mutually exclusive, however, it is likely the business’s approach to governance will need to evolve to accommodate the synergy.

Firstly, selected tools must be intuitive and user-friendly and encourage adoption.  They should have a wide range of built-in capabilities to deliver inline with the expectations of the users, without too much complexity.

Duplication can be avoided by enlisting a report directory/database to manage the myriad of reports produced by end users and allow for these to be accessed and shared across the business. Appropriate conventions and protocols should be established around the naming and manipulation of reports so the database is easily searchable.

Resource management on the analytics platform must also be considered to ensure the efficient running of BI services tools and other applications on a shared platform. There are tools in the market that supports this type of monitoring such as Enterprise Session Monitor for SAS (ESM) by Boemska which, amongst other features, meters memory and disk space usage and lets users compare the performance of their sessions against the overall performance of the server they are executing on. As an added bonus this tool allows classification of usage by department and cost centre, something that many organisations find crucial when hosting multi tenancy platforms.

Enhanced security should also be considered.  User should be managed at a granular level providing specific access and permissions to data, tools and capabilities in order to address issues such as data toxicity, data quality and data theft.


Arguably the most challenging part of the transition to Self Service is changing the interaction and  communication between IT and business users. A closer, more pragmatic relationship is key to the success of Self Service. Sharing of the vision and perspective of both groups and notifying of changes should see quicker resolution to problems and over time improver working relationships.

Governance must continue to play a critical but more consultative role in analytics delivery relying on Self Service users to comply with the specified guidelines in order to ensure they are working with accurate, complete data.

When it comes to Self Service, it is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when.  Early adoption can ensure organisations remain competitive and start to leverage the true value out of their ‘Big Data’.

About Demarq

Demarq is an independent, software agnostic consultancy.  Our Analytics Enablement Service provides support across all aspects of the BI development lifecycle: from the development of data visualisations to the implementation of a full strategic BI reporting environment for operationalised analytics.

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