Report: Self-service BI software empowers users, takes pressure off IT

Nicole Laskowski

Only 20% of business intelligence requests should be routed through the IT department, according to Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. That leaves the majority of BI requirements to be completed by the business user.

While the 80-20 split is not a scientific ratio and was instead derived from anecdotal evidence, Boris Evelson, a principal analyst with Forrester, hopes it drives home a message for businesses.

“It could be 90-10, 70-30, 60-40 in different organizations,” he said. “But what’s important to realize is that if IT is responsible for more than 50%, the backlog of BI requirements will keep growing.”

The advice comes out of a new Forrester Wave report on self-service business intelligence (BI). The Forrester Wave: Self-Service Business Intelligence Platforms, Q2 2012, led by Evelson, notes that the BI environment is unique compared with CRM, ERP, human resources or financial applications. In those cases, businesses can move at a more deliberate pace and still will most likely see a return on investment.

“[B]ut a BI application can become outdated the day it is rolled out,” the report reads. “Even within implementation times of just a few weeks, the world may have changed completely due to a sudden merger and acquisitions event, a new competitive threat, new management structure or new regulatory reporting requirements.”

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And that’s not the only differentiation. Unlike other enterprisewide systems, the requirements for a BI implementation may not be obvious until after the implementation is completed. That’s compounded by their different priorities: While business users aim to serve their clients; IT aims to hold the data to a certain standard, according to the report.

A self-service BI environment could empower business users while taking some of the pressure off of IT. To help businesses move in that direction, Evelson’s research outlines 10 capabilities a platform must have and rates the top 12 products on the market.

“If you are a business user, there are self-service options for you beyond Excel,” he said. “If you are an IT pro, you can now have your cake and eat it too: You can give business users a great degree of self-service capabilities using enterprise-grade tools.”

Consider capabilities
The term self-service BI tends to imply tools that are easy-to-use – even instinctual. But “‘intuitive’ and ‘user-friendly’ are subjective terms,” according to the report.

Before purchasing self-service BI platforms, businesses should consider the kinds of capabilities they want and the skill levels of the people building the applications. Those requirements, for example, may be different for an older generation of workers than for a younger generation who grew up on Google and Facebook.

As guidance, the report highlights 10 capabilities businesses should consider during the evaluation process; the list includes automodeling, collaborative features, write-back functions and “migration to production.”

Before a business user can publish and share a new BI application -- even in a shared environment -- it should be “productionalized,” according to the report. This final stage loops the IT department into the process so that the standards it has put forth can continue to be met.

“The right approach? A publishing action that kicks into motion a ‘move to production workflow,’ ” the report states, “or at least automatically notifies the appropriate IT resources.”

Vet the vendors
To assess the product offerings by what it considers the top 12 self-service BI vendors, Forrester constructed a 31-criteria evaluation based on research as well as user, vendor and expert interviews.

“We included vendors with at least 100 in-production customers present in more than one major geographical region,” the report read. “We also focused on vendors that Forrester clients frequently mentioned or asked about in the context of business intelligence.”

The vendors had to provide the majority of the capabilities Forrester outlined in its report, use SQL and MDX to query databases and provide BI tools that do not have to be embedded into other applications. Based on these requirements, IBM Cognos Insight, which is based on the in-memory OLAP TM1 engine, was crowned the vendor with the strongest product offering.

IBM was joined in the “leaders” pool by a majority of the megavendor lineup: Microsoft, SAP and SAS.  Tibco Software and MicroStrategy were also included among the leaders, but both seemed to straddle the line between the first and second tier of vendors.

Oracle was also present, but not among the leaders. It was included in the second tier, which Forrester refers to as “strong performers.” Forrester notes that Oracle has “persistently and successfully” closed the gap, citing Exalytics as an example. Though the recent Endeca acquisition was not considered for this analysis, the report gives it a significant nod.

“[It] has the potential to significantly boost Oracle’s overall position in the self-service BI market,” the report states.

Oracle was joined in the second wave by Information Builders, Tableau Software, Actuate, QlikTech and Panorama Software.

“In many specialized situations where certain features have specific importance, these vendors can even outshine and outperform the leaders,” according to the report.