Coup d'data

The new generation of Business Intelligence (BI) software is often sold on the premise of taking the power of BI from the autocratic clutches of the IT data dictators and into the hands of the people, to play with how they please. This new world suggests that business users can simply point QlikView or Tableau at an ERP system and instantly start exploring all the juicy data without those boring data geeks holding them back with drab talk of data models and change control. Spinning together attractive dashboards of clever tree maps and animated bubble charts is a mere bagatelle for the business user in a democratised BI environment.

And these business-user-focussed tools are getting even cleverer. IBM Watson analytics has a natural language interface of exceeding impressiveness – type in “how much profit did we make in Japan”, and a graph will pop up, showing you. Microsoft also have a feature that can do this, Qlik Sense will soon have a version of it, and Tableau are undoubtedly feverishly coding away to avoid being left behind.

So is this the future? Are traditional BI products with their rigid reports and reliance on strictly controlled data sets dead? No. Democracy is a system where everyone’s voice is heard, but via a structured political system. Giving business users unfettered access to vast tracts of data stored throughout a business is probably closer to anarchy than democracy. Maintaining a single version of the truth is still incredibly important, but handing the keys over to the business to drag in data and manipulate it how they wish is likely to generate chaos.

Business users often find they reach the limit of Excel quite quickly with the large volumes of data found in 2015’s ERP systems, so having another tool that can cope with the volume is important. But, as volumes of data increase, so can the impact of small mistakes and bad assumptions about the structure of the data. Not understanding how data is connected can easily lead to double-, triple- or centuple-counting.

Making sure the data is right is just as key to the new generation of tools as it is to traditional BI tools.

The new generation of BI tools require a similar level of work to traditional tools if the data needs regular updates, especially with large volumes. And sharing the output of the new generation tools across a whole business is often more difficult than the traditional BI tools.

From a user perspective, if you can find a CFO who will continue exploring their data 15 minutes after the initial novelty has worn off, I’ll show you someone whose business is running so well, they probably don’t need BI. The same is true of credit controllers, purchasing teams and even most finance teams. There will generally be only a handful of people with remit and time within most businesses to explore data in the way that the new-generation vendors talk about. And if they find something important, they’ll then have to switch their efforts to producing it on a regular basis.

So is this not the future, then? Are the new generation of BI tools only good for impressing people in demos? Again, no. What the next generation of BI tools offers is a brilliant way of channelling business users’ knowledge into improving the BI they have. With only a small amount of assistance from data teams, the business user can quickly use the tools to drag insight from their data – and they know best what insight they need. If this insight is likely to be useful on an ongoing basis, they can hand their work to a data team to build something more robust and regular, probably in a more traditional BI tool.

For businesses starting down the road of utilising all the good data they’ve collected, the next generation of BI tools offer similar benefits. Measures and KPIs can be thrown together and trialled quickly to make sure they’re right, before embarking on a project to make them widely available.

The key with the new generation of BI tools is, as with any project, to listen to the business and understand where they are now and where they’d like to be. New, exciting bits of software are rarely a panacea, and the democratised tools from Qlik and Tableau certainly won’t solve every BI problem, but they can have a place within a strategy to help businesses make the most of the data they have."

So, where do you stand on new-generation BI tools - are they the start of a democratisation revolution or a complement to traditional BI?

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology or data and analytics on your industry, then contact our Data & Analytics team.

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