The world of business intelligence (BI) is evolving. Big data is now moving from the sole care of data scientists and becoming accessible to employees throughout organizations. The mystique surrounding data analytics is falling away, with tools designed to let non-technically-minded people understand metrics.
Information that supports good business decisions is just a click away. In short, BI is becoming available to everyone.
“Data democratization is about creating an environment where every person who can use data to make better decisions, has access to the data they need when they need it,” says Amir Orad. CEO of BI software company Sisense. “It’s about giving the business decision makers the power to explore data independently, even when working with big and or disparate data sources – which is where the interesting insights are buried.”
Here are some of the ways that BI is moving out of the data warehouse and into the break room or cubicle, where everyone has the opportunity to dig for gold.
How accessibility changed BI forever
There’s one major innovation that’s making BI available to everyone: the removal of a technological gatekeeper. It used to be that to access BI you’d need strong, sophisticated, locally installed software to sift through datasets, run complex queries, and deliver results. That’s all changing. Increasingly we’re seeing BI move into being a cloud based service — as bandwidth and storage costs decrease, and technology continues to advance, those barriers of complexity are fading away.
The evolution of BI into the cloud is only just beginning, and it’s too soon to see if it’s going to be an overwhelming success. Regardless, there are strong business incentives for the move. Less need for big capital investments in servers, dedicated software, support, and maintenance makes a powerful financial argument. Access to instant data, dashboards, metrics, and customized insight is a big win for end users and decision makers.
This is precisely why the market leader in cloud-based, on-demand infrastructure, Amazon Web Services, has rolled out QuickSight, an AWS data reporting tool designed for non-technical users. Although the move to the cloud is only just starting, it’s going to be a tremendously powerful force.
As a result, “Analytics is no longer just an afterthought to the ‘real business’ – it’s the heart of the new business models of the future,” notes Timo Elliott, an innovation evangelist for SAP. “Analytics also enables ‘live businesses.’ A live business is one that anticipates, simulates, and innovates new business opportunities, that looks to create the future, rather than just reporting on the past.”
Ultimately, accessibility to data is only going to increase in the coming years. Let’s dive into the main changes driving democratization in the world of BI.
Removing complexity by having a conversation
One of the factors that has traditionally made BI impenetrable was the need for coding and analysis skills. Traditional querying and reporting tools rely on being able to write complex filters and algorithms to analyze data or the ability to provide a strong, analytical skillset to solving data problems. That’s changing, and some of those changes are coming from a surprising direction – voice interfaces.
Semantic intelligence-powered voice recognition is simply the next logical step in how we interact with technology. Already, interfaces like Apple’s Siri, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are letting us query and interact with vast amounts of information simply by talking. Although these consumer-level tools aren’t designed for BI, there are plenty of new voice interfaces on the way that are radically simplifying how we query, analyze, process, and understand complex data.
One important component here is the idea of the “chatbot,” a software agent that acts as an automated guide and interface between your voice and your data. Chatbots are being engineered to help users identify data and guide them into getting the analysis and insight they need.
“Modern business intelligence platforms eliminate the back and forth with IT that commonly hurts agility and intuitive exploration,” says Sisense CEO Amir Orad. “Organizations that don’t remove the barriers to insights simply will not survive when competing against those that have harnessed the power of data to make faster, smarter decisions.”
Sisense recently completed a study that showed over half of respondents wanted to access their analytics and BI via a voice interface, which is why Sisense has developed their own BI bot software and framework to make querying BI easier across multiple platforms, including Slack, Facebook Messenger and Skype.
Democratization needs a firm and steady hand
Of course, democratizing access to data analytics and BI isn’t without its challenges. If there’s sensitive data in the cloud, it’s vital to ensure that only qualified, trusted employees have access. Likewise, encrypting access and protecting information from malicious actors and hackers outside the business is equally crucial. Added to that, there’s arguably another big problem – businesses failing to make good use of the data they’re actually collecting.
In many cases, it’s easier to store data than it is to destroy it. BI Is celebrated as a panacea for making informed business decisions in boardrooms around the world. The only issue is that all that data is only useful to the extent that business leaders derive insights from it. BI isn’t just a good idea conceptually; it needs to be applicable to how a business operates in the real world.
In other words, BI is an integral part of business strategy, rather than just being a good idea. Pure Storage, an infrastructure provider, found that 72 percent of businesses collect data they never use. That’s a lot of wasted capacity costs and licensing fees.
Ironically, democratizing data and giving access to end users might actually make capturing it in the first place more worthwhile. When you don’t necessarily have the resources or management incentives to create a specialist BI team, giving staff across the organization access to the technology could be a viable way for them to gather their own insights.
Embedding business intelligence into non-BI tools
One area that’s seen especially dramatic traction over the past few years is “embedded BI.” This approach brings together easily customizable BI tools and smoothly integrates them into business processes and applications.
The result is that the people involved in managing and supporting the business process can see exactly the impact their work is having on important metrics. Embedded BI helps remove the lag time between taking an action and seeing the results.
David Haimes, Director of Product Development at Oracle, is a big proponent of embedded BI for this very reason. “In business the decisions are much more important and the results translate into operational efficiencies, less mistakes, higher productivity, higher sales, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, better profits, all those good things. This sets the stage and then as we show the real time intelligence,” he asserts in a recent Oracle Applications blog post. “I find end users are able to quickly identify the embedded BI and see it’s value. They are also able to articulate what information they need and where and when they need to have it to make the maximum difference to their effectiveness.”
This is hugely useful for collaboration and seeing results in real time. Another watchword for embeddable BI is customization – employees, managers, and stakeholders all have slightly different BI needs for business processes, so being able to tweak and refine metrics and how they’re presented is essential. Indeed, the change, measure, refine, repeat mantra for business improvement is made much easier by embedded BI.
Unwinding data via discovery and visualization
One of the main issues with implementing effective BI is drawing out practical and useful insights. If data is only accessible through arcane queries or two thousand rows of an Excel spreadsheet, that’s a significant hurdle for most people. To close that gap and make BI accessible to everyone, it’s vital to turn that data into actionable intelligence. The best way to do that is through data discovery and visualization.
This isn’t just about taking metrics and putting them on a dashboard, color-coding thresholds and showing trend lines — although that certainly helps. Visualization is also about understanding why you need to analyze your data and act on it in the first place and creating accessible, customizable reports that let you do that.
“I realized how important visualization is to the big data era,” Brookhaven Lab’s Wei Xu tells Phys.org. “The visualization domain, especially information visualization, is flourishing, and I knew there would be lots of research directions to pursue because we are dealing with an unsolved problem: how can we most efficiently and effectively understand the data?”
Spread the power of BI for better results
As you can see, access to data and business intelligence tools can have a profound effect on how you do business. Spreading the power of BI from your data scientists and IT department into the hands of your entire team empowers everyone in your business to do their jobs better.
It lets you move towards a comprehensive data-driven approach that gives everyone better ownership of business decisions that drive productivity, revenue, and profit.
This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.