The Brave New World of Self-Service Analytics: Are You Ready?

John Armstrong, CMO, Zettaset
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John Armstrong, CMO, Zettaset

You’ve finally entered the age of big data. Your company has invested in the latest distributed computing system, you have access to a cloud-based data warehouse (suitably secured, of course!) and you are confident that your data can provide you with the answers to real business problems. So what do you do now?

“Modern business intelligence and analytics platform has emerged to meet new organizational requirements for accessibility, agility, and deeper analytical insight”

To meet the time-to-insight demanded by today's competitive business environment, many organizations want to democratize analytics capabilities by adopting a self-service approach.  The term “self-service” is somewhat misleading. A more apt descriptor would be “easy-to-use”. What buyers want and what vendors are striving to deliver are analytics tools that enable line-of-business professionals to perform queries and generate reports on their own, with minimal IT support. Reducing or eliminating IT involvement at the query stage enables business units to achieve time-to-value much more quickly, and empowers business users to mine information-rich data environments with greater confidence.

Self-service analytics solutions capable of leveraging the massive processing and data discovery potential of distributed computing are ushering in a new era of data freedom for business users who rely on data-driven decision making. With programming and query languages no longer a pre-requisite skill for exploring Hadoop, NoSQL, and relational database environments, organizations are realizing that even non-technical users have the potential to quickly and easily find insights within the biggest data sets.

The most significant difference between a modern BI and analytics platform and a traditional, IT-centric reporting and analysis platform is the amount of up-front modeling and skills required to build analytics content. Creating analytics content using an IT-centric reporting platform starts with IT consolidating and modeling data in advance, which can be a very complex and time-consuming process.  Let’s just say, if you want answers today, it’s not going to happen.

A modern Business Intelligence and Analytics (BI&A) platform that adheres to the self-service model supports creation of analytics content that is enabled by IT, but which is driven by line-of-business personnel with little or no data science skills. Queries can be submitted in plain English without IT intervention, and time-to-insight is pared back by high-performance analytics engines designed to quickly chew through massive amounts of data.

One of the first Software as a Service (SaaS) business applications that obtained wide adoption was Salesforce.com, which enabled marketers and sales organizations to set up and manage a highly productive BI&A platform with virtually no IT involvement.  The success of Salesforce led the way for subsequent user-empowered BI and analytics solutions.  The era of data democratization has begun.                                            

According to Gartner, the BI and analytics market is in the final stages of a multiyear shift from IT-led, system-of-record reporting to business-led, self-service analytics. Concurrently, the modern BI&A platform has emerged to meet new organizational requirements for accessibility, agility and deeper analytical insight.

“As analytics have become increasingly strategic to most businesses and central to most business roles, every business is an analytics business, every business process is an analytics process and every person is an analytics user,” says Ian Bertram, Managing Vice President at Gartner. “It is no longer possible for Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) to be experts only in branding and ad placement. They must also be customer analytics experts. The same is true for the chief HR, supply chain and financial roles in most industries,” adds Bertram.

Businesses are clamoring to adopt the newer, easy-to-use, fast and agile BI&A platforms.  Gartner predicts that global revenue in the business intelligence and analytics market will reach $16.9 billion in 2016, an increase of 5.2 percent from 2015. Forrester is equally bullish, expecting the BI&A software market to grow at a 12 percent CAGR over the 2015 to 2020 period.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to make vendor recommendations, there is no shortage of analytics products and platforms available in what has become an extremely dynamic market.  However, before you start hunting for a solution, consider your specific situation and needs.

• How do you prefer to see the information visually presented? There are literally dozens of different tools available for creating charts and infographics.

• Is your data complex with large disparate datasets, or relatively simple and homogenized?  Complex big data sets will benefit from a high-performance analytics platform that is optimized for speed.

• Are you comfortable using multiple tools, or do you want a unified approach that manages several operations like data discovery, ETL, analytics, and visualization on a single, integrated platform?

• Do you have highly specialized datasets like genomics, seismic, actuarial, etc.?  Some analytics vendors offer solutions that are optimized for applications like these that are respectively used in the pharmaceutical, petroleum, and insurance industries. There’s likely one or more BI&A solution available that can address your business specialty or industry vertical.

Technology roles have seen a shift from technical pedigrees to finance and business degrees, and many CIOs are enthusiastically adopting the latest BI&A tools and platforms to manage modern analytics.  These platforms enable end-users to move away from the IT-centric approach, and embrace a device-driven platform interface that provides on-demand data sources and connectors, DIY dashboards, and ad-hoc, real-time interaction and queries.  IT resources can now be deployed on new strategic technology initiatives, while critical business processes are simplified and streamlined.

Now more than ever, in the age of big data, information is power. If the majority of your BI and analytics users are not data scientists and analysts, then the latest generation BI&A platforms may finally be the data game-changer you have been seeking to empower your business unit teams.

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