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Self service BI, dead or alive?

A brief stir erupted several Friday mornings ago when Yellowfin CEO Glen Rabie declared to the Boulder BI Brain Trust that self service business intelligence is “dead.” It was one of those statements that makes you sit up and listen — one that leads you all the way to a surprising observation that now drives Yellowfin strategy.

If there had been a death, a body would surely have shown up, at least reports of missing solutions. We would have had to contact the family, starting with Tableau, Spotfire, and who knows who else. It’s a big, busy clan.

But this industry will never produce anything as cold and hard as a dead body. There was no body, and there was no death. And self service BI is no more dead than self-service email, phoning, dressing, driving, or cooking.

I followed up with Glen, whom I knew from the recent Pacific Northwest BI Summit, to find out what’s going on.

He knows self service BI still lives. What he wants to kill is the widespread assumption in the BI industry that self service is what everybody wants.

My rendition of the industry’s dream goes like this: If we could only show those holdout knuckleheads the beauty, the insight, the oh-my-god-I-didn’t-know-that amazement of data analysis, then simply everyone with a brain would sign on.

“Most people who use analytics want to be consumers of a service that is provided to them,” he write to me in email from his office in Melbourne, Australia. “Building it yourself is not convenient.” Google Analytics, for example, is not hugely insightful, but it costs little.

“If we start with the assumption that most people never want to write a report, and never want to do self service analysis,” he writes, “it will force us to innovate and think about alternative ways to deliver BI.”

What about the roaring success of self-service tools?

They’re for data analysts, he says, who’re willing to handle the tricky backend part of data preparation.

“To do BI really well is a special skill,” he said in a call a few days ago. “There are whole books written on what charts to use. You’re just a generalist prior to knowing that.”

Yellowfin discovered this, he said, after trying to serve the self-service market. “We really did believe Yellowfin was for everyone. We thought everyone wanted to write reports,” he said. But they found too little demand for that.

“In reality, customers didn’t want to do data.” Yellowfin began an 18-month shift to “productionized mass distribution of pre-defined analysis.” They’ve broadened the collaboration features, made a more engaging user interface, and built in device independence. In November, they say they’ll introduce storyboards.

We’ll see, but he might be right about the average user’s preference, at least among today’s workforce.

Next questions: How will the specialists be organized within the enterprise? What skills will they have? How will organizations prevent the slothful response that still drives much of the demand for self-service? If Glen’s right, these questions — already the most interesting in BI today — will be even more important.