As 2012 ends, I thought it would be interesting to look at a category of tools that is gaining a significant hold in the Business Intelligence (BI) world. These tools are Personal Analytical Tools. The design of these tools allows users to be self-sufficient, to explore data, and to analyze it without IT involvement. The concept of user self-sufficiency is not new but the new tools are finally allowing users to realize the goal.
The traditional players in this space are Tableau, QlikTech, and Tibco with their Desktop, QlikView, and Spotfire products respectively. These companies and their products have been in the market place for a few years now and they have all established a well-respected reputation. Their biggest proponents are the users who use them. Newer to the space are the traditional BI vendors MicroStrategy, SAP, IBM, Information Builders, and Microsoft with their corresponding products Visual Insight, BusinessObjects Explorer, Cognos Insight, WebFOCUS Visual Discovery, and Power View/PowerPivot. Also starting to make a mark in this space are the open source BI firms Pentaho, Jaspersoft, and Actuate. Surprisingly missing from the vendor list is Oracle. I do not expect this situation to last long as both Exalytics and Endecca lend themselves to this type of tool.
So what features do these Personal Analytic Tools provide users to enable self-service BI? First they let users bring together they need. It may already be in the data warehouse but just as likely is data that is stored either in some other system or on the users’ desktop. Next, it must let the users “model” the data for analysis. Given that most users are not expert data modelers, the tool should help them create the appropriate relationships and suggest the right schema for analysis. Another aspect of the tools is allowing users to create new calculated data items. These can be simple algebraic calculations or use complicated if-then-else and programmatic logic. The tools let users easily build reports and dashboards. The better tools will suggest the types of analysis objects that are appropriate and allow easy switching between objects. They will allow users to drill up, down, and across within the environment allowing the users to discover information not readily available in static reports. Any analyst worth his or her salt does not live in isolation. They are excited to share their information, validate it, and take action upon it. Personal Analytic Tools should allow easy sharing of information. This can be as simple as passing the analysis around to others with the same tool or more robust by publishing it back to an enterprise BI server for general consumption. An easily overlooked but critical aspect is speed and performance. Many of the tools use in-memory algorithms to allow users to quickly query and analyze information. Another feature that users are clamoring for is search. Having grown use to the ease of web-search, they expect a simple search interface to find what they are looking for.
The emergence of the tools in this space has taken two converging paths. Meeting the users’ needs and releasing them from the shackles of IT and giving them information when they need it, and the need for IT to control and govern shared information have brought us to the meeting point. Tableau, Tibco, and QlikView started their journey with the users meeting their needs. As the need to share and serve a bigger population became evident, they added server products to support integration and collaboration. Typically, these tools remain departmental rather than enterprise in nature. MicroStrategy, SAP, IBM, and Information Builders have always been supporters of the centralized and governed enterprise BI model. Whether as a means of protecting their turf or recognition of the underserved needs of end-users they have added Personal Analytical Tools to their arsenal. Microsoft is somewhat different; it has always had a foot in both camps.
One of the great things about these tools is how easy they are to get your hands on. If you are a BI practitioner, I encourage you to find the tool that either matches your enterprise BI solution or the one your users are already using, and start using to figure out how best to support your users. When an end-user comes to you with a need that is not on your current roadmap, see if you can help them meet their needs using the tool. Do not worry, you are not devaluing your role; you are working towards the business. If you are an end-user, frustrated that IT is not getting you what you need start looking at the available tools. I would suggest aligning with your enterprise BI solution where possible. You should be able to get up to speed quickly and let IT work on the critical backlog in areas that these tools do not meet.