Other BI Approaches
For the IT staff, the shoe was on the other foot. "As IT staff we understand the technology but not the data. We have to work closely to develop BI," he said. The solution? "Microsoft engaged us to work with PowerPivot. This allowed Excel users to use the technology without having to understand it. We've been amazed at the ability. It's a managed do-it-yourself BI. We are managing SharePoint and SQL server." Unlike Spotfire, which is browser-based, PowerPivot uses the Excel interface, with which most people are at least slightly familiar. However, doing your BI this way isn't for the timid. "They can draw from different data sources, including SQL, Oracle, Access and Excel," Shammout said. He noted that IT needs to grant access to the databases before they can be used with PowerPivot.But PowerPivot, as useful as it is, shares a drawback of self-service BI in general: "It requires a basic understanding of Excel and data analysis," Shammout said. "A few weeks of internal training are required for users who have never seen PowerPivot and never used Excel. Power users can use it in a few days." Once the CareGroup staff is past the learning curve, self-service BI does pay dividends, he said. "We have 2,000 users using the BI solution. They can view or slice and dice the data depending on what they need. We give more flexibility for using the same report without having to create different reports for each manager." As is the case with any new trend in IT, the definition of do-it-yourself or self-service BI depends a lot on who you're talking to. Bhaskar Ballapragada, president of AdOn Network, a Web advertising service, uses his Sybase and MicroStrategy BI system to find ways to react quickly to advertising needs. But unlike with Spotfire or PowerPivot, he uses an overlay on his traditional BI system. To accomplish this, he said, his staff runs the BI reports it always has, and he has the ability to draw from those reports to get the data he needs. The Sybase approach does have some limitations, however, since it requires the IT department to structure the queries, and it limits the use of outside data. "Once the user base has the report set up, the user has access to standard things," Ballapragada said. Right now, self-service BI is still in its formative stages, and some big changes are expected to come in the fairly near future. There's a need for better predictive analytics, for example, and a need for a broader level of governance, Kobielus suggested. He said predictive modeling should be offered soon, allowing BI to attempt to look into the future rather than simply reporting on the past. "The way BI is shaping up is to allow you to mine the deep past, deep future and the present," Kobielus said.
"It's targeted at Excel power users," he said. "We have power users that need to do analysis, calculations and formulas. PowerPivot gives more data analysis. ... They use it to compare years, events, etc. They can filter on specific data. There are complicated formulas they can add on."