Blog | Data & Analytics

Self-service analytics: the pros and cons

While self-service implies a level of simplicity which is possible in practice, there is more to it than that.


Self-service is a great idea. It enables people to sort things out for themselves at their leisure. That's why it's such a hit in insurance and banking. Who doesn't love the ability to put a temporary hold on a credit card when you can't find your wallet. Instant peace of mind. But there's another place where self-service can deliver ease of use and accessibility and that's analytics. Here's why.

In the past, businesspeople who needed a report would go to the IT department and put in a request. Time would pass, the sun would rise and set and rise again and, with a bit of luck, something would eventually come back. But that 'something' might bear little resemblance to the initial request. Or, more likely, the need will have changed so much over the course of time that even if the result is bang on, it is no longer relevant.

The problem here is obvious. The IT department has many competing priorities, and so delivering your report may not be top of the agenda. This doesn't work from a business perspective where change is constant. When the report finally arrives, the moment has passed, and it just isn't all that useful. It renders the whole exercise kind of pointless. Analytics, which can deliver so much value if delivered in time, becomes entangled in other people's priorities. This doesn't help anyone.

By contrast, self-service puts the power of creating analytics into the very hands of those who need it. What's not to like?

Easier said than done

However, as is the case with so many things, it is easier said than done. We've talked about self-service for years; the results have been mixed at best. Why? We missed the key prerequisite. The business has to want it. They must have the desire to step up and invest in a culture of self-service analytics. Technology will improve the process and make it more efficient, but skilled motivated people make it happen.

Beyond motivation, there is capability. While self-service implies a level of simplicity which is possible in practice, there is more to it than that. Anyone can drag and drop visualisations and make a report look pretty, but that's not the secret sauce.

What is, is the capacity for critical thinking and to communicate visually. Without this, any reports created are likely to be at best potentially meaningless and at worst, plain wrong.

Questions which should guide the creative process include:

  • What message am I trying to convey?
  • Do I understand the numbers and context?
  • Do I know where the data came from? Has it been modified?
  • Is the data fit for the decisions which will be made from it?

When self-service is done right you get the best of both worlds, information delivered quickly to decision makers, and increased data and analytics literacy within the business. No longer is data and analytics the provenance of the few, it is a shared resource for the value of all.

Lastly, it's important to remember that self-serve analytics is about providing access to corporate information assets. There must be a framework in place to ensure that the data provided is used properly.  The right data for the right decision.  Bring up governance in conversation and at least one of the people you're talking to is likely to groan.  It's not sexy or fun, but it is important that you get it right.  The good news is that modern tools and techniques make this much easier than it used to be.  This is a topic unto itself so we'll expand on this later on articles dedicated to governance in self-service over the coming months.

Watch for the drawbacks

There is a danger that the self-service user might beautifully demonstrate the wrong things.

A good tip is to be critical of what you create. Seek feedback and use it to improve outcomes. Remember reports are meant to aid decision-making. If they're not doing that, there is no value.

But get ready to enjoy the advantages

With the right approach in place, and equipped with tools to make it happen, the pros by far outweigh the cons. With self-service analytics, you're in control of your number-crunching destiny. Curious what happens when this is mashed up with that? Go for it. You're beholden to no-one, so when a question occurs, seek the answer there and then. Often, answering initial questions leads to richer analysis and deeper insights. Smarter decisions, better results.

Collaboration is typically provided for in modern tools, too, so you can work with colleagues to get more value from data assets. The feedback loop is shortened, so that, errors and omissions can be quickly identified by subject matter experts.

Self-service is good for the IT department too. They no longer must field and prioritise distracting requests for reports. They can, as data analytics guru Donald Farmer has noted, move from being "gatekeepers to shopkeepers". A gatekeeper finds reasons to say no to requests for information, a shopkeeper stocks the shelves, clearly labels what is on display, and helps customers uncover the potential buried in the data.

Here's the key to success

Self-service analytics has plenty of promise, but it has to be introduced with discipline. Success depends on a combination of people, processes and technology working together.  The difference between realising the benefits of self-service analytics, and the drawbacks we mention is having a plan to invest in people. For the business that's critical thinking, visual storytelling and training on the self-service technology chosen. For IT, it's a willingness to let go, and a framework for provisioning accessible, high quality data.

New call-to-action

Subscribe to the blog