Data Governance and Self-Service Business Intelligence: History Repeating?

Self-Service BI is a big buzz phrase these days even though many definitions exist. However, one thing is clear: It’s driving another challenge in the area of data governance. While people are starting to talk about this, it’s important to leverage what we’ve learned from the past. Too many technology industry folks are so enamored by the latest piece of software or hardware that they convince themselves their solutions are so new they are revolutionary, “have no competitors” or otherwise rationalize context. However, the smart people won’t do that.

A Quick History Lesson: The PC

In 1982, I was an operator at one of Tymshare’s big iron floors. It was a Sunday and I was reading my paper sitting at the console of an IBM 370/3033, their top of the line business computer. An article in the business section was an article titled something like “IBM announces their 370 on a chip.” I looked up at my behemoth, looked back at the article and new things would change.

Along came the PC. Corporate divisions and departments frustrated at not getting enough resources from the always understaffed, under financed and overburdened IT staff jumped on the craze. Out with the IBM Selectric and in with the IBM AT and its successors and clones.

However, by the end of the decade and early in the 1990s, corporate executives realized they had a problem. While it was great that each office was becoming more productive, the results weren’t as helpful. It’s a lot harder to roll-up divisional sales data when each territory has a slightly different definition of their territories, lead and funnels. It’s hard to make manufacturing budget forecasts when inventory is stored in different formats and might use different aging criteria. It’s hard to show a government agency you’re in regulatory compliance when the data in in multiple and non-integrated systems.

Data governance had been lost. The next twenty years saw the growth of client server software such as that by Oracle and SAP, working to link all offices to the same data structures and metadata while still working to leave enough independence. That balance between centralized IT control and decentralized freedom of action is still being worked out but is necessary.

While the phrase “single version of truth” is often mistakenly applied to mean a data warehouse and a “single source of truth,” that’s not what it means. A single version of the truth means shared data and metadata that ensures that all parties looking at the same data come up with the same information – if not the same conclusions from that information.

Now: Self-Service BI

Look at the history of the BI market. There have always been reports. With the advent of the PC, we had the de facto standard of Crystal Reports for a generation. Then, as the growth of packaged ERP, CRM, SFA and other systems came along, so did companies such as Cognos and Business Objects to focus on more complex analysis. However, they were still bound by the client/server model that was tied primarily to mid-tier Unix servers and Microsoft/Apple PCs.

What’s changed now are the evolution of the internet into the Cloud and phones into smartphones and tablets. Where divisions and departments were once leashed to big iron and CICS screens, divisions who have been more recently tied to desktops are feeling their oats and interested in quickly developing their own applications that allow their knowledge workers to access information while not seated in the office.

Self-Service BI (And, no, I’m not going to make an acronym as many have. Don’t we have enough?) is the PC of this decade. It’s letting organizations get information to people without waiting for IT, who’s still underfunded, understaffed and overburdened, distribute information widely. Alas, that wide distribution comes without controls and without audit trails. Data governance is again being challenged.

I’ve listened to a number of presentations by vendors to the BBBT, and there is hope. Gone are the days when all BI companies talked about was in helping business people avoid using IT. There’s more talk about metadata, more interest in security and access control, and a better ability to provide audit trails. There’s an understanding that it’s great to allow every knowledge worker to look at the data and understand those pieces of information arising that address their needs while still ensuring that the base data is consistent and metadata is shared.


We can learn from history. The PC was a great experiment in watching the pendulum swing from almost complete IT control to almost no IT control then back to a more reasonable middle. The BI community shows signs of learning from history and making a much faster switch to the middle ground. That’s a great thing.

Technologists working to help businesses improve performance through data, BI and analytics need to remember the great quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

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