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Barry Devlin

As one of the founders of data warehousing back in the mid-1980s, a question I increasingly ask myself over 25 years later is: Are our prior architectural and design decisions still relevant in the light of today's business needs and technological advances? I'll pose this and related questions in this blog as I see industry announcements and changes in way businesses make decisions. I'd love to hear your answers and, indeed, questions in the same vein.

About the author >

Dr. Barry Devlin is among the foremost authorities in the world on business insight and data warehousing. He was responsible for the definition of IBM's data warehouse architecture in the mid '80s and authored the first paper on the topic in the IBM Systems Journal in 1988. He is a widely respected consultant and lecturer on this and related topics, and author of the comprehensive book Data Warehouse: From Architecture to Implementation.

Barry's interest today covers the wider field of a fully integrated business, covering informational, operational and collaborative environments and, in particular, how to present the end user with an holistic experience of the business through IT. These aims, and a growing conviction that the original data warehouse architecture struggles to meet modern business needs for near real-time business intelligence (BI) and support for big data, drove Barry’s latest book, Business unIntelligence: Insight and Innovation Beyond Analytics, now available in print and eBook editions.

Barry has worked in the IT industry for more than 30 years, mainly as a Distinguished Engineer for IBM in Dublin, Ireland. He is now founder and principal of 9sight Consulting, specializing in the human, organizational and IT implications and design of deep business insight solutions.

Editor's Note: Find more articles and resources in Barry's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel and blog. Be sure to visit today!

Mart.jpgBusiness unIntelligence emerged from my questioning of the fundamental assumptions underpinning BI in all its forms, from the enterprise data warehouse to big data analytics. The belief I'm questioning in this post is that the target audience of BI is everyone in the business. This springs from the very reasonable premise that BI should be used more widely throughout the organization than it currently is. But, somewhere along the way, I don't know when, the idea emerged that BI must be used by everybody in the enterprise, if we are to gain full business benefit. BI vendors thus lament low-penetration of their tools, agonizing over how to make them simpler, more appealing. Data marts, echoing the bright and breezy WalMarts and Kmarts of retail, were introduced in the mid-1990s as an alternative to the dark and dismal data warehouse. Today, self-service BI, self-service analytics, self-service everything will solve world BI hunger.

I'm sorry, for me, that dog don't hunt.

This post was triggered by Paxata's mission statement, which aims to "Empower EVERY PERSON in the enterprise to find and prepare analytical information..." In truth, Paxata is building a very impressive and powerful adaptive data preparation tool. But, their mission statement almost derailed my interest. Really, each and every person in the organization should be finding and preparing analytical information? From the janitor to the CEO? I'll return to Paxata later in this post, but first, let me check if anybody else feels the same level of discomfort with this concept as I do.

Let's start with self-service on a personal level. I'm pretty comfortable with self-service when I visit a computer retailer. Put me in a perfume store, and I need an assistant--quickly. My wife has the opposite experience. I conclude from this (and many other examples) that self-service works only if the self-server has (i) sufficient understanding of what she's trying to do and (ii) considerable knowledge of what is available, its characteristics and where it is in the store. My experience in BI is that business users typically satisfy the former condition but fail regularly on the latter. In my original 1988 data warehousing paper (or contact me if you want a copy), I distinguished between dependent and independent users. It was only the second group who satisfied both conditions above. At the simplest level, we may divide business users into two such groups, as I did back then. In reality, of course, it's more subtle. Some business users understand statistics, many don't. Some are more attuned to using information; others rely (often correctly) on their intuitions. In chapter 9 of Business unIntelligence: Insight and Innovation Beyond Analytics and Big Data I discuss many of the ways in which decisions are influenced by many things other than information. So, it's horses for courses at a personal level: self-service BI only works for some of the people some of the time.

Organizationally, the idea that everyone is involved in decision making that demands analytical support is contrary to all concepts of division of labor and responsibility. The above-mentioned janitor has no incentive to analyze his cleaning performance. There still exist a myriad of tasks in every organization that are menial, performed by rote. Managers of such areas have, since the time of Fredrick Winslow Taylor in the early 1900s, been analyzing such work and finding ways to streamline it. While we recognize today that production line workers do have knowledge to contribute to process improvement, such knowledge is tacit, and unlikely, in my view, to be quantified by the workers themselves. Rather, that elucidation depends on another type of skill, that of independent users, power users or, as they like to be called today, data scientists. These are people whose skills and interests bridge the business/IT divide.

Which brings me back to Paxata and the concept of the biz-tech ecosystem, the symbiotic relationship between business and IT demanded by the speed and span of modern business. Finding and preparing data has long been the principal bottleneck of all BI. It is a type work that really requires a balanced mix of business acumen and IT skill. Its exploratory and ad hoc nature defies the old development approach of business requirements statements thrown over the fence to IT.

What's required is an exploratory environment for diverse data types that seamlessly blends business acumen and IT skills. This is precisely what Paxata does. Based more on the data content than on the metadata (field or column names and types), business analysts explore the actual contents of data sources and their inter-relationships in a highly visual manner that uses color and other cues to direct attention to aspect of interest identified by heuristics within the tool itself. Data can be simply cleansed and transformed, split and joined. The interface is deliberately spreadsheet-like, another comfort zone for the business analyst. But, unlike a spreadsheet, all action are recorded and tracked; they can be rolled back and they can be repeated elsewhere, vital aspects of the level of data governance needed to make this solution capable of being put into production. It's hard to describe in words; you really need to try it or see the demo. See further descriptions from Joseph A. di Paolantonio and Jon Reed.

It's tools like this that make the biz-tech ecosystem real, that blend business and IT data skills and knowledge for easier application to real business needs. They enable people from the business side of the enterprise to enhance their IT abilities, and vice versa, removing the barriers to data exploration and preparation that stand between the information and full business value. They make it easier for more people to become independent or power users, data scientists, or whatever they choose to call themselves, making their jobs easier, faster and more productive. That is the vital and visionary work that Paxata (and other vendors like them) are doing in this era of exploding data varieties and information volumes.

Business unIntelligence Cover.jpgBut I still believe that this role and these tools will never be for everyone. What do you think?

News flash: Business unIntelligence is now available as an ebook on Kindle and on Safari.

Posted January 23, 2014 2:29 AM
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