The other day as I stood at the reference desk in my local library, which is currently undergoing extensive renovations, I had occasion to reflect on changes currently underway in the Business Intelligence industry, and how both the industry and the library are reinventing themselves for today’s world.
Normally a model of efficiency and obsessive organization, on this day the library was littered with temporary signs indicating relocated or suspended services; plastic drapes keeping dust away from patrons and materials, and furniture haphazardly rearranged where the staff was doing their best to adapt to their version of purgatory.
The technology oracles have been saying it for some time now, but it suddenly struck me that the social forces, business practices, and new technologies that are pushing libraries to change are the same ones that are changing the way we think about enterprise data. Both institutions are working to find ways to serve more and different types of information to more and different types of people. But in terms of democratic mindset, libraries are arguably ahead of the BI industry.
Looking back at the BI of yesteryear, one would observe a very different landscape than today. Back then, data was curated and presented by IT professionals in a manner similar to a well-crafted museum exhibit, complete with “Please do not touch” signs.
People were free to explore the environment, but the way the data was presented and maintained was largely under the responsibility and authority of the museum curators. Docents (i.e. Business Analysts) might be seen milling about to answer questions or recite a few facts. Security guards stood watch to intervene any time it even looked like someone might touch.
Could new exhibits be built if someone (say, a wealthy donor) was interested in learning more? Sure! Just a modest charitable donation to fuel the budget and get the acquisition and construction underway would be required. Maybe even a new wing in the name of our benefactor. Sound familiar? Something like the Robert J. Fairfield Memorial Data Mart? That has a nice ring to it.
So if these museum pieces have been relegated to the past, what does the BI of today and tomorrow look like? You guessed it. Your hometown public library. And maybe, like mine, yours is under construction and dealing with a bit of dust right now. But ready or not, change is coming because your "citizens" demand it.
Now, you might say: “But aren’t Libraries themselves growing obsolete?” To which I might say, “Have you been to the library lately?” Libraries have adapted and changed with the tide of technology. Today’s libraries offer far, far more than books, and they continue to find ways to serve the unique needs of their local populations with classes and services, including offerings for their growing number of homeless and non-English speaking patrons.
So it is with BI. Access for all has become the rallying cry, and self-service access has become king over the past couple of years. Blame it on the Napster generation (everything else is blamed on us). Blame it on Netflix, Hulu, HBO and Disney+. Heck, blame it on avocado toast. But either way, like people in the music and visual media industries, BI will have to adapt to interacting with our clientele in new ways or risk becoming obsolete.
Today's data customer expects to be able to walk the stacks, explore the available content--maybe pull something off the shelf and thumb through it. They expect to be able to interact with the content over multiple mediums - on prem, remotely, maybe on a mobile device. Users will check out materials, and yes, sometimes return them with the digital equivalent of a coffee stain or dog-eared pages, or sometimes not return them at all. But that's a risk that must be taken for information to flow freely.
Sure, your library will likely always have that "Reference" collection, housing the carefully curated and maintained materials with restricted access. In the world of BI, this would be your regulated financial reporting, and your business-critical standard reports. But aside from that, data consumers should be able to explore, to build their own collections--bringing in outside data if they wish-- and build their own reports, and so on.
The truth is, they've been doing it for years, most likely unregulated, probably in Excel, and often burning payroll hours to manipulate the raw data into something usable. I know I did all of that, earlier in my career. I scraped mainframe screens, wrote VBA macros, the works.
But times have changed. Technology has changed. The audience has changed. So it is critical that we reorient ourselves to work with and not against the expectations of our data consumers. To enable them and empower them, like the all-helpful librarian, with the best tools available to efficiently and effectively find the insights they are seeking.
If you've been resistant to the relentless tides of time, consider this: users change. And the systems that support them can either adapt and support them in new ways, or else become obsolete. Self-service carries risks and challenges, but also a great many rewards. The best way to mitigate the risks and harness the rewards is to make sure you are at the helm and prepared to lead your community into tomorrow. Consider attending our free BACon Business Analytics virtual conference today and tomorrow, October 14-15 2020, to get yourself up-to-date on what’s to come.
Michael Hovar is an Associate Consultant for PMsquare, an Incorta partner. He has over 12 years of experience in client relations, with a focus on business insights and analytics. Making a mind-blowing Excel workbook is his idea of fun, but he is just as happy throwing on a good podcast and running (literally) for hours. Michael bravely endures the six months of Chicago winter with his wife, two sons and a terrier. A version of this article previously appeared on the PMSquare blog.