David Strom’s article “The Best Self-Service Business Intelligence Tools of 2015” got me thinking about self-service business intelligence (BI) tools and their place in front-line decision support for the enterprise. Unfortunately, I think there is some misinformation in the BI space around self-service tools and “traditional BI,” as it is referred to by some. I previously touched on this concept in my ITWorld blog, but below I’ll delve further into the world of self-service BI.

In his piece, Strom states that: “When most people first think of self-service BI tools, they think of using a spreadsheet for their data analysis and graphing needs.” Strom is spot on here. Excel has typically enjoyed the largest share of the individual data analysis pie. Strom goes on to note that more modern self-service tools offer a greater range of capabilities, including the ability to master larger volumes of data, unify multiple data sources and visualize data in a more effective manner. These capabilities allow for data examination without sacrificing ease of use – a massive benefit for front line managers.

But can workers derive the same insight and answer business questions from this kind of DIY approach? Excel and traditional BI both have their disadvantages but have long been relied upon by business users. Would a stronger DIY tool result in better business insights?

To find out, we’ll need to examine the question through a decision-making lens. So not only do we need to take into account the information that front-line employees need but also the manner in which it is presented. This presentation should allow users to make decisions based in fact. According to Nobel Prize winner Kahneman, the human brain thinks in two ways; System 1 and System 2 Thinking. System 1 is reactionary and occurs in real-time. System 2 makes use of all detail and information available, which makes it more effective for success in the long term but is a slower process. These two systems must balance to produce a thinking system that prevents some errors but isn’t crippled by hesitation.

Front-line employees need to make decisions quickly to take advantage of opportunities or handle mistakes. For this reason, front-line decision making has historically remained constant and uniform, with an emphasis on System 1 Thinking. To illustrate this, ask any retail executive where they expect their managers to be. I’d expect they would prefer their managers to be in the thick of it on the store floor, solving problems and capitalizing on opportunity, versus in the back room analyzing data. This creates tension between solving problems quickly and taking time to analyze data in order to solve them more appropriately.

Toyota masters this problem by ensuring that engineers receive data in its clearest form, allowing them to instantly analyze it and solve a problem or provide an answer without wasting time making sense of data. This approach would serve front-line employees better than self-service BI. The time it takes to work with the data would bring productivity to a halt by the time an answer was formulated.

Knowing this, it is clear that a different approach is necessary. Front-line employees require an “app-like” approach in which users can gain insight in less than three minutes. They instantly have the data they need to perform tasks and fix problems, increasing productivity.

Like any approach, one must consider the needs of its users and their decision-making processes. These are important factors that can have a significant impact on the success of the organization.