Is self-service business intelligence a two-edged sword?

I post about Power BI dataflows a lot, but that’s mainly because I love them. My background in data preparation and ETL, combined with dataflows’ general awesomeness makes them a natural fit for my blog. This means that people often think of me as “the dataflows guy” even though dataflows are actually a small part of my role on the Power BI CAT team. Most of what I do at work is help large enterprise customers successfully adopt Power BI, and to help make Power BI a better tool for their scenarios[1].

As part of my ongoing conversations with senior stakeholders from these large global companies, I’ve noticed an interesting trend emerging: customers describing self-service BI as a two-edged sword. This trend is interesting for two main reasons:

  1. It’s a work conversation involving swords
  2. Someone other than me is bringing swords into the work conversation[2]

As someone who has extensive experience with both self-service BI and with two-edged swords, I found myself thinking about these comments more and more – and the more I reflected, the more I believed this simile holds up, but not necessarily in the way you might suspect.

This week in London I delivered a new presentation for the London Power BI User Group – Lessons from the Enterprise: Managed Self-Service BI at Global Scale. In this hour-long presentation I explored the relationship between self-service BI and two-edged swords, and encouraged my audience to consider the following points[4]:

  • The two sharp edges of a sword each serve distinct and complementary purposes.
  • A competent swordsperson knows how and when to use each, and how to use them effectively in combination.
  • Having two sharp edges is only dangerous to the wielder if they are ignorant of their tool.
  • A BI tool like Power BI, which can be used for both “pro” IT-driven BI and self-service business-driven BI has the same characteristics, and to use it successfully at scale an organization needs to understand its capabilities and know how to use both “edges” effectively in combination.

As you can imagine, there’s more to it than this, so you should probably watch the session recording.

ssbi and swords

If you’re interested in the slides, please download them here: London PUG – 2019-06-03 – Lessons from the Enterprise.

If you interested in the videos shown during the presentation, they’re included in the PowerPoint slides, and you can view them on YouTube here:

For those who are coming to the Microsoft Business Applications Summit next week, please consider joining the CAT team’s “Enterprise business intelligence with Power BI” full-day pre-conference session on Sunday. Much of the day will be deep technical content, but we’ll be wrapping up with a revised and refined version of this content, with a focus on building a center of excellence and a culture of data in your organization.

Update 2019-06-10: The slides from the MBAS pre-conference session can be found here: PRE08 – Enterprise business intelligence with Power BI – Building a CoE.

There is also a video of the final demo where Adam Saxton joined me to illustrate how business and IT can work together to effectively respond to unexpected challenges. If you ever wondered what trust looks like in a professional[5] environment, you definitely want to watch this video.


[1] This may be even more exciting for me than Power BI dataflows are, but it’s not as obvious how to share this in blog-sized pieces.

[2] Without this second point, it probably wouldn’t be noteworthy. I have a tendency to bring up swords more often in work conversations than you might expect[3].

[3] And if you’ve been paying attention for very long, you’ll probably expect this to come up pretty often.

[4] Pun intended. Obviously.

[5] For a given value of “professional.”

15 thoughts on “Is self-service business intelligence a two-edged sword?

  1. This is cool, Matthew. I work at the other end of the scale, in organizations that are more likely to have between 10 and 1000 users. Much of what you cover is just as relevant in the shallow end as it is in the deep end. (Perhaps I should have said just as relevant in a knife fight?) Specifically the need for training, training, training, and training.

    But there’s big differences too…for instance, in the very small privately owned businesses I provide services to, IT are often vaguely aware that Power BI exists, and that the Office E5 SKU gives end users *something* extra than the E3 SKU, but they often don’t have time to look into what that *something* actually entails, or to find out specifics.

    So usually IT are elated that someone from the business is asking them about Power BI, as it’s inevitably on their radar to find out more about what Power BI can do for the business compared to say a legacy install of Business Objects that users are currently under-utilizing. Particularly when that annual support contract for BO shows up on their desk, and they think ‘Hmm, can I use this Power BI thing that I see users get as part of O365 to do this, and save some dosh?’.

    At the same time, IT may have enables some E3/E5 features, but not others complementary to Power BI (such as Flow or OneDrive) as IT themselves don’t know what these in tandem could do for their users. IT seem largely ignorant that users live in manual cut-and-paste land. If only the knew a) how badly their users were living and b) how easily Power BI could be used to dramatiaclly lift that standard of living. So that c) they could enable the entire o365 ecosystem and then 4) provide training, training, training, and training.

    Now where’s that magic wand got to?

    Hey…I run the Wellington New Zealand Power BI User Group along with your fellow CAT team member Phil Seamark. How about you swing on down for some Taiaha training ( so we can rope you in to speaking 🙂


    1. Thanks so much for the thoughtful response!

      I agree 1000% percent (did I mention that I’m bad at math?) with the importance of training for organizations of every size, and the lack of awareness in IT of how business stakeholders work day-to-day. My focus on larger enterprise customers is due largely to my job responsibilities – these are the customers I work with.

      Given how full my plate is already, I can’t imagine I will have the time or bandwidth to look at SMB customers in the short term. But if you were to nudge Phil, this might be an area where his experience working with these customers might let him assist or inform efforts in this area.

      Unfortunately, now that the CAT team has a local resource in New Zealand, this makes it less likely that I’ll have a business reason to visit. Sad, but true…


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  7. thedatathinker

    I can’t wait to defend the double-edged sword next time it is used to blame the tool, rather than  user  training . Makes for a perfect segue  to the importance of data and information literacy.

    Liked by 1 person

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