Self-Service BI: Asleep at the wheel?

I’ve long been a fan of the tech new site Ars Technica. They have consistently good writing, and they cover interesting topics that sit at the intersection of technology and life, including art, politics[1], and more.

When Ars published this article earlier this week, it caught my eye – but not necessarily for the reason you might think.

sleeping tesla

This story immediately got me thinking about how falling asleep at the wheel is a surprisingly good analogy[2] for self-service BI, and for shadow data in general. The parallels are highlighted in the screen shot above.

  1. Initial reaction: People are using a specific tool in a way we do not want them to use it, and this is definitely not ideal.
  2. Upon deeper inspection: People are already using many tools in this bad way, and were it not for the capabilities of this particular tool the consequences would likely be much worse.

If you’re falling asleep at the wheel, it’s good to have a car that will prevent you from injuring or killing yourself or others. It’s best to simply not fall asleep at the wheel at all, but that has been sadly shown to be an unattainable goal.

If you’re building a business intelligence solution without involvement from your central analytics or data team, it’s good to have a tool[3] that will help prevent you from misusing organizational data assets and harming your business. It’s best to simply not “go rogue” and build data without the awareness of your central team at all, but that has been sadly shown to be an unattainable goal.

Although this analogy probably doesn’t hold up to close inspection as well as the two-edge sword analogy, it’s still worth emphasizing. I talk with a lot of enterprise Power BI customers, and I’ve had many conversations where someone from IT talks about their desire to “lock down” some key self-service feature or set of features, not fully realizing the unintended consequences that this approach might have.

I don’t want to suggest that this is inherently bad – administrative controls are necessary, and each organization needs to choose the balance that works best for their goals, priorities, and resources. But turning off self-service features can be like turning off Autopilot in a Tesla. Keeping users from using a feature is not going to prevent them from achieving the goal that the feature enables. Instead, it will drive[4] users into using other features and other tools, often with even more damaging consequences.

Here’s a key quote from that Ars Technica article:

We should be crystal clear about one point here: the problem of drivers falling asleep isn’t limited to Tesla vehicles. To the contrary, government statistics show that drowsy driving leads to hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of deaths every year. Indeed, this kind of thing is so common that it isn’t considered national news—which is why most of us seldom hear about these incidents.

In an ideal world, everyone will always be awake and alert when driving, but that isn’t the world we live in. In an ideal world, every organization will have all of the data professionals necessary to engage with every business user in need. We don’t live in that world either.

There’s always room for improvement. Tools like Power BI[5] are getting better with each release. Organizations keep maturing and building more successful data cultures to use those tools. But until we live in an ideal world, we each need to understand the direct and indirect consequences of our choices…


[1] For example, any time I see stories in the non-technical press related to hacking or electronic voting, I visit Ars Technica for a deeper and more informed perspective. Like this one.

[2] Please let me explicitly state that I am in no way minimizing or downplaying the risks of distracted, intoxicated, or impaired driving. I have zero tolerance for these behaviors, and recognize the very real dangers they present. But I also couldn’t let this keep me from sharing the analogy…

[3] As well as the processes and culture that enable the tool to be used to greatest effect, as covered in a recent post: Is self-service business intelligence a two-edged sword?

[4] Pun not intended, believe it or not.

[5] As a member of the Power BI CAT team I would obviously be delighted if everyone used Power BI, but we also don’t live in that world. No matter what self-service BI tool you’ve chosen, these lessons will still apply – only the details will differ.

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