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.

Customer Stories sessions from MBAS 2019

In addition to many excellent technical sessions, last week’s Microsoft Business Applications Summit (MBAS) event also included a series of “Customer Stories” sessions that may be even more valuable.

My recent “Is self-service business intelligence a two-edged sword?” post has gotten more buzz than any of my recent technical posts. Some of this might be due to the awesome use of swords[1] and the inclusion of a presentation recording and slides, but some is also largely due to how it presents guidance for successfully implementing managed self-service BI at the scale needed by a global enterprise.

Well, if you liked that post, you’re going to love these session recordings from MBAS. These “Customer Stories” sessions are hosted by the Power BI CAT team’s leader Marc Reguera, and are presented by key technical and business stakeholders from Power BI customers around the world. Unlike my presentation that focused on general patterns and success factors, these presentations each tell a real-world story about a specific enterprise-scale Power BI implementation.

Why should you care about these customer stories? I think Sun Tzu summed it up best[2]:

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Understanding how to use technology and features is a tactical necessity, but unless you have a strategic plan for using them, it’s very likely you won’t succeed in the long term. And just as any military leader will study past battles, today’s technical leaders can get great value from those who have gone before them.

If you’re part of your organization’s Power BI team, add these sessions to your schedule. You’ll thank me later.


[1] Just humor me here, please.

[2] I was also considering going with the Julius Caesar’s famous quote about his empire-wide adoption of Power BI, “Veni, vidi, vizi,” but I think the Sun Tzu quote works a little better. Do you agree?

Power BI dataflows and CDM Sessions from MBAS 2019

Last week Microsoft held its annual Microsoft Business Applications Summit (MBAS) event in Atlanta. This two-day technical conference covers the whole Business Applications platform – including Dynamics, PowerApps, and Flow – and not just Power BI, but there was a ton of great Power BI content to be had. Now that the event is over, the session recordings and resources are available to everyone.

MBAS 2019 Banner

There’s a dedicated page on the Power BI community site with all of the sessions, but I wanted to call out a few sessions on dataflows and the Common Data Model that readers of this blog should probably watch[1].

Power BI dataflows sessions

Microsoft Power BI: Democratizing self-service data prep with dataflows

This session is something of a “deep technical introduction” to dataflows in Power BI. If you’re already familiar with dataflows a lot of this will be a repeat, but there are some gems as well.

Microsoft Power BI: Enterprise-grade BI with Power BI dataflows

This session is probably my favorite dataflows session from any conference. This is a deep dive into the dataflows architecture, including the brand-new-in-preview compute engine for performance and scale.

Common Data Model sessions

As you know, Power BI dataflows build on CDM and CDM folders. As you probably know, CDM isn’t just about Power BI – it’s a major area of investment across Azure data services as well. The session lineup at MBAS reflected this importance with three dedicated CDM sessions.

Common Data Model: All you need to know

This ironically-named session[2] provides a comprehensive overview of CDM. It’s not really everything you need, but it’s the right place to begin if you’re new to CDM and want to the big-picture view.

Microsoft Power BI: Common Data Model and Azure Data Services

This session covers how CDM and CDM folders are used in Power BI and Azure data services. If you’ve been following dataflows and CDM closely over the past six months much of this session might be review, but it’s an excellent “deep overview” nonetheless.

Microsoft Power BI: Advanced concepts in the Common Data Model

This session is probably the single best resource on CDM available today. The presenters are the key technical team behind CDM, and goes into details and concepts that aren’t available in any other presentation I’ve found. I’ve been following CDM pretty closely for the past year or more, and I learned a lot from this session. You probably will too.

Once you’re done watching these sessions, remember that there’s a huge library of technical sessions you can watch on-demand. Also some less-technical sessions.


[1] I have a list of a dozen or more sessions that I want to watch, and only a few of them are dataflows-centric. If you look through the catalog you’ll likely find some unexpected gems.

[2] If this is all you need to know, why do we have these other two sessions?

[3] Including Jeff Bernhardt, the architect behind CDM. Jeff doesn’t have the rock star reputation he deserves, but he’s been instrumental in the design and implementation of many of the products and services on which I’ve built my career. Any time Jeff is talking, I make a point to listen closely.

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.”