When you hear someone say that governance and self-service BI don’t go together, or some variation on the tired old “Power BI doesn’t do data governance” trope, you should immediately be skeptical.
During a recent Guy in a Cube live stream there was a great discussion about self-service BI and data governance, and about how in most larger organizations Power BI is used for self-service and non-self-service BI workloads. The discussion starts around the 27:46 mark in the recording if you’re interested.
As is often the case, this discussion sparked my writing muse and I decided to follow up with a brief Twitter thread to share a few thoughts that didn’t fit into the stream chat. That brief thread turned out to be much larger and quite different than what I expected… big enough to warrant its own blog post. This post.
Please consider this well-known quote: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
Please also feel encouraged to read this fascinating history of the quote and its attributions on the Quote Investigator web site.
In his 1871 essay Helmuth von Moltke called out an obvious truth: battle is inherently unpredictable, and once enemy contact is made a successful commander must respond to actual conditions on the ground – not follow a plan that is more outdated with every passing minute.
At the same time, that commander must have and must adhere to strategic goals for the engagement. Without these goals, how could they react and respond and plan as the reality of the conflict changes constantly and unpredictably?
Implementing managed self-service business intelligence – self-service BI hand-in-hand with data governance – exhibits many of the same characteristics.
Consider a battlefield, where one force has overwhelming superiority: More soldiers, more artillery, more tanks, and a commanding position of the terrain. The commander of that force knows that any enemy who faces him on this field will fail. The enemy knows this too.
And because the enemy knows this, they will not enter the field to face that superior force. They will fade away, withdraw from direct conflict, and strike unexpectedly, seeking out weaknesses and vulnerabilities. This is the nature of asymmetric warfare.
The commander of the more powerful force probably knows this too, and will act accordingly. The smart commander will present opportunities that their enemies will perceive as easily exploitable weaknesses, to draw them in and thus to bring that overwhelming force to bear.
And this brings us naturally back to the topic of data governance, self-service business intelligence, and dead Prussian field marshals.
In many large organizations, the goal of the data governance group is to ensure that data is never used improperly, and to mitigate (often proactively and aggressively mitigate) the risk of improper use.
In many large organizations, the data governance group has an overwhelming battlefield advantage. They make the rules. They define the processes. They grant or deny access to the data. No one gets in without their say-so, and woe unto any business user who enters that field of battle, and tries to get access to data that is under the protection of this superior force.
Of course, the business users know this. They’re outgunned and outmanned, and they know the dire fate that awaits them if they try to run the gauntlet that the data governance team has established. Everyone they know who has ever tried has failed.
So they go around it. They rely on the tried and true asymmetric tactics of self-service BI. The CSV export. The snapshot. The Excel files and SharePoint lists with manually-entered data.
Rather than facing the data governance group and their overwhelming advantages, they build a shadow BI solution.
These veteran business users choose not to join a battle they’re doomed to lose.
They instead seek and find the weak spots. They achieve their goals despite all of the advantages and resources that the data governance group has at their disposal.
Every time. Business users always find a way.
This is where a savvy data governance leader can learn from the battlefield. Just as a military commander can draw in their opponents and then bring their superior forces to bear, the data governance group can present an attractive and irresistible target to draw in business users seeking data.
This is the path to managed self-service business intelligence… and where the whole military analogy starts to break down. Even though data governance and self-service BI have different priorities and goals, these groups should not and must not be enemies. They need to be partners for either to succeed.
Managed self-service BI succeeds when it is easier for business users to get access to the data they need by working within the processes and systems established by the data governance group, rather than circumventing them.
Managed self-service BI succeeds when the data governance group enables processes and systems to give business users the access they need to the data they need, while still maintaining the oversight and control required for effective governance.
Managed self-service BI succeeds when the data governance group stops saying “no” by default, and instead says “yes, and” by default.
- Yes you can get access to this data, and these are the prerequisites you must meet.
- Yes you can get access to this data, and these are the allowed scenarios for proper use.
- Yes you can get access to this data, and these are the resources to make it easy for you to succeed.
What business user would choose to build their own shadow BI solution that requires manual processes and maintenance just to have an incomplete and outdated copy when they could instead have access to the real data they need – the complete, trusted, authoritative, current data they need – just by following a few simple rules?
Managed self-service BI succeeds when the data governance group provides business users with the access they need to the data they need to do their jobs, while retaining the oversight and control the data governance group needs to keep their jobs.
This is a difficult balancing act, but there are well-known patterns to help organizations of any size succeed.
At this point you may be asking yourself what this has to do with plans not surviving contact with the enemy. Everything. It has everything to do with this pithy quote.
The successful data governance group will have a plan, and that plan will be informed by well-understood strategic goals. The plan is the plan, but the plan is made to change as the battle ebbs and flows. The strategy does not change moment to moment or day to day.
So as more business users engage, and as the initial governance plan shows its gaps and inadequacies, the data governance group changes the plan, keeping it aligned with the strategy and informed by the reality of the business.
This is a difficult balancing act, but it is being successfully performed by scores of enterprise organizations around the world using Power BI. Each organization finds the approach and the balance that best achieves their goals.
Although this post has used a martial metaphor to help engage the reader, this is not the best mental model to take away. Data governance and self-service business intelligence are not at war, even though they are often in a state of conflict or friction.
The right mental model is of a lasting peace, with shared goals and ongoing tradeoffs and compromises as each side gives and takes, and contributes to those shared goals.
This is what a successful data culture looks like: a lasting peace.
Multiple people replied to the original Twitter thread citing various challenges to succeeding with managed self-service business intelligence, balancing SSBI with effective data governance. Each of those challenges highlights the importance of the effective partnership between parties, and the alignment of business and IT priorities into shared strategic goals and principals that allow everyone to succeed together.
If you want to explore these concepts further and go beyond the highlights in this post, please feel encouraged to check out the full “Building a Data Culture with Power BI” series of posts and videos. Acknowledging the fact that data governance and self-service BI go beautifully together is just the beginning.
 This is really important
 Yes, yes, we all know that guy. Sometimes the data governance team needs the old stick for people who don’t find the new carrot attractive enough.. but those people tend to be in the minority if you use the right carrot.