Viral adoption: Self-service BI and COVID-19

I live 2.6 miles (4.2 km) from the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Washington state. You know, the nursing home that’s been in the news, where over 10 people have died, and dozens more are infected.[1]

As you can imagine, this has started me thinking about self-service BI.

2020-03-10-17-44-57-439--msedge
Where can I find information I can trust?[2]
When the news started to come out covering the US outbreak, there was something I immediately noticed: authoritative information was very difficult to find. Here’s a quote from that last link.

This escalation “raises our level of concern about the immediate threat of COVID-19 for certain communities,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in the briefing. Still, the risk to the general public not in these areas is considered to be low, she said.

That’s great, but what about the general public in these areas?

What about me and my family?

When most of what I saw on Twitter was people making jokes about Jira tickets[3], I was trying to figure out what was going on, and what I needed to do. What actions should I take to stay safe? What actions were unnecessary or unhelpful?

Before I could answer these questions, I needed to find sources of information. This was surprisingly difficult.

Specifically, I needed to find sources of information that I could trust. There was already a surge in misinformation, some of it presumably well-intentioned, and some from deliberately malicious actors. I needed to explore, validate, confirm, cross-check, act, and repeat. And I was doing this while everyone around me seemed to be treating the emerging pandemic as a joke or a curiosity.

I did this work and made my decisions because I was a highly-motivated stakeholder, while others in otherwise similar positions were farther away from the problem, and were naturally less motivated at the time.[4]

And this is what got me thinking about self-service BI.

In many organizations, self-service BI tools like Power BI will spread virally. A highly-motivated business user will find a tool, find some data, explore, iterate, refine, and repeat. They will work with untrusted – and sometimes untrustworthy – data sources to find the information they need to use, and to make the decisions they need to make. And they do it before people in similar positions are motivated enough to act.

But before long, scraping together whatever data is available isn’t enough anymore. As the number of users relying on the insights being produced increases – even if the insights are being produced by a self-service BI solution – the need for trusted data increases as well.

Where an individual might successfully use disparate unmanaged sources successfully, a population needs a trusted source of truth.

At some point a central authority needs to step up, to make available the data that can serve as that single source of truth. This is easier said than done[5], but it must be done. And this isn’t even the hard part.

The hard part is getting everyone to stop using the unofficial and untrusted sources that they’ve been using to make decisions, and to use the trusted source instead. This is difficult because these users are invested in their current sources, and believe that they are good enough. They may not be ideal, but they work, right? They got me this far, so why should I have to stop using them just because someone says so?

This brings me back to those malicious actors mentioned earlier. Why would someone deliberately share false information about public health issues when lies could potentially cost people their lives? They would do it when the lies would help forward an agenda they value more than they value other people’s lives.

In most business situations, lives aren’t at stake, but people still have their own agendas. I’ve often seen situations where the lack of a single source of truth allows stakeholders to present their own numbers, skewed to make their efforts look more successful than they actually are. Some people don’t want to have to rebuild their reports – but some people want to use falsified numbers so they can get a promotion, or a bonus, or a raise.

Regardless of the reason for using untrusted sources, their use is damaging and should be reduced and eliminated. This is true of business data and analytics, and it is true of the current global health crisis. In both arenas, let’s all be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Let us be a part of the cure, never part of the plague – we’ll only be remembered for what we create.[6]


[1] Before you ask, yes, my family and I are healthy and well. I’ve been working from home for over a week now, which is a nice silver lining; I have a small but comfortable home office, and can avoid the obnoxious Seattle-area commute.

[2] This article is the best single source I know of. It’s not authoritative source for the subject, but it is aggregating and citing authoritative sources and presenting their information in a form closer to the solution domain than to the problem domain.

[3] This is why I’ve been practicing social media distancing.

[4] This is the where the “personal pandemic parable” part of the blog post ends. From here on it’s all about SSBI. If you’re actually curious, I erred on the side of caution and started working from home and avoiding crowds before it was recommended or mandated. I still don’t know if all of the actions I’ve taken were necessary, but I’m glad I took them and I hope you all stay safe as well.

[5] As anyone who has ever implemented a single source of truth for any non-trivial data domain can attest.

[6] You can enjoy the lyrics even if Kreator’s awesome music isn’t to your taste.

Data culture and the centerline

I’m running behind on my own YouTube publishing duties[1], but that doesn’t keep me from watching[2] the occasional data culture YouTube video produced by others.

Like this one:

Ok… you may be confused. You may believe this video is not actually about data culture. This is an easy mistake to make, and you can be forgiven for making it, but the content of the video make its true subject very clear:

A new technology is introduced that changes the way people work and live. This new technology replaces existing and established technologies; it lets people do what they used to do in a new way – easier, faster, and further. It also lets people do things they couldn’t do before, and opens up new horizons of possibility.

The technology also brings risk and challenge. Some of this is because of the new capabilities, and some is because of the collision[3] between the new way and the old way of doing things. The old way and the new way aren’t completely compatible, but they use shared resources and sometimes things go wrong.

At the root of these challenges is users moving faster than any relevant authorities. Increasing numbers of people are seeing the value of the new technology, assuming the inherent risk[4], and embracing its capabilities while hoping for the best.

Different groups see the rising costs and devise solutions for these challenges. Some solutions are tactical, some are strategic. And eventually some champions emerge to push for the creation of standard solutions. Or standards plural, because there always seems to be more than one of those darned things.

Not everyone buys into the standards at first, but over time the standards are refined and… actually standardized.

This process doesn’t slow down the technology adoption. The process and the standards instead provide the necessary shape and structure for adoption to take place as safely as possible.

With the passage of time, users take for granted the safety standards as much as they take for granted the capabilities of the technology… and can’t imagine using one without the other.

For the life of me I can’t imagine why they kept doubling down on the “lane markings” analogy, but I’m actually happy they did. This approach may get more people paying attention – I can’t find any other data culture videos on YouTube with 488K views…

road-220058_640


[1] Part of this is because my wife has been out of town, and my increased parental responsibilities have reduced the free time I would normally spend filming and editing… but it’s mainly because I’m finding that talking coherently about data culture is harder for me than writing about data culture. I’ll get better, I assume. I hope.

[2] In this case, I watched while I was folding laundry. As one does.

[3] Yes, pun intended. No, I’m not sorry.

[4] Either through knowledge or through ignorance.

Video: A most delicious analogy

Every time I cook or bake something, I think about how the tasks and patterns present in making food have strong and significant parallels with building BI[1] solutions. At some point in the future I’m likely to write a “data mis en place” blog post, but for today I decided to take a more visual approach, starting with one of my favorite holiday recipes[2].

Check it out:

(Please forgive my clickbaitey title and thumbnail image. I was struggling to think of a meaningful title and image, and decided to have a little fun with this one.)

I won’t repeat all of the information from the video here, but I will share a view of what’s involved in making this self-service BI treat.

2019-12-17-12-52-36-894--VISIO

When visualized like this, the parallels between data development and reuse are probably a bit more obvious. Please take a look at the video, and see what others jump out at you.

And please let me know what you think. Seriously.


[1] And other types of software, but mainly BI these days.

[2] I published this recipe almost exactly a year ago. The timing isn’t intentional, but it’s interesting to me to see this pattern emerging as well…

It all comes down to culture

I talk about data culture a lot, and in my presentations I often emphasize how the most important success factor when adopting a tool like Power BI[1] is the culture of the organization, not the tool itself.

I talk about this a lot, but I think Caitie McCaffrey may have just had the final word.[2]

2019-10-24-12-47-22-722--msedge

I don’t think that Caitie was talking about the enterprise adoption of self-service business intelligence, but she could have been.

In my day job I get to talk to leaders from large companies around the world, and to see how they’re adopting and using Power BI, Azure. Before today I didn’t think of Moby Dick – I thought of Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina, which starts with this classic line:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Although the details vary, large companies that have successfully adopted managed self-service BI at scale have cultures with important aspects in common:

  • Leaders empower business users to work with data
  • Leaders trust business users to use data to make better decisions
  • IT supports business users with platforms and tools and with curated data sources
  • Business users work with the tools from IT and the guidance from leaders, and work within the guardrails and guidelines given to them for this use
  • Business and IT collaborate to deliver responsive solutions and mature/stable solutions, with clearly defined responsibilities between them

Companies that are successful with managed self-service BI do these things. Companies that are not successful do not. The details vary, but the pattern holds up again and again.

How do these roles and responsibilities relate to culture?

In many ways a culture is defined by the behaviors it rewards, the behaviors it allows, and the behaviors it punishes. A culture isn’t what you say – it’s what you do.

In the context of BI, having a culture with shared goals that enable business and IT to work together with the support from the company leaders is the key. If you have this culture, you can be successful with any tool. Some tools may be more helpful than others, and the culture will enable the selection of better tools over time, but the tool is not the most important factor. The culture – not the tool – inevitably determines success.

This is not to say that BI tools should not improve to be a bigger part of the solution. But to paraphrase Caitie… maybe you should let that white whale swim past.

 


[1] But definitely not only Power BI.

[2] He says unironically, before writing many more words.

Fiore’s Virtues of Business Intelligence

In the late 1300s and early 1400s, Fiore de’i Liberi was a knight, a diplomat, and a fencing master. He also wrote one of the most comprehensive treatises on medieval combat, his Flower of Battle, of which four copies survive in museums and private collections today. Fiore started – or was a significant evolutionary step in – one of the most important and long-lasting traditions in armed and unarmed combat.

In addition to detailed instruction on fighting with dagger, longsword, spear, and other weapons, Fiore’s manuscript included a preface with information about the virtues that any fencer[1] would need to be successful in combat.

MS_Ludwig_XV_13_32r.jpg

In the image above, Fiore pictures the seven blows of the sword, and his four virtues, each represented by a different animal[2][3]:

This Master with these swords signifies the seven blows of the sword. And the four animals signify four virtues, that is prudence, celerity, fortitude, and audacity. And whoever wants to be good in this art should have part in these virtues.

Fiore then goes on to describe each virtue in turn:

Prudence
No creature sees better than me, the Lynx.
And I always set things in order with compass and measure.

Celerity
I, the tiger, am so swift to run and to wheel
That even the bolt from the sky cannot overtake me.

Audacity
None carries a more ardent heart than me, the lion,
But to everyone I make an invitation to battle.

Fortitude
I am the elephant and I carry a castle as cargo,
And I do not kneel nor lose my footing.[4]

Step back and read this again: “And whoever wants to be good in this art should have part in these virtues.”

That’s right – Fiore was documenting best practices, 600+ years ago. And although I suspect that Fiore wasn’t thinking about business intelligence projects at the time, I do believe that these virtues are just as relevant to the slicing and dicing[5] we’re still doing today. Let me explain.

Prudence – “…I always set things in order with compass and measure“: A successful BI practitioner knows what needs to be done before a project can begin, and when additional work is required before they can get started. Initiating a project requires careful setup and planning, and moving before the prerequisites for success are in place can be disastrous.[6]

Celerity – “I… am so swift to run and to wheel that even the bolt from the sky cannot overtake me:  Business requirements change day to day and hour to hour. To succeed, a BI practitioner must be prepared to move quickly and decisively, engaging without delay when an opportunity presents itself – and also be prepared to change direction as the needs of the project change.

Audacity – “…to everyone I make an invitation to battle:  Any project declined presents an opening for another practitioner, another team, another tool, and this is likely to reduce opportunities over time. Saying yes to difficult projects – and succeeding in their execution – is necessary to ensure that future projects don’t pass you by.

Fortitude – “And I do not kneel nor lose my footing: When Fiore speaks of fortitude, he does not speak of the strength that comes from big muscles. He speaks of the strength that comes from structure, and balance. His “elephant with a castle on its back” is a perfect metaphor for a BI solution delivered quickly and confidently because of the solid and stable platform on which it is built. Success doesn’t come from the extra effort put in when delivering a solution – it comes from the care and planning that went into the overall data estate.

You may look at these virtues and see contradiction – how can you have prudence and audacity and celerity? The answer for BI is the same answer that it is for the sword: practice, training, and preparation. In both situations, whether you’re battling with an armed foe or battling with a difficult client, you need to apply the right virtues at the right times, and to understand both the big picture and the day to day steps that produce larger successes. In both situations you’re also facing complex and dynamic challenges where you need to quickly take advantage of opportunities as they arise, and create opportunities when they don’t appear on their own[7]. Fortunately, as BI practitioners we can rely on the strengths of our teams – it’s not always a solo battle.

You may also look at these virtues and see Matthew stretching to make the most tenuous of analogies work, just because he loves swords as much as he loves BI. While this may be true, I do honestly believe that these virtues do apply here. Over the past 20-25 years I have seen many projects succeed because these virtues were embodied by the people and teams involved, and I’ve seen many projects fail where these virtues were absent. This isn’t the only way to look at success factors… but at the moment it’s my favorite.

In closing, I’d like to mention that this post marks one year since I started this blog. In the past year I’ve published almost 90 posts, and have had roughly 50,000 visitors and 100,000 page views. Here’s hoping that by applying Fiore’s virtues I’ll be able to make the next year even more productive and more successful than the year that has passed.

Thanks to all of you who read what I write, and who provide feedback here and on Twitter – I couldn’t do it without you.


[1] Fencer in this context meaning someone who fights with swords or other edged weapons, not the Olympic-style sport of fencing that a modern reader might picture when reading the word.

[2] As translated by Michael Chidester and Colin Hatcher.

[3] Although it may not be obvious to the modern reader, the animal at the bottom is an elephant with a tower or castle on its back. I suspect that Fiore never actually saw an elephant.

[4] In case these terms don’t immediately have meaning, prudence == wisdom, celerity == speed, audacity == daring, and fortitude == strength.

[5] See what I did there?

[6] I assume that Fiore’s use of the term “measure” here is pure coincidence.

[7] If you’ve worked on a high-stakes, high-visibility BI project where requirements changed during implementation, or where not all stakeholders were fully committed to the project goals, this will probably feel very familiar.

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.