Invisible BI Tools

Nov 25, 2013

"Communications tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring."

-Clay Shirky, Author of Here Comes Everybody

There can be some push back from users when an institution transitions to a new tool for reporting (or anything). Time and resources spent to learn something new and adopt a new routine can be understandably frustrating or overwhelming. Shirky, a writer and lecturer who specializes in the economic effects of Internet technologies, specifies "communications" tools and "social" impacts in the quote above but it can also be applied to Business Intelligence (BI) tools and institutional impacts. Initial setup of BI requires a great deal of coordinated effort behind the scenes no matter what flashy vendor marketing might suggest. After that, the best tools should ideally disappear for the end user.

There is certainly no shortage of BI products on the market. It is easy to get lost in the bells and whistles. However, nothing demonstrates the strength of a BI product like seeing the tool fade to the background for a user and witnessing the possibilities take over.

Conducting an on-site client-tailored training session on SAP Business Objects, I got a sense - to mix metaphors - of the light bulb at the end of the tunnel going off for the users in class. There is usually an "aha!" moment for people in training when they see what they can do with the tool. But first there is the technical and conceptual struggle that must be overcome. One must traverse the initial darkness of the tunnel before arriving at the light bulb. For a lot of people this is not a gradual, "Oh I see the light getting closer now..." process but rather darkness, darkness, darkness, until TA-DA, the bulb of illumination flashes.

I was fortunate enough to witness this moment while conducting the training session. As the users arrived for class, some of them were enthusiastic, others skeptical. After introducing the basics of the tool, we went through demonstrations and exercises using the institution's own data and reports they requested based on their needs. Throughout the session they became more comfortable with the Business Objects interface but it was clear that many remained in the dark tunnel regarding its potential applications. Eventually, however, flashes started going off around the room.

FLASH: "So we can put in whatever year or date we want here?"

FLASH: "We can filter this report by multiple academic programs?"

FLASH: "We can limit editing access to specific users?"

FLASH: "And we can do year-over-year comparisons?


The hands-on learning exercises provided were quickly forgotten as they ventured off to create their own reports. Users need time and training for a BI tool to become, in Shirky's words, "boring," so that they can focus on what it allows them to do instead. Once that happens, the institution will have a great deal more potential to leverage data for reporting and analysis.