Somewhere during the thousands of Business Intelligence demos I’ve done over the years, I realized that customers where confusing reporting and self-service BI. The reason is that reporting solutions started to have more and more high end visuals (think dashboards) and customers wanted more interaction with those dashboards. Therefore, I developed this simple strategy to help people know the difference between when they need a visual dashboard solution and when they needed a self-service BI tool.

1. Do users need to see just one dashboard once a month and don’t need to interact with the dashboard – reporting.
2. Do users want to interact with the dashboard to get a different look at the data – reporting OR self-service BI

The question is how to know the difference in number 2 above? The answer—parameters and level of effort.

Parameters in reporting allows developers to put in a check box or drop down menu to pre-select a field. For example, United States may be a field and then a drop down allows you to choose which state. This changes the report to reflect the change from displaying all of USA to data contained within just one state. The demarcation between building a number of different reports with lots of parameters is the level of effort required to maintain and support hundreds, if not thousands of reports.

The simple key I used with my customers is the idea of hierarchy. How many levels down of hierarchy are you willing to support through custom development? Hierarchy Top – United States. Down one Level – States. Down 2 Levels Counties. Down 3 levels Cities. Down 4 levels Zip Codes.

You can see that going from United States to States is really going from 1 field to 50 (number of states in the USA). Going from state to counties — from 50 to 3,077. Going from Counties to cities is even more complicated because what is a city? But zip codes – 40,000.

So, who wants to write a report that has a drop down pick list of 40,000? Then that is the decision point to go to self-service BI and separate the data layer from the presentation layer.

What I can’t tell anyone is where is that decision point. I have had some customers ok with having five report writers maintaining thousands of parameterized reports. Other customers said no way, and went 100% to a self-service BI tool and maintained no reports. Most companies choose something in the middle and maintain some standard reports, but know when to tell a user that they can use a BI tool to get the answer they want.