Data’s Inferno: How Data Teams Can Escape Report Factory Hell

You deliver a requested report to a business colleague, but they aren’t happy.

They claim you didn’t effectively fill their request, or they have follow-up questions. Before you know it, you’ve spent hours generating low-level ad-hoc reports in an attempt to give them the answers they need.

Data's Inferno: How Data Teams Can Escape Report Factory Hell
Data’s Inferno: How Data Teams Can Escape Report Factory Hell

This is report factory hell, and it’s a terrible place to be. But don’t lose hope! You can escape — and this article will show you how. Read on to learn about the six circles of report factory hell and how data teams can:

  • Empower business teams to independently explore and analyze data
  • Strike a balance between data governance and data access
  • Get precious time back to focus on more interesting data projects
  • Accelerate time to data insight by collaborating with business teams

Content Summary

The Big Bang
Six Circles of Report Factory Hell
Gluttony
Greed
Anger
Heresy
Treachery
Limbo
The Great Divide
The Empty Promises of Self-Service Analytics
Deliverance Comes from the Cloud

You deliver a requested report to a business colleague, but they aren’t happy. They claim you didn’t effectively fill their request, or they have follow-up questions.

Before you know it, you’ve spent hours generating low-level, ad-hoc reports in an attempt to give them the answers they need. This is report factory hell, and it’s a terrible place to be.

But don’t lose hope. You can escape. Allow us to show you how.

The Big Bang

Over the last decade, the amount of data that is created, consumed, and stored has exploded. This exponential growth has been fueled by wearables, IoT, social media, and mobile phones. Just take a look at what’s created in just one internet minute!

IDC and IEMC project that data will grow to 40 ZB by 2020
IDC and EMC project that data will grow to 40 ZB by 2020

All of this data is a potential treasure trove for companies that can use it effectively. Combing through structured, unstructured, and semi-structured data, leading companies are hoping to find patterns, identify emerging trends, and extract insights that aren’t obvious from the surface — insights that will drive better decision-making and give them an edge over the competition. They’re employing data engineers, data scientists, and data analysts in record numbers to carry out these initiatives.

This is what happens in an internet minute
This is what happens in an internet minute

But despite the mountains of data at their fingertips, and armies of data experts at their disposal, most organizations are not enjoying data bliss. Most data teams have descended into the depths of report factory hell.

Six Circles of Report Factory Hell

Far from basking in a utopia of data-fueled insights, data teams find themselves bombarded with competing requests, working through a neverending queue of low-level ad-hoc reports. This renders them unable to tackle the high-value data projects that move the needle and provide the job satisfaction they’re seeking.

The descent usually follows this predictable pattern:

Gluttony

As the amount of data grows, the number of requests for reports, dashboards, and answers grows along with it. The needs of the many rely on the expertise of a few, resulting in a broken and bottlenecked process. And because these requests come from a variety of departments, there’s no real way to prioritize them — leaving everyone on the data team scrambling to complete dozens of “urgent” requests.

Greed

In today’s on-demand world, companies need to move lightning fast, and course-correct in real time to compete. The confidence that data-driven decision making can provide is appealing to business leaders across the organization. In every team and department, people need to be able to ask questions, get answers, and keep iterating to gain insights.

But this puts incredible strain on the data team. A sharp divide exists between those who speak the “language of data” and non-technical domain experts. Instead of investing in education, promoting data literacy, and laying the foundation for collaboration between these two camps, companies throw bodies and technology at the problem, setting everyone up for failure.

Anger

Business leaders tend to underestimate the complexity of their requests and overestimate what data teams have access to. Data teams are left operating with little context about the problems they’re being asked to solve and may find it difficult to present their findings in terms of business users understand. When data falls short of being the infallible guide business users expect, or a report takes weeks of back-and-forth and still isn’t quite right, they can lose confidence in the organization’s investment in data science.

Heresy

When business users start getting impatient and fail to see the value of the data team’s insights, they may take matters into their own hands. A dubious patchwork of data extracts and spreadsheet sprawl results in analyses that contradict each other. Confusion reigns when there’s no single source of truth.

Treachery

Ad-hoc requests are a major drain on the data team’s time and resources. Ad hoc is Latin for “as the occasion requires.” But business is ad hoc by nature. Competing requests pour in, inundating the data team with tedious, time-consuming, and often duplicate work. Some data analysts spend up to 50% of their time fulfilling ad-hoc requests.

When data governance is weak and people engage in shadow IT, data becomes a weapon. Sensitive information may find its way into dozens of downloaded spreadsheets. Ungoverned and insecure data increases the risk of security breaches and can violate data privacy laws, which is a huge liability in our post-GDPR world.

Limbo

These reports often lead to more questions, creating an endless loop of creation, presentation, and iteration. Even worse, these low-level reports tend to add little value to the org as a whole, leaving data teams with minimal time and resources to do broader, more strategic work with farther-reaching impact.

This is report factory hell. But how did we get here? And more importantly, how do we get out?

The Great Divide

The term “business intelligence” was coined by Richard Miller Devens in his 1865 work Cyclopaedia of Commercial and Business Anecdotes. He used it to describe how banker Sir Henry Furnese had put himself ahead of the competition by collecting and analyzing the information at his disposal to make better business decisions. At this point, the business expert and the person collecting and analyzing the data were the same. And the tools required to do this were little more than a pen and paper.

In the 1970s, relational databases were invented by Edgar F. Codd.
In the 1970s, relational databases were invented by Edgar F. Codd.

But starting in the 1950s, aided by the growth of computers and the birth of the digital era, business intelligence became a specialized occupation. As computing continued to mature throughout the 60s, the skills necessary to collect and translate data grew too complex for the average office worker to manage.

In the 1970s, relational databases were invented by Edgar F. Codd. SQL became the language of databases and created a gap between those who could access and interpret data and those who couldn’t but needed it to make business decisions.

For over a decade now, self-service analytics has been heralded as the solution that would bridge this gap, freeing data teams to focus on their work while giving business users the ability to get the reports they need to make better decisions. But in practice, self-service analytics has been a tremendous disappointment.

The Empty Promises of Self-Service Analytics

Gartner defines self-service analytics as “a form of business intelligence in which line-of-business professionals are enabled and encouraged to perform queries and generate reports on their own, with nominal IT support.”

By this definition, self-service analytics has been largely a myth. Far from “hands-off,” the tools that claim to offer self-service BI still require a significant amount of work from the IT department — not to mention loads of complicated SQL to set up, use, and maintain. Days, or even weeks, of specialized training and/or daily assists from the data team are necessary to answer even basic questions. Unsurprisingly, the adoption of these solutions hovers at a paltry 35%.

Business people know their jobs well, but most have modest technical abilities. Nobody can do everything. So as a way to satiate them, they’ve been given simplified, limited dashboards. But these don’t allow them to explore, ask questions, and uncover game-changing insights. Insights require domain expertise as well as data expertise.

Is it possible to deliver data teams from report factory hell and give business users the insights they desire?

Deliverance Comes from the Cloud

It’s possible to strike a balance between governance and freedom. Cloud data warehouses (CDWs) and Sigma are making the dream of true self-service BI possible. The cloud data stack incorporates core principles that were previously restricted to software development: version control, live data access, and connected environments. Sigma leverages the strengths of CDWs to bring business leaders back into the data conversation and give data teams the ability to help drive business outcomes.

  • Enable everyone to explore: Sigma’s spreadsheet-like interface is flexible, yet familiar, connecting business users directly to the cloud data warehouse— no SQL required. With some basic spreadsheet formulas, teams can explore and analyze billions of rows of data in real-time without writing a single line of code.
  • Focus on the work that matters: By empowering line-of-business experts to explore the data themselves, data teams are free to pursue higher priority work like uncovering new data sources, building new data models, and solving impactful problems so they can uncover more value for the organization. Sigma even has a SQL runner so you can make use of preexisting code.
  • Maintain security and compliance: This freedom and flexibility don’t come at the cost of security or control. Sigma sits on top of your existing cloud database, using a secure connection to query your data warehouse directly. Results of queries are returned in the browser – no data is ever stored at any time. Administrators can set permissions by team and namespace and can restrict data access directly from the database as well. Sigma is a single point-of-access for your data, so you can establish robust data governance, eliminate dangerous Excel extracts, and keep data off local PCs.
  • Reuse analyses and collaborate with others: Sigma empowers business and data users to collaborate to build more robust and contextual data models and foundational datasets. When everyone can share and build on each other’s work, the time to insight and data ROI is accelerated exponentially. Data in Sigma remains accurate and up-to-the-minute because it’s directly accessed from your CDW, so you never have to worry about duplicating efforts or creating redundant reports again. Sigma even offers the ability to write views back to your cloud data warehouse so you can reuse analyses across platforms.
  • Build, share, and embed powerful dashboards: Don’t limit your team to stale reports or dead-end dashboards. Using Sigma on top of your CDW, the data is always fresh and can be customized to fit any team’s needs. Dashboards and visualizations in Sigma can be shared directly or embedded in a private company portal, third-party application, or a public web page that’s available to anyone. Business users are free to go beyond the dashboard and explore the underlying data at will.

Source: Sigma Computing