What is Agile BI?

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A question that is posed by many people is, “what is Agile BI, what does it mean?” Because it is not blindingly obvious, many think it is just another set of weasel words, being casually used to try and dress up offerings, and make them appear more than just the same old stuff being trotted out again. Surprisingly, for those who knew me, rather than supporting this cynical point of view I wish to dispel it, and affirm what these guys are trying to do.

For those of us who have worked in BI for many years, it has always been an area of contention. It does not really fit in an IT department, we lack their Enterprise mind set, going for quick turn around, flexible solutions, we have always been used to users who cannot articulate clearly what they want, so we have been flexible and tried to be responsive. On the other hand we have hardly ever been welcomed with open arms by the business community, because we have still been seen as too concerned with structure, maintainability, documentation and testing to do things fast enough to meet their demands.

Those who are selling solutions that would fit into the Agile BI camp that I have looked at of late include Endeca, who combine search with traditional BI to seamlessly access all data, whether it be in a SQL database or schema less; Tableau, who present the results in a visual rather than a tabular way; and Oryx from Accountagility, who provide end users the tools to extract, validate, manipulate and present their data in a single tool kit without the need for IT intervention, and without moving so far from the end users skill base in Excel as to disenfranchise them from being able to quickly pick it up and produce results.

All of these tools must be doing something right because the established players, instead of just ignoring them, are very quick to point out that they are not enterprise ready, they are just desktop tools aimed at BAs, and other put downs which indicate that there is more than a grain of virtue in what they do. I am not going to say they are perfect and can directly replace your BO or OBIEE suites, but what they are doing is questioning the orthodoxy that is constraining us today., and meeting a genuine need.

So what is Agile BI? It is a fundamental rethink about how BI should work, it is going back to the basics of addressing how to enable someone in the business who wishes to make a better decision, or to understand how the numbers stack up against plans to help themselves, quickly, using skills that they are familiar with, without the need for IT intervention to access data, select the bits that they want, manipulate it to address their need, and present the results so that they and their colleagues can use it to address business problems. In so doing they are going against many of the sacred cows of the past-there is no more single version of the truth, no more having to know SQL to be able to pass go. They are making big strides to deliver results that are quick to achieve, flexible enough to adapt to changing perspectives, and fundamentally are targeted at non-BI professionals in the business.

Where does that leave those of us who work in BI? Well, I think we have to espouse this trend and make it as easy as possible for the business to access reliable data wherever it may reside, by ensuring that through very IT specific skills, like Master Data Management, that all data is part of a unified version of the truth, using things like data virtualisation, making it easily accessible to the business, and to be there to help the business understand the data and the results they are obtaining, so they can apply their business knowledge rapidly and with assurance; and that is what Agile BI is all about.