How to Succeed With Self-Service Analytics, Part III: Trust But Verify New Reports

Read - How to Succeed with Self-Service Analytics, Part I: Pitfalls and Paradoxes

Read - How to Succeed with Self-Service Analytics, Part II: Know Thy Customer

When business leaders discover the existence of self-service analytics tools, they jump for joy. Frustrated by their dependence on the information technology (IT) department for data and dashboards, they eagerly purchase licenses and tell their data analysts to “go at it.” It doesn’t take long before those same business leaders (and their IT counterparts) cry “uncle!” as they become awash in conflicting reports and dashboards that cause confusion and distrust among business users. The promised land of self-service empowerment quickly descends into hellish data chaos. 

Part 1 of this series outlined the pitfalls, paradoxes, and fallacies of self-service analytics, while Part 2 counseled readers to take an inventory of business users and then tailor self-service capabilities to unique information needs. This article shows how to govern reports, the output of self-service analytics. The goal is to implement lightweight controls that channel user empowerment without creating data chaos and misalignment. 

Governance Dynamics. Most business users reflexively dislike governance of any kind. They think governance processes slow them down, undermine their effectiveness, and make it more difficult to achieve their goals. Yet, without governance, self-service goes awry quickly.

For governance to work, business users must embrace it. They must see it as an incentive, not an obstacle or punishment.

For governance to work, business users must embrace it. They must see it as an incentive, not an obstacle or punishment. If that happens, self-service works and the business reaps the benefits. If not, it’s data chaos. There are several ways to create governance incentives, as we’ll see below. In addition, for governance to work, it must be lightweight and efficient: there must be service level agreements (SLAs) associated with each step in the governance process so business users know they won’t be caught in another perpetual IT backlog.

Report Governance 

Gateway. The first step in governing self-service is to establish a report governance gateway for enterprise reports. The gateway governs the distribution of reports created by power users to the broader community of casual users. If power users want their reports consumed by the enterprise, they must submit their report (or a change to an approved report) through the gateway. (Business units and departments can also establish report governance gateways for their own reports, if desired.) The gateway consists of three components: 1) a report governance review 2) a production handoff and 3) platform permissions. (See figure 1.)

Figure 1. Report Governance Gateway

Power users submit reports through a report governance gateway before they are distributed broadly to casual users.

Report Governance Review. Power users kick off the report governance process by completing a form that describes the new report or requested changes to an existing report. Typically, the analytics director or a triage committee review the form for completeness and clarity and then passes it to an enterprise Review Board. With an SLA of 2 to 6 days, the board reviews the proposed changes for conformance with corporate data and design standards. If everything checks out, the board passes the request to a technical sub-committee which reviews the report’s SQL code, APIs, and query performance. If approved, the report receives a watermark or seal of approval that is affixed to the report with a time-stamp indicating the date of approval. (See figure 2.) 

Figure 2. Report Governance Process

The chart depicts a generic process for governing enterprise and departmental reports. Reports that aren’t governed are stored in a personal workspace and shared according to platform permissions. 

Watermark. The seal of approval is the incentive that drives power users to submit to the governance process instead of willy-nilly distributing their report to whoever expresses interest in it. The seal is a powerful change agent because it gives business users confidence that they can trust the figures in the report. As one data analytics leader said, “Our watermark has really changed behavior in our organization. When executives open a [self-service] report, they first look for the watermark in the bottom right corner. If it’s not there, they ask why not and question the data.”  

This doesn’t mean that every report needs a watermark. Far from it. There is a role for “non-certified” reports that answer a point-in-time question or are used by a department or workgroup outside of the governance domain. One data analytics leader once told me that he adhered to the 80/20 rule: 80% of reports should be standard reports created or certified by the corporate BI team, while 20% are non-standard reports created by business units and departments for ad hoc analysis. 

Production Handoff. Sometimes, a power user (or IT professional) submits a report in Excel or another non-standard format. In this case, the Review Board decides whether the report should be rewritten in a standard format. Also, the new report might contain data not in the existing data warehouse or data lake. Again, the Review Board needs to decide whether to extend the data warehouse with new data before approving the report. 

Some companies support an array of “enterprise standard” reports written in different tools and formats, while others do not. Often, the deciding factor is query performance and data security. Users won’t use a standard enterprise report if it is too slow, and the IT team won’t release a report if it can’t protect against unauthorized access. 

Platform Permissions. The best way to govern self-service activity is to set the default mode for publishing reports to “Self Only.” This means that business users can create or modify a report or dashboard but they can’t share it with others. The report creator can store the report in a personal workspace for future reference, or they can print out the report and show it to a business leader or sponsor. The only thing they can’t do is electronically send the report to someone else.

Controlling permissions to hit the “send” button on a report is the key to governance, but few companies think to do this until it’s too late.

Controlling permissions to hit the “send” button on a report is the key to governance, but few companies think to do this until it’s too late. Also, some business intelligence (BI) tools don’t support personal workspaces, which makes it impossible to shut down the report floodgates before it’s too late. 

Analyst Certification 

Another way to incent business users to embrace governance is to require them to demonstrate their knowledge of corporate data, standards, and tooling before receiving a license to a self-service analytics tool or access to corporate data repositories. This can be done through training courses or certification tests or a combination of the two. The data analytics leader quoted above also said, “We require our data analysts to pass two tests to get a license [to a self-service tool.]” With rights come responsibilities!

To get certified, business users should demonstrate that they know the company’s key metrics, filters, and hierarchies, how they are defined and calculated, logically and in SQL. They should also be familiar with the company’s visual design standards and templates and know how to use them correctly. They should also know how to navigate the data warehouse or local data mart and know how to use the self-service tool. Some companies also require users to know basic SQL and statistical and numeracy concepts. 

Some business users might object to certification—putting rights ahead of responsibilities—but over time the majority will see certification as a badge honor. They will aspire to move through multiple tiers of certification to gain status, prestige, advance their careers, and perform more rewarding work. This quickly becomes a self-reinforcing cycle as business users who have achieved “status” motivate others to go through the process. 


Self-service analytics without governance is a disaster. But governance without empowerment is a bureaucratic nightmare. To balance the two, companies need to turn governance into an incentive that business users embrace because they get something they want—a seal of approval or access to a self-service tool and data. 

Companies that want to succeed with self-service analytics need to abide by two mantras: 

  1. Trust but verify. To get a seal of approval, you need to go through the report governance gateway

  2. With rights, come responsibilities. To get a self-service license and access to data, you need to demonstrate knowledge of corporate data and visualization standards.   

Report governance won’t work without supporting teams and technology. The next article in this series will review the types of committees, teams, technology, and tools required to support self-service analytics. 

Read - How to Succeed With Self-Service Analytics, Part IV: Roles, Teams, and Push-Down Development

Wayne Eckerson

Wayne Eckerson is an internationally recognized thought leader in the business intelligence and analytics field. He is a sought-after consultant and noted speaker who thinks critically, writes clearly and presents...

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