"Data Democratization": Treading the Line Between Empowerment and Anarchy

“Data Democratization” is one of those phrases that is quickly losing its meaning through overuse. It may be one of the defining technology trends of this decade; however, tracking alongside “Big Data”, it risks devolving into a buzz term, bandied about too frivolously.

Data optimists view “democratization” as a shepherd for the real-time, insight-driven business of tomorrow – when the totality of business information is meaningful and available to decision-makers at all levels.  As with most aspects of business information, it’s not the data that makes it meaningful, but instead the analytics that reveal new insights.  Business analysts have struggled for years to make data relevant, meaningful and actionable.  Direct access to this information was, until recently, only the province of back-office analysts, working deeply in databases and statistics, and analytics “power users.” The tools at their disposal were fiendishly complicated and proprietary.

The walls that separate business users from their data are being broken down by self-service data discovery and analytics solutions with easy-to-grasp interfaces.  By putting intuitive analytical tools in the hands of business users who can fully contextualize the information, an idyllic future stretches out before us. It’s an attractive prospect: the ability to take complex data and distil it into a user-friendly visualization that a business user really “gets.”

Next-generation user interfaces have been designed to include intuitive data visualizations, drag and drop features, and quick connections to any data source. Armed with these keys to the data-driven kingdom, professionals at every level can address an enduring challenge: having to make decisions based on partial information, gut feel, and guesswork. The easy to use visualizations inherent to many self-service data discovery and analytics platforms offer a level of accessibility and control that will make them feel empowered to drive strategy forward, impress the boss, and lead a more insightful business unit.

And as usual, this level of freedom often comes at a cost.                      

While they have put more information in the hands of more users, the vast majority of self-service data discovery and analytics solutions sidestep an important aspect: data governance. Democratization of data, in the form of self-service without governance, is a false economy. As business users download and implement those solutions without some centralized control over which users have access to what data, or with an eye to security, privacy, and compliance concerns, the progression of organizations to becoming an analytical enterprise is compromised.

While the analytical enterprise of the future requires that all employees be fully engaged by data-driven insight, there is a vital balance to be struck between data empowerment and data anarchy. Many do-it-yourself analytics platforms have the potential to keep a company’s most valuable asset – data – from reaching its full, multi-faceted potential at the fingertips of the power user if the business user is over-indulged. At the same time, businesses that don’t take the data discovery bull by the horns will find that individual employees have been doing it themselves – and developing many different answers to the same question.

“Governance” may conjure visions of bureaucracy and red tape, loss of agility, and hindered growth; but these days, it’s possible to couple agile analytics with the centralization and security of a more traditional enterprise BI solution. IT decision-makers and business users alike can rest assured that the two are not mutually exclusive. In expecting the very best from their analytics solutions, business leaders can ensure they have access to both the scalability and agility of self-service solutions and the governance to plug it into a larger system, and generate a collective view. 

Governed data discovery is the next phase of the “data democratization” movement. Placing self-service business analytics platforms in the hands of every business user empowers them to make better decisions and add more value. It’s time for the data-driven leaders within every organization to ensure that this opportunity to reap real benefits from accessible, easy-to-grasp visualizations doesn’t pass them by. In today’s business environment, it is a standard business requirement to drive insightful, hyper-informed decision-making.



Michael Hiskey is Chief Product Evangelist at MicroStrategy


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