The Wall Of Bound

“History does not repeat itself,” remarked the American author Mark Twain, “but it does rhyme.”

The evening of November 9th, 1989 was not unlike all other cold autumn evenings in the German Democratic Republic. At six o’clock sharp, a 45 year-old Lieutenant Harald Jäger arrives at the Bornholmer Strasse border-crossing and assumes command as the Chief Passport Officer in one of the many checkpoints that have divided the two Germanys since the end of the Second World War.

Earlier that day, Jäger had heard about a number of anti-government protests that erupted across various East German cities but, in contrast, throughout his twenty-eight years of service, he had never doubted the ideology of the ruling Communist leadership. “I was absolutely convinced we stood for the right things,” he declared years later.

One hour into his shift Jäger sat down to eat a sandwich and heard Günter Schabowski, the official spokesman for the ruling politburo, announce on television that travel restrictions would be eased and all East Germans permitted to cross the border “effective immediately, without delay.”

Jäger’s initial fear was that he had missed some official order and frantically telephoned Headquarters requesting clear instructions for himself and his fourteen men on the Berlin Wall’s front-line. But by then, all the East German apparatchiks had gone into hiding fearing for their lives. A relatively junior officer informed Jäger that, “I have no order from above and no orders for you.”

Over the next few hours the initial trickle of curious East Germans swelled into a large angry crowd demanding to be allowed across the border. “That’s the moment when I said to myself, ‘It’s up to you to act’,” reminisced Jäger, years later. Around 11.30pm he told his by-now frightened subordinates: “Open the barrier!” and in this way wrote his name in history’s annals.

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

The traditional definition of Business Intelligence (BI) has long been held to encompass ‘the set of techniques and tools for the transformation of raw data into meaningful and useful information for business analysis purposes.’ A BI platform is often promoted as ‘capable of handling large amounts of unstructured data to help identify, develop and otherwise create new strategic business opportunities.’

Business organisations have generally turned to BI platforms to harness their ever-increasing mountains of corporate data in order to identify potential opportunities whilst ‘implementing an effective strategy based on insights [which] can provide a competitive market advantage and long-term stability.’

The importance and value of BI platforms to organisations have nurtured an approach in which data analysis has tended to be ‘highly governed and centralised, where IT-authored production reports were pushed out to inform a broad array of information consumers and analysts.’

Just like Lieutenant Jäger in 1989, few business organisations have tended to question the prevailing status quo, albeit with respect to the traditional BI model. The need for strong IT-centric control and corporate data security justified a high-degree of BI governance. However, as with most other aspects of technology, this approach is being sharply challenged by emerging business paradigms as well as business users themselves.

The recently-published Gartner annual report on the Business Intelligence and Analytics market, entitled ‘Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence and Analytics Platforms,’ described how ‘… a wider range of business users are demanding access to interactive styles of analysis and insights from advanced analytics, without requiring them to have IT or data science skills.’

The leading BI platforms within the 2015 Gartner’s Magic Quadrant, such as Tableau and Qlik, provide strong user-driven data-discovery capabilities (‘information pull’) that somehow challenge the traditional, IT-centric (‘information push’) implementations through the need for a new data governance mind-set.

The Gartner reports describes how ‘…this [BI] shift to a decentralised model that is empowering more business users also drives the need for a governed data-discovery approach.’ In a situation somehow analogous to 1989 Germany, Gartner underscores the current dilemma by describing how, ‘… as demand from business-users for pervasive access to data-discovery capabilities grows, IT wants to deliver on this requirement without sacrificing governance.’

This seemingly contemporary challenge is, however, hardly original and Gartner describes the decentralisation of IT-centric BI platforms as ‘a continuation of a six-year trend’ and recommends ‘making analytics more accessible and pervasive to a broader range of users [as] the primary goal of organisations making this transition’ albeit in a managed and governed manner.

When, in mid-1989, Hungary withdrew its border controls with Austria, more than 13,000 East German ‘tourists’ escaped the East German oppressive regime through Hungary to Austria. In this way, they by-passed the strict border control in their native land to achieve their objective.

Similarly, as business organisations enforced a centralised, IT-centric, BI environment, they tended to observe a proliferation of seemingly-BI dashboards based on Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. But can standalone Microsoft Excel fulfil the role of a user-driven BI platform?

Locked access to analytics

Whilst Microsoft Excel has never been intended to serve as a dedicated BI platform, users have sought to adapt it as one, generally to bypass internal governance, in order to analyse and report on corporate data. In the process they generally spend significant (and expensive) time collating imprecise data from various dubious sources, parsing it and converting it into (frequently) out-of-date information across oft-untested spreadsheets. Such uncontrolled and ungoverned development tends to circumvent every rule, business procedure and even development standards, in order to achieve some business-critical objective with dubious value to the respective organisation.

Rather than adapt an all-purpose tool to achieve a pale veneer of analytics, business organisations should consider a proper and formal BI platform, particularly since “software vendors are increasingly embedding traditional reporting, dashboards and interactive analysis into business processes or applications. They are also incorporating more advanced and prescriptive analytics built from statistical functions and algorithms available within the BI platform into analytics applications. Such functionality will deliver insights to a broader range of analytics users that lack advanced analytics skills.”

The demise of the German Democratic Republic is now ineradicably written in the annals of history and we can only look back at those momentous days. In contrast, business organisations should learn from history and, with users baying for a higher degree of data-discovery capabilities, navigate towards a convergent BI platform environment rather than hastily capitulate to these escalating demands.

Gartner points in the direction of “a more decentralised and bi-modal governed data-discovery approach to BI.” Rather than rush towards a wholly devolved BI arrangement, Gartner underscores a model within which “business users and analysts [have] access to self-service capabilities beyond data-discovery and interactive visualisation [using] IT-curated data sources.

Such a model somewhat balances the need for unavoidable data governance whilst concurrently providing a raised degree of user-empowerment to analyse corporate data and discern business trends in a sufficient time-frame to afford action upon the resulting analytics.

The Berlin Wall was reputedly erected to protect the East German population “from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the ‘will of the people.’” However, it was clear from the outset that it was intended to prevent the anticipated mass-emigration and defections that characterised that side of Germany from just after the Second World War. Its fall paved the way for the reunification of Germany in 1990.

Strict corporate governance is often justified as necessary to protect valuable corporate data and prevent it from falling into the hands of the competition. However, this data is often electronically ‘locked’ away from the very stakeholders who have the potential to enrich, improve and augment its timely and profitable value. The lessening of discouraging barriers could potentially pave the way for stronger business value.

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

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