Michael Starostin is the chief technology officer and a founder of PlexHosted, a cloud-based hosting company that specializes in managed SharePoint site deployments and associated infrastructure applications. Based on his experience with a host of companies implementing and extending their use of SharePoint Server, Starostin shared his insight into the best ways to leverage the business intelligence features provided via SharePoint 2013.

SharePoint Pro: What do people need to know about business intelligence in SharePoint 2013?

Starostin: Business intelligence in SharePoint 2013 is a broad technology tool designed to meet the needs of many users in the company. Its range of offerings can help end users see and sometimes resolve many analytical issues. To get a better understanding of the flexibility of the BI platform, it is best to understand the big picture that describes the components, life cycle, and integration mechanisms.

The BI platform is a primary component in Microsoft’s broader “self-service” strategy that allows end users to develop some of their own IT solutions in a controlled environment. These BI tools integrate across Microsoft Office applications and other technologies.

Are specialized skills required to use these tools?

No. All tools are available for any end user to allow them to build their own personalized reports and analytical queries without involving IT personnel in the process. This is the very definition of self-service BI, or SSBI.

So, does that take IT totally out of the picture when it comes to BI and SharePoint?

Self-service BI does not exclude the need for IT to deploy the tools and provide assistance and training. It continues to be Microsoft’s vision to provide BI tools for all users’ access to data to make informed decisions. The flexibility to use familiar tools such as MS Excel and MS Visio simplifies data analysis for all end users. If you understand how many people are familiar with Excel, you can easily see why the SSBI strategy works.

If an organization needs very advanced BI capabilities, will they find them in SharePoint 2013? What other tools does Microsoft make available for organizations that need more?

There are three levels of BI, with associated BI tools, available from Microsoft:

Organizational BI:

  • Excel Services
  • PerformancePoint Services
  • Reporting Services
  • Dashboard Designer
  • Report Designer

Team BI:

  • Excel Services
  • PowerPivot for SharePoint
  • PerformancePoint Services
  • Reporting Services
  • Visio Services
  • Dashboard Designer
  • Report Designer
  • Power View

Self-Service and Personal BI:

  • Excel, Power View and PowerPivot Services
  • Report Builder
  • Visio

SharePoint 2013 Server is an intermediate platform between the personal and organizational levels of the BI software components that expand ease of use. It consists of a SQL Server, SharePoint Server, and MS Office end user BI tools. Generally speaking, the set of BI software components provides users with a wide variety of data analysis tools that can be used for personal reporting as well as enterprise-level reporting.

Can you break down the typical—or maybe optimal—users and use cases for each of these categories?

Organizational BI:

One of the popular ways to deliver BI to company employees is to provide access to metrics that illustrate the company’s results in comparison to goals and historical trends. This data can be broken down to smaller pieces which show the contribution of individual departments to department employees, or aggregated to a higher level for executives. Since information that exists in this BI level is usually built from approved company data sources, this type of BI solution needs to support only online viewing, with limited interaction by users.

Business users in Organizational BI solutions tend to be consumers of existing content rather than contributors. The role of the contributors in this layer is primarily taken on by BI developers, IT professionals, and analysts

Team BI:

The main differences between Team BI and Organizational BI are the scope of the information provided to the target audience and a greater participation in the content development/contribution process by the team community. In this case the Team BI infrastructure provides an opportunity for the team to use the information collaboratively to reach a common goal. Data for Team BI analysis often comes from approved company sources and may be stored similar to that used by Organization BI. However, the scope of data tends to be more focused and contains data of interest to a specific community or group.

Team BI solutions often use the same tools that are prevalent in organizational BI. In addition, Team BI might also include such SharePoint BI tools as Microsoft Visio Services, and PowerPivot for SharePoint as additional options for creating and sharing content.

Self-Service and Personal BI:

The whole point of building BI infrastructures is to deliver to the end users the ability to access information when they need it, on a self-service basis, without the need for standard reports that have limited interactivity or require the involvement of additional personnel for its production. The reports might have parameters with which users can filter information, or they might make it possible for the users to continue to extract more detail as incrementally required. These types of reports are typically built to answer a specific question the user might have.  In many typical cases when new questions arise users get back to IT to get new reports. This causes a delay in acquiring the information by the user and can create unnecessary demand on IT personnel. Successful implementation of a self-service BI environment will make important information more readily available and reduce the amount of report requests that IT should handle.

Alternatively the end users may consider using data outside the normal internal data sources to make decisions, e.g., industry trends or business partner information that can be easily compiled together.

It sounds like “BI for the masses,” which is interesting given how the technology really used to be on a pedestal—understood and used by only a chosen few. What are the big-picture benefits of more people participating in the BI process?

Casual users are more likely to use Excel and Report Builder, whereas power users might use any of these tools, as applicable to the task at hand to create documents for individual reference or share documents with a Team BI community by publishing it to a SharePoint document library.

By using SharePoint 2013 and other stand-alone tools, business users can benefit from learning about the end-to-end process for finding and presenting insights to decision-makers. Business users know that trusted insights can change company behavior and decisions, which can ultimately help to lead the company in the right direction.

How is your company using SharePoint for BI? What successes/challenges have you experienced? Please let us know in the comments section below.