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SECURITY

Open Data Access: Is it really the Wild West?

Rob Woollen 

CEO, Sigma

It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the importance of data over the years. When I was at Salesforce, I remember many of our customers setting strategic goals to be “data-driven” at some point in the future. It seems like that time has come, as having a data-driven strategy has become an actual necessity, not just a competitive advantage.

Companies are hiring more data scientists and analysts, investing in business intelligence tools, and encouraging all employees to be more data driven. Despite this urgency, however, BI adoption among employees is only around 30 percent. Which begs the question: how can you be data-driven if everyone making decisions doesn’t have access to analytics?

Organizations are still figuring out the “how” of being data driven. When I talk with our customers about how they’ve approached the “how”, they often tell me that they’ve been forced to choose between two bad scenarios.

30%

The rate of BI adoption
of all employees.

A tale of two bad options

The ivory tower

I’ve seen this a lot as a tech leader—the limiting of data access to the analytics team in an attempt to keep the data safe. And while I understand why a CIO might think this is the best option (especially in our world of growing data security laws), believe me when I say this just won’t work.

We live and work in an age where people analyze and process more information everyday. I’ve watched analytics teams struggle to keep up with the volume and specificity of requests from business users. Data team members often find that they don’t have the domain knowledge to fully answer a business user’s question on the first attempt.

The Wild West

Depending on who you ask, complete open data access is the most progressive action a company can take, or the most frightening. I’ve seen too many companies try to clear the analytics team bottleneck by being lax about permissions. As you can imagine, this won’t fly in a GDPR world. Companies can’t afford the risk that comes with giving out unjustified access to sensitive data.

Depending on who you ask, complete open data access is the most progressive action a company can take, or the most frightening.

And here’s one more head scratching thing about the Wild West environment that I’ve seen: spreadsheet sprawl. Because there’s no centralized environment, employees—often on the same team—are doing the same or very similar analyses. Is unrestricted access really worth that much wasted time and money?

So if the only options are Ivory Tower or Wild West, then yes, BI adoption will continue to lag. But the way I see it, there is a third way that both protects data and opens the door to broader access for those who need data to inform their decisions.

During my time as a CTO, a product management leader, and an entrepreneur in residence, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time thinking about how this “third way” is the future for data-driven organizations.

It’s time to bridge the analytics gap between data and business teams. 

Here’s why I think organizations have to forge a new path:

 Everyone can’t be good at everything

 

There are only so many ninjas, rockstars, and gurus to go around. And you’ll need every one of them get the full value out of most BI tools. Why? Because they often require one person to be “really good” at at least two different things: (1) using the BI tool itself and (2) understanding part(s) of the business well enough to make informed decisions.

You could say that some tools force companies into the Ivory Tower model. It requires employees to perform tasks outside of their domain in order to do their jobs. For example, a data team should be focused on centralized reporting and being a resource on analytics best practices, not getting into the minutiae of any particular business function. And on the other side, domain experts should be focused on driving forward business initiatives, not learning how to code well enough to answer questions.

Those closest to the data—marketers, product managers, salespeople, customer service reps—should be able to contribute to the conversation without having to overcome technical hurdles.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that everyone needs competency with a BI tool in order to access data. But why should it require knowledge of a programming language? It’s possible to give compliance and ease of use equal footing.

The future of BI tools allow individuals to be good (and get better) at what they were actually hired to do.

 People are smart

People are smart. That’s why you hire them.

When I think of the people most likely to dive head-first into data and analytics, my mind goes to the people at the top of their individual disciplines (i.e., the nerds). Yes there are computer nerds and data nerds, but there are also sales nerds and marketing nerds—people who have a deep knowledge of why people buy things and how to reach them. They have years of experience and intuition, but crave the data and analytics resources that help them execute more precise strategies.

So I think companies sometimes veer into Wild West territory because they respect their employees. They just want to empower them. Empowerment and accessibility sometimes comes in the form of self-service BI tools. A major problem with many of them is that they usually limit business users access to pre-defined data models.

Thus exemplifies a fundamental problem with most self-service BI vendors—they don’t understand what business users need. Almost every user in the company is trying to find a way to get the data into a spreadsheet and then play with it. The Wild West-Ivory Tower tug-of-war rages on.

Data analysis is now for everyone, and an easy-to-use BI tool belongs in a business person’s toolkit as much a salesforce automation, marketing automation, or project management tool does.

 Cloud innovations facilitate collaboration and compliance

People are smart and curious. And if they really want a question answered, they’re going to find a way to do it. So while putting data on lockdown may seem like the best way to stay compliant, it can actually create more risk—like employees downloading spreadsheets onto their machines. The Ivory Tower can become the Wild West without any input from IT.

So how do you create this “Goldilocks” environment? First, give employees secure, controlled access to the data that they need. This will give you the peace of mind that users can’t break anything because they can’t actually modify the data warehouse.

Next, provide an interface that is familiar and intuitive, and that users will stay in. People know spreadsheet interfaces. People don’t know proprietary programming languages. In addition to preventing spreadsheet sprawl, staying in a shared platform also facilitates collaboration, as individuals can easily share and build on each other’s work.

These capabilities are already available today. The cloud analytics stack incorporates core ideas that for a long time were only associated with software development: version control, always working with live data, and connected environments. At Sigma, we’ve brought these principles to the BI space, making compliance and true self-service possible.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Woollen

Rob has over 20 years of experience building distributed and cloud systems. He spent 6 years at Salesforce.com serving as the CTO for the Salesforce Platform and Work.com and Sr Vice President, Platform Product Management. Rob holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Princeton University.