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Drilldown specification in BI– it’s harder than the demo makes out August 27, 2006

Posted by Cyril Brookes in BI Requirements Definition, General, Issues in building BI reporting systems, Stafford Beer.

We’ve all sat through those glitzy demonstrations of canned detailed reporting – solving hypothetical problems that may never exist in practice, or if they have existed, will never be repeated again in the same form. 

Drilldown is, in my opinion, one of the hardest aspects to specify and implement effectively in a BI reporting system.  Unfortunately, it is also probably the most hyped “silver-bullet” keyword of BI software marketing speak. 

You cannot build a detailed report for a problem situation that doesn’t yet exist.  Even if the type of problem, say a debtor’s default, is predictable, the specifics will always vary.  You can only create an environment to make such reporting easier. 

Further the nature of that reporting environment is often complex, involving hypothetical database specification and modelling capability – as I will discuss in a later post. 

Drilldown is, of course, a modern descriptor for part of Stafford Beer’s Amplification concept. 

In my posts of July 7 and July 28, I introduced and discussed Stafford’s distinction between Attenuation and Amplification reporting in the corporate BI context. In summary:  Attenuation reporting is pre-specified and pre-formatted reporting of information that empowers executives:

  • To be aware of, and able to assess the implications of, the current state of the business, and
  • To be alerted to actual or potential unusual or unacceptable situations. 

Or more colloquially:  Where are we?  What is good and bad about where we are?  What is unusual or forecast that I need to know about? 

Therefore, Attenuation style reporting makes executives comfortable they know what is happening in their part of the business, and that they are alerted to any problems that can be discovered from the data available.  Amplification reporting is more difficult to pin down, since it is only required when a problem, or apparent problem, has been identified. 

If Attenuation is about finding problems, Amplification is about solving them.  

By this definition, then, Amplification reporting – or Drilldown if you prefer the current term – is difficult to pre-specify or pre-format because we cannot be sure of the exact nature and context of the problem.  

In the good old/bad old days of this technology, we used the terms Executive Information Systems for the first type of reporting, and Decision Support Systems for the second.  Now it’s all encapsulated in the BI terminology.   The names change, but the issues remain the same. 

But I diverge. 

Drilldown has three basic objectives, as I see it, drawing from classic decision theory – as per, say, Herbert Simon.  It is to empower our client executives to: Diagnose the problem/opportunity we have helped them find (using Attenuation reporting).  How bad is it?  What will happen if we do nothing?

For Diagnosis support, the minimum requirement is more detailed data.  Exactly how more detailed, and over what time periods, can only be determined through appropriate research and interviews with client executives.  However, models that can answer “what-if” queries, and statistical analysis tools may also be valuable.

Determine the available options for solving the problem – or capitalizing on the opportunity

Options may be selected from past experience, or suggestions from experts.  Support for this aspect of Drilldown is often based on knowledge sharing and tacit information management tools – see my post of July 27. 

Assessing the implications of each of the apparently viable alternatives

Feasibility validation and outcome assessments of options may require pre-specified models, or at least partly constructed versions that can be adapted to the problem situation when it is known.  Assessments of the anticipated outcomes of the viable alternatives are often the key information elements required to support decision making and the BI system should include these if at all practicable. 

Many people think that Drilldown is only about getting more detailed data, but clearly the client executive is likely to want more – just like Oliver Twist.  A quality BI environment design will go much further as discussed above, but at least will extend to a full review of what that “more detail” should be, and how it is to be collected for inquiry and ad-hoc reporting. 

 After all that, it’s up to the executives to judge which alternative is best, i.e. make a decision.   

I will cover these Drilldown component steps in more detail in a later post.  If you want more detail immediately, you can see how these concepts are implemented in the BI requirements methodology at www.bipathfinder.com and how the metadata that supports the method is documented at www.bidocumenter.com 

Your comments on the accuracy and utility of this material are welcome.



1. Boardroom BI – It’s Different from Executives’ Corporate Performance Reporting « Cyril on Business Intelligence - November 7, 2006

[…] Obviously it is the independent directors’ reporting requirements that are the subject of this discussion.  The CEO and an Executive Chairman will normally be served by a conventional BI specification – my posts of August 27 and July 28 summarize my approach to specifying executive reporting..  The CEO and other executives have a focus on KPIs, performance metrics, and progress against plans or other benchmarks.  Their needs are the main driving force behind data warehouse design, data modeling, cube specification, metadata documentation, etc.  This is the mainstream of corporate BI and is certainly over-serviced by software marketing, research and the plethora of white papers. Independent directors’ information needs are obviously related to their perceived role on the board. They are not executives, they don’t make corporate decisions individually, and their knowledge of the business process models is imprecise.  They always want to contribute where they can to the enterprise, but their shareholder responsibilities often drive them to have a risk assessment fixation, especially since the Enrons and Sarbanes-Oxley.    […]

2. Specifying Boardroom BI: Helping Directors Find Problems for Executives to Solve? « Cyril on Business Intelligence - November 19, 2006

[…] Conventional BI reporting specifications will include problem solving support, as discussed in my blog post of August 27.    But directors aren’t normally hired to solve problems, they exist to represent shareholders, and protect shareholder value.  […]

3. Idetrorce - December 15, 2007

very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

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