Tableau Version 7 Challenges Old School BI

New version lets users centrally share the data engine while allowing multiple worksheets to leverage it.
Tableau rocked Las Vegas last week at its annual user conference. Over 1,400 attended, double last year's number, reflecting the company’s rapid growth and enthusiasm for its rapid-fire analytics.

CEO and co-founder Christian Chabot kicked off the conference with a keynote that both inspired attendees and summarily bashed traditional BI. He described the predominant form of business intelligence as “heavy, complicated, inflexible, slow moving, expensive. Data could be saving the day but it isn’t.” He challenged companies to free themselves of the “shackles of old school BI and to seize the opportunity to bring data out of the dark cellar to improve people’s lives.”

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I had to chuckle at such bold criticism. Sometimes BI is complicated because the data is such a mess. That’s not the fault of the BI platform vendors, and it’s a problem that can plague a Tableau implementation as well. But part of Tableau’s appeal and why it's grown so rapidly is both the ease with which it can be deployed and how quickly visualizations and dashboards can be built with little or no training. It does make BI beautiful and fun, no doubt influenced in part by chief scientist and co-founder Pat Hanrahan an early Pixar employee with Steve Jobs.

If you’ve read my book Successful Business Intelligence: Secrets to Making BI a Killer App or heard me speak on themes from it, then you know that I too have said BI can make the world a better place. So I was most inspired by Chabot’s discussion of how Seattle Children’s Hospital is using Tableau to improve care and reduce costs.

Chabott showed a picture of himself in the operating room, reflecting his desire to understand first hand where Tableau is making a difference. You can listen to Tableau's story here.

I also liked that Seattle Children's Tableau evangelist, a business person, also insisted that the IT people tour the operating room so they could better understand the impact the dashboards were having. It would have been better, of course, if the IT people asked for the tour themselves, but maybe that kind of initiative from IT is still too much wishful thinking.

A key theme to the conference was Tableau 7, now in beta and expected to become generally available within 90 days. Reflecting a culture that cares about its employees, Tableau flew all its 300 plus employees to Las Vegas so they too could learn from customers. Seven engineers, dubbed the magnificent seven, took to the main stage to share highlights of the next release. I can’t think of another conference that so bravely put the brains behind the products in a keynote rather than a manager or marketing VP. It could have been a flop, but these people were amusing, smart, and above all, passionate about their work.

Software engineer Iain Heath showed the improved mapping feature in Tableau that can interpret inconsistent country names. In looking at something labeled, “Britain,” he quipped, “is Britain no longer Great?” (I am married to an Englishman, in case you didn’t know.)

One of the biggest improvements in version 7 is the ability to centrally share the Tableau Data Engine while allowing multiple worksheets, created by multiple authors to leverage it. In the past, data and presentation were more tightly tied together. This new approach allows the engine to act as a kind of data mart. It also allows an author to create and share the meta data layer, with or without storing the data. This will be an important differentiator versus QlikTech.

In launching Tableau 7, a fun theme of the conference party was the Seven Wonders of the World. Can you name them (skip to the end to see the answers)? I liked the wine tasting in Italy, but rushed through the cigar smoke in Brazil. Kudos to the designer of the Seven Wonders Passport, one of those many passionate employees I got to meet.

This was the first Tableau conference I attended, even though I’ve been evaluating Tableau since 2007. The energy and focus reminded me of BI conferences before all the industry consolidation.

The Seven Wonders of the World (in no particular order):

Great Wall of China

Petra in Jordan

Christ the Redeemer in Brazil

Machu Picchu in Peru

Chichen Itza in Mexico

Colosseum in Italy

Taj Mahal in India

Cindi Howson is the founder of BI Scorecard, an independent analyst firm that advises companies on BI tool strategies and offers in-depth business intelligence product reviews.