A New API from Tableau Suggests a More Active Role for Analytics Within Business

Brad Shimmin – Research Director, Business Technology and Software

Summary Bullets:

• At its 10th annual user conference, modern BI leader Tableau unveiled a means by which customers can embed business processes within the Tableau interface, effectively upending commonly accepted ideas about the role of analytics in business.

• With Tableau’s new Extensions API, companies can start to think about analytics, not as a passive, informational adjunct to business processes, but instead as an active participant in the business itself.

These days APIs are a dime a dozen. Every vendor has one (or two), supporting basic routines like software automation or enabling more elaborate objectives like application embedding. The driving factor powering the proliferation of APIs is simple. They grant both interoperability and extensibility, two traits that are crucial to success – particularly within the enterprise data and analytics marketplace where heterogeneity reigns supreme.

That’s the way APIs work between vendors, often sitting at the very heart of innovative partnerships. Just like the Silk Road – operational in the first century BC – allowed China and Rome to exchange goods, knowledge, and culture, open APIs serve as a means of communication between otherwise isolated communities. This idea was front and center during Tableau Software’s 10th annual user conference this week, where the vendor introduced Extensions API. Still in preview with an expected shipping date sometime in 2018, this new API allows developers to create Tableau Dashboard extensions that are capable of interacting directly with external data sources and applications (see following figure below).

Obviously this isn’t a new idea. Many of Tableau’s closest rivals have likewise invested heavily in open APIs that afford the same sort of functionality. Such efforts, though, typically take aim at two scenarios:

1) Embedding analytics within a line of business application, delivering data-driven insights to business users when and where they need them the most, namely at the point of decision.2) Conversely, embedding external functionality or information within the analytics application itself, equipping a data professional with contextual information or functionality.

What’s interesting about Tableau’s Extensions API is that it combines these two notions, effectively upending commonly accepted ideas about the role of analytics in business. With Tableau’s new Extensions API, companies can start to think about an analytics dashboard as way more than a passive, informational adjunct to business processes. Instead, they can turn their analytics platform into an active participant in the business itself.

Consider a sales director, accustomed to working with a sales enablement solution such as Salesforce.com. It would of course be valuable for that person to visualize some basic sales data within the Salesforce.com interface. But this common embedding scenario doesn’t typically allow for any analysis of the data, which itself appears as an end unto itself, a static signboard that does not allow for, or invite, questions or exploration. Imagine instead that if the sales director could work within a fully-fledged analytics interface, drilling down into data, asking further questions, and posing “what if” scenarios. And what if that person could then transact with the system that is driving this data, marking a sales lead as won or lost, for example? This would then create a true feedback loop, changing the very data being analyzed in real-time.

This virtuous cycle isn’t about minimizing the number of applications a user has to pivot between. It is instead about blending the role of business user and analytics user into a single entity. It is about combining action with analysis. And it is exactly what the analytics vendor community has been calling for these last few years in promoting notions such as the democratization of data. Now obviously not every person is a data analyst, and not every business user has the desire to analyze data while working with a transactional business processes. But at least with tools like Tableau Extensions API on the table, companies can begin exploring new opportunities for analytics within business.


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