Make Peace In The BI-Versus-Excel Battle - InformationWeek
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Cindi Howson
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Make Peace In The BI-Versus-Excel Battle

Managers fear Microsoft Excel undermines business intelligence, but sometimes, it's the best solution in a fast-paced business environment. Here's how to support spreadsheets without sacrificing data integrity.

To fully appreciate Excel's role in BI, start by understanding why users love their spreadsheets. Sometimes it may be personal and job security. Knowledge is power, and being the designated source of data is an enticing role. Beyond job security, there are a number of valid reasons that Excel plays a powerful role in business intelligence, such as:

Familiar user interface - Attendees acknowledged that Excel is the preferred interface for power users, but managers and front line workers prefer dashboards and easier- to- use tools (they were wowed by SAS's Email integration)
Ability to tweak a report, whether to sort, filter, pivot, or remove a column
Extensive formula library
Access to multiple data sources - Excel's ability to combine data from multiple data sources is a must-have requirement for many types of analyses
Ability to "massage" the data - Few attendees said they use Excel for data cleansing, but several people spoke of changing group roll ups.
Ideal prototyping environment where users themselves can build applications.

For any given requirement, assess whether Excel is the best solution or if the BI tool would be better. For example, newer version of BI software allow users to filter, sort, and interact with a report via a browser. Habits are sometimes hard to change, and if users don't know about these capabilities, they will fall back to what they have done for years (click that Export button).

The multiple-data-source issue is probably the biggest challenge. BI teams don't like personal or departmental data to be accessed from a central business view and certainly not from within the data warehouse.

Excel is ideally suited for joining data from multiple data sources for a one-off analysis. The scalability improvements with the PowerPivot feature in Excel 2010 make it even more suitable.

However, for recurring analyses that require joining data from disparate systems, multi-source becomes a problem for the entire organization. The BI team has to recognize this or they risk being less relevant and the cause of spreadsheet chaos. Don't back business users into a corner.

Most BI platforms now offer an Excel add-in that supports data integrity while giving users their data in the familiar Excel interface. It surprized me, though, how few attendees were either aware of or using these add-ins.

Why aren't add-ins being used? In some cases, it's performance and licensing problems. In other cases it seemed to be lack of awareness. There also seemed to be a degree of fear: BI teams shy away from Excel because they've been burned in the past.

My recommendation is to recognize Excel as part of the BI environment. Manage the spreadsheets, whether via SharePoint, a content management system, or the BI portal. Consider carefully when it's appropriate to use Excel versus the BI tool; and in all cases, make available add-ins part of your BI tool portfolio.

By the end of the morning, attendees were more positive, with two thirds agreeing that Excel and BI can be friends. The remaining third are still wary. Where do you stand?

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.

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User Rank: Apprentice
11/18/2013 | 6:57:37 PM
BI and Excel at peace
Great post and I could not agree more. Many solution exist to make peace between excel and BI. And you do not need to learn or install new software to use them.  Visit us at: and see how we can make you achieve all your BI targets, without leaving your familiar spreadsheet.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/13/2012 | 9:22:02 PM
re: Make Peace In The BI-Versus-Excel Battle
Hi Cindi,
Great Commentary. I'm going to put in a curve ball here and introduce you and your readers to a novel self-service BI solution that runs from Excel. It can connect to any data source, be it DBG侵s, DWG侵s, CRMG侵s, ERPG侵s, Spreadsheets, unstructured data, etcG仟
This is a unique proprietary solution that allows business users to easily create BI reports using just Microsoft Excel. This is the first time that Excel (the most widely and effective tool for this purpose and the professionals choice tool) is actually being used for this purpose. All previous shortcomings and issues that prevented Excel to be able to be used have been overcome using unique IP and development. These include:
G求Untrusted Data now becomes trusted data
G求Proliferation of thousand of disparate spreadsheets are now centrally stored
G求Historical Data can now be quickly refreshed with current data
G求No Backup / Recovery is overcome with a server architecture
G求Lack of Version Control is replaced by full versioning control
G求Lack of Entitlements is replaced with fine grained authorisation
G求Data volume limitations are now overcome.

This means that reports and intelligence needed by businesses is available much quicker than that which is currently available through existing BI tools such as Cognos, Hyperion, Business Objects, Tableau, Spotfire, etc. All of these require significant overhead to setup, training, management, support, change control, etc. The delivery lifecycle is reduced from weeks to minutes with Clear Analytics!

Coupling Clear Query with Clear Analytics means that for the first time business users are able to efficiently use heterogeneous data sources and work on them together within one reporting tool (in fact within one sheet of Excel) to create value business intelligence and reports.

The solution has been rolled out at International Investment & Retail Banks, Hedge Funds, Asset Management Firms, and throughout the Financial sector.

I welcome feedback and your opinion on this solution.
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