Spreadmarts and the Ideology of BI

Excel is the devil and BI tools are the savoir. Spreadsheets are a satanic element we're trying to drive from unrepentant departments. This is because centralized data is good and distributed data is bad. Ideologies exist to simplify the world by trying to separate everything into two buckets: good and evil... Ever try to add a quick formula to a Web-delivered report?

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

June 2, 2008

3 Min Read

In the world of Business Intelligence, Excel is the devil and BI tools are the savoir. Spreadsheets are a satanic element we're trying to drive from unrepentant departments. This is because centralized data is good and distributed data is bad.

Ideologies exist to simplify the world by trying to separate everything into two buckets: good and evil. A spreadsheet being used for BI, like the devil, is the embodiment of badness. As with all good demons, a spreadsheet entices people to make bad choices and do bad things like retaining data in files on their PCs.

How does it entice people? By offering something of value, like simplicity or ease of use. Ever try to add a quick formula to a Web-delivered report? It can be a nightmare. Export the report into Excel and it's a snap. A spreadsheet is malleable, unlike the rigid offerings of the BI orthodoxy.The BI vendors are pragmatic. They offer integration of their tools with Excel, with the admonishment that you should do all your real work in the BI tool and use Excel solely for displaying data. This is more of a nod and wink at end users than resolving the perceived spreadmart problem.

One question you should ask is, "Why go through the extra steps of working with Excel if the BI tool does what you need already?" Because the BI tools mostly don't.

The problem of ideology is that it blinds you to alternative views. Instead of complaining, ask what's appealing. Why would someone use a spreadsheet when they have a perfectly good BI tool?

Excel integration accepts the reality of usage while trying to keep people using the reporting tools, and keeping the per-seat license fees coming in. We need to accept reality too. It's not Excel, it's how we view and integrate it.

There are many people who do analysis, not just reporting and display of data. Getting the data from a BI tool is only the first step. That means they need features for working with data that don't exist in most BI tools. Users also need data we don't have or can't easily deliver to the data warehouse.

We're facing the incomplete data problem because of another piece of BI ideology: all the data must be centrally managed. This is unrealistic. We can't possibly house every last bit of data. Because of this reality, BI tools like Business Objects added the ability to bring outside data into reports. Other vendors moved the BI processing to the PC.

Our ideology has failed us by setting up a paradox. If we do use these features or tools, then we contribute to our biggest complaint about Excel - manipulation of data outside the centrally integrated view. If we don't use them then users will continue to circumvent BI tools.

Ideologies exist to simplify the world and our choices. But ideology can become outdated as the world changes around it. If we stick to our rigid BI dogma, then we'll never build tools that work the way users want them to work, and we'll always be stuck with this perceived spreadmart problem.Excel is the devil and BI tools are the savoir. Spreadsheets are a satanic element we're trying to drive from unrepentant departments. This is because centralized data is good and distributed data is bad. Ideologies exist to simplify the world by trying to separate everything into two buckets: good and evil... Ever try to add a quick formula to a Web-delivered report?

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