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Cognos Announces Dynamic Link to Microsoft Excel

To spread BI to ordinary business users, Cognos will introduce a persistent link between controlled data from its suite and the world's most popular spreadsheet.
Microsoft Excel is the data analysis tool of choice for the average business user, so business intelligence vendors have long sought ways to mimic or integrate with Microsoft's spreadsheet client. Cognos on Tuesday announced Cognos 8 BI Analysis for Microsoft Excel, a new capability within its Cognos 8 BI suite set for release in the second half of 2007.

"The targeted user isn't BI professionals, it's business professionals," Delbert Krause, director of performance management product marketing, said. "We want them to be able to focus on applying their business skills, not learning software."

Analysis for Excel users can select data sources and build analyses by dragging and dropping dimensions from Cognos 8 to Excel. They can then query, edit dimensions and drill down, yet the data is continually refreshed without the user having to query and export new data sets. The linked data set can also be exported to Cognos Analysis and Reporting environments.

The Analysis for Excel feature is built on a .Net add-in for Excel, and it will let users "query, select, explore and then define the layout all within one environment," Krause said. "Many vendors separate the query from the interaction in Excel, so you have to continually move back and forth between the two environments."

Microsoft offers a similar connection between Office 2007 and Microsoft SQL Server, but Cognos stresses that its offering will work with any version of Excel going back to Office 2003.

"Organizations want to embrace Office/Excel as a BI client because they've realized they can't run away from spreadsheets," Gartner analyst Kurt Schlegel said. "Providing authoring as well as consumption is the next step in the evolution of making Excel a BI client."

Given the timing of the announcement - well ahead of its introduction, promised "in the second half" - Cognos' new feature may be matched by other vendors. Indeed, Schlegel said BI vendors including Actuate and Microstrategy offer similar functionality.

Cognos said pricing, packaging and licensing details have yet to be determined. That could prove tricky for the vendor given that Analysis for Excel could cut into demand for conventional seat licenses. That's a real possibility at Cognos customer Manpower Inc., an $18 billion staffing giant that has more than 1,000 users of Cognos planning software in the US and more than 3,000 BI users worldwide.

"Finance uses Excel extensively, and being able to format and graph data from our cubes in Excel will be a huge time saver," Vivian Adashek, financial systems project specialist, said. "Right now if we need a special report for closing, we copy and paste or export data sets to Excel, but then we have to change the data when the cube is updated."

Adashek said many new employees have to be trained on Cognos software, "but knowing that they could use Excel instead, many users would like that and take advantage of (Analysis for Excel)."