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SMB Excel-eration

Small to midsized businesses (SMBs) often begin -- and sometimes end -- their quest for business intelligence with Microsoft's ubiquitous Excel. However, with an increasing number of add-ins -- not to mention a long look at what's up with Microsoft Business Solutions -- SMBs' options will multiply.

The Add-In Circus

Excel analytic add-ins come in all shapes and sizes. All the well-known enterprise-level analytic and reporting vendors, such as Actuate, Business Objects, MicroStrategy, OutlookSoft, and ProClarity provide add-ins to provision data from their applications into Excel. This is proof of Excel's popularity at the desktop — even in larger enterprises, not everyone wants to learn another proprietary user interface. But here, we're concerned with add-ins targeted at SMBs. So, a good place to start is with Microsoft itself, especially as these add-ins are currently provided as free downloads for existing Microsoft Office customers.

Two downloads available now are the Microsoft Office Excel Add-in for SQL Server Analysis Services and the Microsoft Office Tool for eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL). There's also another analytic download — the Microsoft Office Business Scorecards Accelerator — to help with creating key performance indicator scorecards in a Microsoft SharePoint portal. The first lets users of Excel 2002/2003 create and access Analysis Services cubes, select and navigate data sourced from these cubes in Excel, and publish the information in the form of reports. The second allows you to download or import XBRL reports into Excel (and Word) and perform limited analysis of data in XBRL reports — for example, to compare and contrast the XBRL financial statements from the hundreds of U.S. public companies now accessible via EDGAR online.

Figure 1

Microsoft Business Solutions also provides some Excel capabilities for analytics. Financial statements created in Microsoft FRx can be exported to Excel for further analysis or converted into an Excel PivotTable for easier navigation and charting. The reporting and analytic capabilities in Microsoft Axapta, Great Plains, and Navision all allow you to export reports to Excel and data to Analysis Services cubes for access from Excel. General ledger budgeting in these applications also generally allows you to export budget and actual data to Excel and then import it back in to the application.

Microsoft Partner AnalySoft provides another option for Excel analytics from MBS applications. AnalySoft AnalyServer can rapidly create a data warehouse from data stored in Microsoft Navision and then use the XLCubed Excel add-in to manage the data in the warehouse. There are many enterprise-level data warehousing tools that connect to and autocreate warehouses from top-tier ERP systems like SAP and PeopleSoft; alas, few do the job with systems that SMBs actually use. Note, however, that SMBs don't use MBS accounting applications as much as those from Intuit and Sage.

Although you can export reports from Intuit QuickBooks into Excel, surprisingly few Excel add-ins exist for either QuickBooks or Sage products. Synergration's eXcelBooks allows users to pull data directly from QuickBooks into Excel spreadsheets and refresh these data views or reports on demand. Users of Sage Line 500 can use the Sage Business Intelligence add-in (provided by IntelligentApps) to do drill-down analysis, create exception reports, and perform business analysis on data sourced from their financial management applications. There are other offerings, but most appear to be limited solutions built by resellers rather than designed and marketed as commercial solutions.

Users of other SMB accounting systems such as Sage BusinessWorks, Macola 7, and MAS 90 could use Lasata's F9 add-in to pull financial data directly from their accounting systems into Excel. F9 provides a predefined metadata layer to make it easy to find and select the information to pull into Excel from these and other accounting systems so that financial reports can be constructed, manipulated, and published via Excel. F9 has been around a long time and its current owner, Lasata, has just been acquired by U.K.-based Systems Union primarily for its other Excel add-in — VisionXL — which for some time was the only analytic solution available that could deliver analytics on top of the combined ledger structure of the SunSystems SMB accounting suite.

But what if you want to get data into Excel in order to publish it more widely either within your organization or across the Web? Then Infommersion's Xcelcius product may be what you need. Xcelcius is unusual in that it can export data analytic views and reports created in Excel to Microsoft PowerPoint and Outlook or into a Macromedia Flash (.swf) presentation with real-time links to the underlying data to preserve "interactivity" with the data. These capabilities add a new and interesting dimension to report or scorecard publishing by democratizing analytics via the Web.

Redmond Rising

There's a vibrant market in Excel add-ins for SMB analytics. However, I wonder how long this market can continue as Microsoft begins to release its own add-ins and finally starts to leverage the synergy between Excel, SQL Server Analysis Services, and Microsoft Business Solutions (including Microsoft CRM, which is aimed squarely at the SMB market).

The Office suite is clearly positioned and intended to become Microsoft's universal business client on the desktop. Plus, Office's increasing BI capabilities are receiving more attention from SMBs. So, it may not be long before Office comes to symbolize desktop BI, just as it's now the de facto standard for desktop word processing and spreadsheets. In the meantime SMBs should consider helping their own by supporting the SMB vendors of Excel analytics — while they still can.

Stewart McKie is an independent consultant and technology writer specializing in analytic, enterprise resource management, and Web services applications. Reach him via his Web site at www.cfoinfo.com.