Why Microsoft Excel will always be relevant in BI…

In the world of business intelligence, there is a very prominent ‘elephant’ in the room, namely Microsoft Excel.

Everyone at some stage will have used it, or will be using it now, after all it’s the leading product of its kind and an incredible business tool that’s understood the world over.

However, even if select individuals within an organisation are expert users with the prerequisite skills to build complex workbooks containing mind blowing formulae and macros, this doesn’t often extend across a business, and understanding of the structure of key reports and data will frequently be lost in translation.

This is compounded, when over the passage of time, Excel files are often inherited by new staff members, or simply become so ingrained into the business that they are blindly relied upon, even if the originating author is long gone and no reference as to how a file has been compiled remains.

Couple this with almost zero governance on data sources, how data is manipulated, how and what is distributed across an organisation etc., and you start to see the bigger picture, and perhaps start to see ‘why’ Business Intelligence experts may refer to Excel as a the ‘elephant’ in the room!

The goal of business intelligence is to provide accurate, repeatable and governed data for business insight, and Excel goes against the grain when attempting to do so – After all, almost anyone can produce a report in Excel, but how frequently will two people come up with the same figures? From experience, I suspect you will know the answer at best is ‘not often’.

With the inception of data dashboard and visualisation tools such as Power BI, a much greater amount of control is placed around business information – Partly by centralising the business intelligence function, which in itself allows for tighter governance, but also by moving the function of building reports into the hands of analysts and the usage of the output into the hands of the business – In essence, consumers of data can do just that, ‘consume’ information and take appropriate action with knowledge gained, not spend their time compiling reports and wondering if they have the right numbers and so on.

This is of course excellent for normal users, those who just want to get at their standard report data and know its right day after day are well catered for – After all data dashboards and visualisations are there to govern and disseminate data and they do an amazing job of this, satisfying the majority of business intelligence needs.

But this does leave a gap, one that still needs to be filled for a business to run in an optimum state, but what is this gap and how is it plugged?

If we consider the majority of the business intelligence requirements in an organisation to be well served by a considered and governed dashboard and visualisation approach as the ‘Push’ of data out to the business, then the converse is the need to ‘pull’ data – A true analysts task if you will.

This ‘pull’ of data is why Excel will always be relevant, as analysts (and lets be fair, accounting teams the world over) need to access and manipulate data at the drop of a hat, and no tool is better than Excel at doing this.

Yes, you can build what you have in Excel in a dashboard, but a dashboard should be ‘set and forget’, at least to some degree – If you need to change x or y, then this should be controlled so the pushed data is validated and correct before publication – In Excel, making this kind of change, or digging around in the data, is the norm and is very easy to achieve, whilst not disrupting standardised reports.

So whilst Excel can cause issues if used incorrectly, it can also be invaluable in the right hands and always will be, making it as relevant now as it has ever been, but just like a nicely aged bottle of your favourite tipple, it should be used in moderation!

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