No in-depth discussion of business intelligence and BI tools could be complete without paying homage to the pervasive use and influence of Microsoft Excel. With its more than 300 dedicated functions for data operations, MS Excel’s ability to clearly portray, massage and distribute knowledge throughout the enterprise is undisputed. For a large number of organizations, Excel remains an important part of the BI solutions stack and in some cases, for better or worse, still serves as the centerpiece for corporate intelligence.
Pre-existing market penetration (of virtually 100%) aside, the continued viability of Excel as a preferred BI tool is due in part to two main factors: Microsoft’s incorporation of Excel into a broader BI framework (which most importantly includes the integration of OLAP features from its other toolsets such as Microsoft’s Analysis Services); secondly, the emergence of a tremendous number of third-party applications and suites that are able to leverage, complement and augment Excel’s functional palette from varying perspectives.
Why Excel Is Still Vital To BI
Microsoft has done an impeccable job of evolving Excel so that it continues to be perpetually at the epicenter of BI. After all this time, it is still the killer application of business analysis, strategically positioned so that every vendor of BI software must address how their tools push/pull data to and from Excel spreadsheets. Although Excel has retained the same basic user interface for years, BI capabilities—both from a functional and integration perspective—have steadily increased. For example, users now have more options for designing report layouts and applying complex cell, row and column functions and macros; a more robust means to achieve complex filtering and point-and click pivot tables have also introduced a tremendous level of sophistication; Open Office XML (OOXML) has paved the way for a cornucopia of third-party tools and plug-ins that provide value-added BI functionality.
In addition to functional considerations, Excel remains an important component of BI architecture because of its agility and portability. Two of the hottest conceptual buzzwords in business today are that of “business agility” and “agile development.” In the agility department, Excel shines because of a tried and tested interface that lets users create and make changes to spreadsheets in a course of minutes or hours; business perspective can be instantly changed with a few clicks of a mouse or the drag of a column, allowing for users of even modest ability to rollup and aggregate data, perform difficult calculations and slice and dice information to reflect their personal world view.
In terms of portability, Excel still trumps all. It can be horizontally distributed to an unlimited number of users and platforms, including the latest in handheld PDAs and iPhones. Spreadsheet data can be shared among team members easily, regardless of platform or location. Complex business concepts can be socialized and tweaked quickly, effectively and simply. But it is vital to remember that portability does not equal scalability in most senses. Problems with data redundancy, integrity and data compartmentalization are notoriously associated with an overreliance on MS Excel as the “golden copy” container of knowledge, as opposed to utilizing a better governed and more secure centralized data store to reflect the one version of the truth. The more a spreadsheet is passed from user to user for collaboration, the greater the margin for error in data integrity and versioning.
If you look at the value missions and product claims of software companies that provide BI tools and services, you will hear a common language: talk of agility, portability, integration, interoperability, high-availability, and beyond. At face value, Excel encapsulates many of these advantages; however, some of these perceived advantages can quickly become disadvantages, as the limitations of spreadsheet-focused BI become quickly visible. While Excel is not the ultimate BI solution, it will no doubt be entrenched in your organization for a long time to come and occupy a large part of your corporate information supply chain. Nevertheless, for Excel to serve your organization in the best possible BI capacity, it will be vital to augment its universe of features with additional non-Microsoft software.