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Use Of Excel For BI And Mid-Market Accessibility

by Lyndsay Wise, President, WiseAnalyticsTuesday, October 27, 2009

Until a couple of years ago, business intelligence was considered an enterprise solution with limited applications for small and mid-sized organizations because of the associated software and maintenance costs.  In addition, the fact that companies required a strong IT infrastructure to begin with meant that businesses without a mature IT environment were unable to take advantage of what BI had to offer.  With the perceived saturation of the enterprise market, the increasing adoption of Software as a Service (SaaS), and the need for business to get better insights out of their data, mid-market companies were poised to take advantage of the expanded BI offerings within the market.

The use of Excel was already widely used within mid-market organizations as part of their overall BI use.  Therefore, the ability to leverage Excel within existing or new applications was seen as an opportunity for many mid-market-focused BI vendors.  In general, many BI solutions already build interfaces that mimic or that use Excel within the solution itself.  Due to the wide use of Excel as the primary BI tool, this strategy works well to enable BI adoption without affecting the overall learning curve.

The overall popularity of Excel and its overlap with BI provides an advantage for both organizations and solution providers alike.  End users apply BI to gain insights and to get broader visibility into their operations.  Vendors expand end-user ability by enhancing key functionality in Excel so that organizations can use these solutions and generate buy-in from regular Excel users.  This strategy increases the general interoperability of these solutions while attempting to expand market share as well.  Whether this actually works depends upon the solution’s overall viability, but it does create an environment where Excel and BI complement one another and thrive as a complete BI solution.

This article looks at how mid-sized organizations leverage Excel and its direct application to BI.  In addition, this article identifies how Excel helps shape many mid-market BI initiatives and the ability of these organizations to take advantage of Excel use as part of their overall BI strategy.

Applying BI through spreadsheet use

The value of spreadsheets as a function of BI cannot be denied.  So many organizations use Excel that it becomes impossible to say that its use does not provide decision makers and analysts with additional value and data visibility.  The validity of data and how it relates to the rest of the company becomes a separate issue from the inherent benefits that come with being able to look at and analyze information down to the transaction level.  Organizations interact within their Excel environments to look at data, share insights and plan for future events.  The use of BI as an enabler allows companies to do even more of this.

Excel has specific limitations.  One of which is data accessibility and the other is data volume.  Limits exist within some Microsoft environments regarding the ability to query data from multiple sources.  Consequently, end users can only look at a defined data set or create their own information to view a subset of performance and/or transaction-based analyses.  And because of limited memory, only a certain amount of data can be queried without stalling the system.  Many BI solutions enable companies to use Excel as a front end while enabling broader data access and larger data volumes to be analyzed within a single spreadsheet. 

Through full BI access, decision makers and analysts can combine multiple data sources with higher data volumes.  In addition, the ability to leverage robust algorithms, reporting and dashboards broaden the overall capabilities of Excel.  Although Excel use alone cannot give organizations the full benefits of overall BI, it provides an entry point to increased visibility into the business.  Adding a BI solution to the mix that integrates directly into Excel offers the next level of visibility.  Decision makers can increase their current level of analysis and share broader insights across the organization.  This visibility, in turn, leads to expanded analysis that leads to a circle of consistent and constant maturity within the overall BI infrastructure.

Making Excel a part of the overall mid-market BI strategy

The question becomes, how do organizations use Excel as a way to increase the success of their BI initiatives?  The answers will differ based on each business’s current infrastructure and use of BI.  How companies leverage Excel and whether it is used as part of a broader BI landscape reflects the overall benefits they will incur through Excel and BI use. 

For organizations with a long history of Excel use but without an overall BI strategy, the potential exists to expand upon their current applications to leverage a general business intelligence framework (how to choose or evaluate the proper solution is outside the scope of this article).  The way to do this involves a practical look at available solutions and the way current Excel use can be incorporated into broader business intelligence.  In addition, familiarity with Excel and choosing a solution that allows organizations to leverage their current skill set can create a lower overall total cost of ownership (TCO) in the future.

Companies already using BI may or may not be combining both to create a cohesive analytics environment.  Because leveraging both together can create additional benefits created due to the overall proliferation of Excel use, organizations should not overlook combining the two.

Overall, it becomes important for organizations to leverage their existing infrastructure and available skill set without overlooking the drawbacks of Excel use.  Also, the ability to leverage Excel within a BI framework and the continued expansion of Excel-related functionality within BI applications can give mid-market companies expanded access to business intelligence as the market continues to mature.

About the Author

Lyndsay Wise is an industry analyst for business intelligence. For over seven years, she has assisted clients in business systems analysis, software selection and implementation of enterprise applications. Lyndsay is the channel expert for BI for the Mid-Market at B-eye-Network and conducts research of leading technologies, products and vendors in business intelligence, marketing performance management, master data management, and unstructured data. She can be reached at lwise@wiseanalytics.com. And please visit Lyndsay's blog at myblog.wiseanalytics.com.


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