Business Intelligence and Excel: Happily Married? - InformationWeek

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Business Intelligence and Excel: Happily Married?

Are spreadsheets a good match with business intelligence systems entrusted with providing consistent, reliable insight? The latest BI-Excel integrations let you have your spreadsheet-based analysis and always-validated, up-to-date data, too. Which add-in, plug-in or native link is right for you?

Cindi Howson
In the world of business intelligence, Microsoft Excel is considered by many to be the number-one BI tool. Business people and IT have a love-hate relationship with Excel when it comes to BI because the one thing it does so well — enable rich, individual analysis — can wreak havoc on an organization’s efforts to ensure consistent information. Spreadsheets gone wild undermine business intelligence. Multiple versions of the truth abound, data chaos ensues and organizations end up dumber than when they were without that Excel-enabled analysis.

I've worked with companies that have banned exporting data from BI tools to Excel altogether. I’ve also worked with users who have decried other BI tools, demanding that all data be delivered directly to Excel.

After years of haggling, it seems everyone can now have what they want, with the latest round of BI-Excel integration efforts solving all the world’s problems (okay, not all, but most). Here's a closer look at what leading vendors including Cognos, Business Objects, SAP and Microsoft are doing to make BI and Excel a happy couple.

BI and Excel: The Early Days

The integration of spreadsheets and BI is nothing new and, in fact, has been evolving over the last 20-plus years. It started in the early 1980s when users would take printed green-bar reports and re-key data into the then leading spreadsheet, Lotus 123. Finally, users could make sense of static data, filtering it, creating graphs, enhancing the information with formulas, and performing what-if analysis! The ability to manipulate the data, design reports and gain insight without having to rely on IT made the spreadsheet the most popular interface for data access.

In fact, love of spreadsheets partly explains Oracle-Hyperion Essbase’s immediate popularity. The initial interface to Essbase (short for Extended Spread Sheet database) was a spreadsheet. Users didn’t have to re-key data for analysis; corporate data was immediately presented to them live from within a spreadsheet. It was only later that the company added a dashboard-style viewer.

Not all the world’s data is in a cube, so striving to satisfy customers, BI vendors added easy ways to export data from a BI report to Excel, opening up a Pandora's box in the process. No more re-keying. No more export, import, convert, save as. But if that didn’t create data chaos fast enough, some vendors have gone so far as to support scheduled exports. So now you can have that data chaos at the speed of a clock. Speaking to users at various conferences, I often hear estimates that more than half of all BI reports are exported to Excel.

Coping With Data Chaos

So what’s wrong with this picture? Users got what they asked for. BI vendors should be applauded for delivering on those requirements, right? The problem is that the ease with which data can be exported to Excel means multiple versions of the truth can be created at a rapid pace. Companies cringe at the prospect of thousands of uncontrolled, unvalidated spreadsheets residing on corporate networks. These uncontrolled, unvalidated silos of information support critical business decisions.

The fall out from errors can be huge. For example, in 2005, gift retailer RedEnvelope shares plummeted when cost of goods sold was underestimated due to a spreadsheet error. The CFO resigned. In another example, Kodak had to restate earnings because too many zeros were erroneously entered in a spreadsheet. While such cases make headlines, a more prevalent problem is that business users spend an inordinate amount of time debating whose spreadsheet is right and where their data came from. These discussions detract from time better spent on the business issues at hand.

To address this problem, some IT departments have gone to the extreme of attempting to ban exports of data to Excel. BI vendors have been working to come up with a better solution, one that gives users the flexibility and familiarity of an Excel interface while ensuring data integrity.

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