Make Peace In The BI-Versus-Excel Battle - InformationWeek

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Cindi Howson
Cindi Howson
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Make Peace In The BI-Versus-Excel Battle

Managers fear Microsoft Excel undermines business intelligence, but sometimes, it's the best solution in a fast-paced business environment. Here's how to support spreadsheets without sacrificing data integrity.

I would have thought that by now business intelligence tools and Microsoft Excel would be happily coexisting. In some cases they are, but a larger number of Excel users, managers, and BI professionals simply seem battle weary.

This week at TDWI in Washington, DC, I taught an updated course on "BI & Excel: Friends or Foes?" I last taught this course four years ago. I learned my first lesson about BI and spreadsheets the hard way back in the early 1990s. At the time I was the project manager for a reporting system based on a custom transaction system. Typical of many IT projects, I gathered business-user requirements, went away for a couple months (at least it wasn't a year!), and we developed some parameterized reports on the mainframe.

The final solution was flexible, interactive, and exactly what the business users asked for. We launched the new reporting app in a training class I had personally developed and was thrilled to be teaching.

We were only half an hour into the class, when the power user in the group, Frank, declared, "I don't want any of this. I just want all my data in Excel."

Frank was the statistician in the group -- the trusted analyst. Normally, he and I were on the same side. We would swap notes on how to tweak Lotus macros or how to extract data from mainframe sources. But he basically just told me I had wasted months of effort and that what my team had built was crap.

The business managers in the room liked the reports, but they relied on Frank for all things data. Frank had planted a seed of doubt in their minds that our whole approach was wrong. Frank had become my foe. I tried not to get teary-eyed (hey, I was in my 20s!) and decided to cancel the rest of the class.

Frank felt fixed reports constrained him. He needed flexibility. For the managers in the group, who were not yet proficient in spreadsheets, the mainframe-based reporting system might have been fine. But Frank could make any data looking prettier in Excel, with better formatting, colors, charts, and so on.

Even though that lesson about the role of spreadsheets in BI was learned 20 years ago, BI leaders, managers, and Excel gurus continue to grapple with BI and Excel's coexistence.

At the start of this week's class, about a third of the attendees agreed with the suggestion that Excel and BI are friends; Excel helps improve decision-making and fulfills the vision for business intelligence. "I'm on the friend side because I know if I treat Excel as a foe, I will lose," said one attendee. "It's easier to embrace your enemy and gain trust and creditability."

The remaining two thirds felt that BI and Excel are foes: too many spreadmarts (some in the hundreds of megabytes) and multiple versions of the truth undermine the BI team's efforts to provide a single version of the truth. One attendee who started the day thinking spreadsheets were the enemy later said the class had changed her view.

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User Rank: Apprentice
11/18/2013 | 6:57:37 PM
BI and Excel at peace
Great post and I could not agree more. Many solution exist to make peace between excel and BI. And you do not need to learn or install new software to use them.  Visit us at: and see how we can make you achieve all your BI targets, without leaving your familiar spreadsheet.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/13/2012 | 9:22:02 PM
re: Make Peace In The BI-Versus-Excel Battle
Hi Cindi,
Great Commentary. I'm going to put in a curve ball here and introduce you and your readers to a novel self-service BI solution that runs from Excel. It can connect to any data source, be it DBG侵s, DWG侵s, CRMG侵s, ERPG侵s, Spreadsheets, unstructured data, etcG仟
This is a unique proprietary solution that allows business users to easily create BI reports using just Microsoft Excel. This is the first time that Excel (the most widely and effective tool for this purpose and the professionals choice tool) is actually being used for this purpose. All previous shortcomings and issues that prevented Excel to be able to be used have been overcome using unique IP and development. These include:
G求Untrusted Data now becomes trusted data
G求Proliferation of thousand of disparate spreadsheets are now centrally stored
G求Historical Data can now be quickly refreshed with current data
G求No Backup / Recovery is overcome with a server architecture
G求Lack of Version Control is replaced by full versioning control
G求Lack of Entitlements is replaced with fine grained authorisation
G求Data volume limitations are now overcome.

This means that reports and intelligence needed by businesses is available much quicker than that which is currently available through existing BI tools such as Cognos, Hyperion, Business Objects, Tableau, Spotfire, etc. All of these require significant overhead to setup, training, management, support, change control, etc. The delivery lifecycle is reduced from weeks to minutes with Clear Analytics!

Coupling Clear Query with Clear Analytics means that for the first time business users are able to efficiently use heterogeneous data sources and work on them together within one reporting tool (in fact within one sheet of Excel) to create value business intelligence and reports.

The solution has been rolled out at International Investment & Retail Banks, Hedge Funds, Asset Management Firms, and throughout the Financial sector.

I welcome feedback and your opinion on this solution.
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