Expand Your Toolbox
Most businesses are missing out on valuable tools.
The last few years have seen a revolution in the accessibility of business intelligence tools, which can have an impact on how all businesses use their data. At its heart, the advances mean that business analysts have more tools at their disposal to access, transform and deliver data without having to know complex coding languages.
At the first level, all businesses should be maximizing their use of Excel by taking advantage of transformative add-ins that are free in most cases.
To reach the next level, businesses should consider using a data visualization tool to deliver drillable reports and dashboards to management. These tools go beyond spreadsheets to bring the true story out of a business’s data.
Finally, a business should be aware of trends in the cloud service marketplace that will enhance its ability to work with large and complex data sets in the coming months and years.
Excel Add-Ins Help Analysts Automate Reporting
Power Query and Power Pivot for Excel have actually been around for over five years now, but most businesses fail to take advantage of their power. If a business user is running Excel 2010 or later, they likely already have at least one of these tools. In practical business terms, these tools help take loads of time out of cyclical reporting processes, so businesses can spend more analyst time on actual analysis.
Power Query allows a user to produce an Excel data set by connecting to a data source (for example, a database or other Excel document), shaping and filtering what gets pulled over, and then saving that connection. The data set can be updated later with the click of a button, rather than exchanging files and copy/pasting.
Once a user establishes data connections, Power Pivot allows one to connect them together to create a Data Model, which is effectively a relational database within the Excel. Once there, the user has any number of options for summarizing and reporting on the data. Again, all of this can be refreshed with the click of a button, rather than doing the same manual steps every cycle.
Visualization Tools Help Managers
Visualization tools that present data in interactive and drillable reports are also not new to the marketplace, but historically have been out-of-reach for many smaller organizations, due to high licensing costs. Last year, however, we saw the emergence of a tool from Microsoft called Power BI, which builds on Power Query and Power Pivot to create a standalone platform for business reports and dashboards.
While its end product – the visuals – aren’t necessarily ahead of other market leaders like Tableau and Qlik Software (Gartner Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence and Analytics Platforms, February 2016), its price is much lower ($9.99/user/month). That said, businesses should take a broad look at this marketplace, to see which tools suit the skill set and needs of their organization.
The continued evolution of cloud computing is on the verge of producing a major shift in small businesses’ capacity to produce live visualizations, business-specific mobile apps, analyze large data sets in innovative ways, and perhaps even remove themselves from constricting one-size-fits-all Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems. Large cloud service providers such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft are adding offerings to their platforms every week, it seems. Savvy businesses are taking advantage of these services to manage their data more efficiently.
The evolving landscape can be hard to keep up with in addition to one’s day job, so be sure to ask your technology provider (whether internal or external) for support in approaching data and analytics. You may have more analytical power at your disposal than you know.
Guest Columnist John Marshall is director of consulting at Bellwether, where he focuses on helping organizations make better use of their data. He has worked in business analytics for the last decade.