I was recently asked by an Industry Excel expert what made Excel such a compelling product for Business Intelligence, Reporting and Analysis. As many people know, I have worked in IT as well as commercial business roles over the years, so I have seen ‘both sides’ of the story and hence I am qualified to understand the things that can go wrong between these departments.
Big complex software projects (like an SAP implementation) necessarily require specialist IT staff to work with commercial business staff to develop people, process and technology solutions that will solve business problems. These projects are highly complex, expensive, time consuming and risky by their very nature. It is not unusual for such a project to last 3-5 years and cost 10s of millions of dollars – more in very large organisations. Traditional BI projects are a bit like this. They are complex, expensive, and often fail to deliver on the user expectations.
Why Big BI Projects are so hard
When business people work with specialist IT people, there is an enormous communication overhead between them. I have seen plenty of great people in IT and in commercial roles, and they almost always want the same thing – a great outcome for the business. But the problem is that people are different; especially IT and commercial people are often very different. There is a very good reason why some people are successful working in Sales and other people are successful working as a programmer. The skill set between these people are fundamentally different. So it is inevitable that when these people work together on a project, there will be misunderstandings, mistakes and rework. All of this comes at a cost of time and money, and in the fast paced business world some things are just not viable if they have to go through this cycle. Unfortunately in traditional BI projects, there is no choice but for IT people to work for commercial people, because the technical side of the projects are so complex that there is no other way.
Often it is not worth the cost
Business people will always have things that are a priority to them but are subordinate to the greater needs of the business/others/competing departments etc. So when a business person says “I need ABC report to analyse this business opportunity by no later than XYZ”, sometimes/often the timeline simply can’t be met or the cost of doing so is prohibitive.
In a world of competing business priorities, successful business people find ways to get the important things done – they don’t sit around discussing why things could not be done due to lack of resources, competing priorities etc.
Enter Excel – the Swiss Army Knife of Business
I think about Excel as being the Swiss Army Knife of business. Excel is one of those universal tools that allows any business person to get on with important priorities without having to call in IT to do the work. In fact in my experience IT people know very little about Excel – the skill is all with the business users.
Excel can be learnt and used by almost anyone for any purpose, and often the cost/benefit ratio is completely unsurpassed by any alternative (eg long slow expensive IT lead BI project) to the point where it is not worth taking your Excel built solution to the next level. In a world of rapidly changing business challenges, it is the speed to value that counts. If you can’t turn around the analysis quickly and affordably, then the opportunity will most likely simply pass you by.
And then there is Modern Excel
Rob Collie uses the term “Modern Excel” to describe the new features that Excel has delivered over the last 5 or so years. These new capabilities include Power Pivot, Power Query, but also the evolution of Pivot Tables, Slicers and into the future will include the still developing tools like Power Map, Power View etc. There is no other BI tool that can deliver a speed to value ratio that Modern Excel can deliver.
If you want to take advantage of Modern Excel, you will definitely need to learn some new skills such as how to write DAX, or you may have to bring in some people for a short period of time to break the back of the work to get you going, but these are small one off investments that have immediate payback in a rapidly changing business environment. Once you have these new skills dialled up, you will deliver speed to value like never before.