What is the Best Training for Business Analysts?

Level: Beginners

The rate of change in the tools available to a Business Analyst has never been faster than it is in 2016.  The market is changing so quickly that many Business Analysts (BAs) are not even aware of the great new tools that are available to help them succeed in their jobs and careers.  Regular readers of my blog will already know what is hot, but let me cover off a bit of background to what is happening for the benefit of others before I answer the question about what training a BA should be doing (hyperlink to the bottom of the page if you can’t wait that long).

I am going to cover:

What’s Hot? Power BI is Hot – That’s What!

Power BI is the name Microsoft has given to a number of specific products as well as an unofficial umbrella term for its suite of Self Service Business Intelligence tools.

Specific Products

There are 3 specific products you need to know about.

Power BI Service

Power BI ServiceThis is the cloud analytics solution that makes sharing live business analytics a snap. Here is a demo I built.
Rob Collie calls it “YouTube for Analytics” because it makes sharing live interactive BI reports so easy.

Power BI Desktop

This is the free Power BI authoring tool that allows you to quickly and easily analyse your data and find insights.
You can distribute your analysis for free to other people (just like an Excel workbook) or publish directly to the Power BI Service with just a couple of clicks and share from there.

Power BI Mobile

Power BI MobileThis is the free mobile tool that allows you to consume any of the reports that are available to you in the Power BI Service.

There are versions for all the major tablets and smart phones.

Umbrella Products

There is suite of underlying “products” that support the Power BI strategy.  These products below are the supporting technologies sitting behind Microsoft’s Self Service BI Strategy (and also Enterprise BI in some cases).

Power Pivot

Power PivotPower Pivot is a data modelling tool.  The language of Power Pivot is DAX (Data Analysis Expressions). If you want to be a successful Business Analyst and use the new suite of Microsoft Self Service tools, you really must start to Learn to Write DAX.

Power Query

Power QueryPower Query is a data acquisition and transformation tool.  It helps business users grab data from anywhere it resides, then cleanse, reshape and prepare the data in ready for the analytics work to come – no IT guru needed any more.
Power Query (annoyingly) has been renamed “Get & Transform” in Excel 2016.  What were they thinking?

Power Map

Power MapPower Map is a free plugin for Excel 2013, and part of Excel 2016.  It allows you to visualise data that has some geographic relevance.  Power Map was developed for Excel but has been used as a prototype for geospatial mapping in Power BI Service and Desktop.

Power View

power viewThis is a product that ships with Excel 2013 and 2016. It runs on Silverlight (which is an old technology) and in my opinion Power View is at end of life (there is no official such statement from Microsoft).  But importantly Power View has been used to prototype the great things that Microsoft is now doing in Power BI Desktop and Service.

So why should you care?

Well the answer to that question is easy.  Either you are going to excel in with these tools, or someone else will.  These tools come from Microsoft, and as you will read below, Garnter has already recognised the leading position Microsoft is in right now.  So get on board now – don’t wait.

Gartner Insights to the Market

Gartner has recently released its 2016 update to its Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence and Analytics
.  This document contains a very detailed review of Business Intelligence vendors and products, and you can download a copy yourself here if you are interested in this detail.  But let me call out 2 significant observations I made when reading this report.

Self Service BI and Enterprise BI are not the same thing

Gartner has succinctly stated what those of use in the Microsoft Power BI space have known for a few years now.  Read the quote extracts below from this Gartner report.

During the past several years, the balance of power for business intelligence (BI) and
analytics platform buying decisions has gradually shifted from IT to the business.

..the long-standing BI requirement for centrally provisioned, highly governed and scalable system-of-record reporting has been counterbalanced by the need for analytical agility and business user autonomy…

The evolution and sophistication of the self-service data preparation and data discovery capabilities available in the market has shifted the focus of buyers in the BI and analytics platform market — toward easy-to-use tools that support a full range of analytic workflow capabilities and do not require significant involvement from IT to predefine data models upfront as a prerequisite to analysis.

..and has finally reached a tipping point that requires a new perspective on the BI and analytics

..the problem that most organizations have encountered with lacklustre BI adoption relative to the level of investment during the past 20 years stems from the fact that virtually all BI related work in that time frame has, until recently, been treated as system of record from inception to development to delivery.

Hallelujah – thank goodness someone has said it so well.  Gartner is not saying that companies should throw out their existing investments in Enterprise BI, but they also cannot/should not continue to ignore the Self Service revolution that is here already.

Microsoft is now the Leader in this space

What a difference a year makes.  Note how Microsoft has screamed past the pack in the area of “completeness of vision”.  This is enough to make anyone that has a Tableau investment shake in their socks.

gartner compared

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Learning and Training for Business Analysts

Undoubtedly the skills of the future Business Analyst will increasingly include the skills of self service analytics.  Microsoft is not the only company selling self service analytics software, but there are lots of benefits of using the Microsoft tools, including

  • It is Microsoft, and Microsoft sees this as a strategic part of its future.
  • Microsoft has deep pockets.
  • Most BAs are already competent in Excel. The Power BI Umbrella Products (Power Pivot, Power Query, Power Map) are already embedded in Excel ready to use.

Specific skills and tools to learn

Skill Area Reason it Matters
Microsoft Excel Fundamentals Excel is the tool of choice for Business Analysts, and this is not going to change any time soon (if ever).  Most BAs that are reading this have already got this down pat already so no surprises here.
Microsoft Excel Pivot Tables As the quantity of data we analyse grows (and it will continue to grow), Analysts will need to be able to become experts in analysing aggregated data in order to make sense of the underlying information.  Pivot Tables are the best Ad Hoc tool to aggregate and analyse data (in my opinion).
Power Pivot
Data Modelling Tool
Data modelling is the process of preparing data for analysis.  Raw data is seldom in the ideal structure for analysis.  In the past it would have been the IT department that prepared data for analysis (typically through a data mart or data warehouse).  Increasingly in the future (as we move to more and more self service analytics) it will be up to the Business Analyst to do this work.  Data Modelling through Power Pivot is well within reach of most competent Excel Business Analysts.  Power Pivot is the same whether you use Excel, Power BI or SQL Server Tabular (normally used for Enterprise BI).
Power Query
Data Acquisition Transformation & Cleansing Tool
The next problem BAs normally encounter when they go down the Data Modelling path is how to get the data where they need it.  Power Query will help you with the process of acquiring the data, reshaping it, cleansing it, and making the entire process repeatable with the minimum of effort   And Power Query is the same whether you are loading your data into Excel or Power Bi.
Power BI
Visualisation of Data Tool
As mentioned above, Power BI is hot and is just going to get hotter.  The fact that the technologies that support Power BI (Power Pivot, Power Query) are the same across similar tools, plus it is free for individual use) means adoption will be huge.There are 2 main differences between Excel with Power Query/Power Pivot, and Power BI.
1. Power BI is easier to share data with others (try sharing a 300MB workbook with someone on a Mobile phone and you will know what I mean)
2. Power BI has improved visualisations.  Microsoft is investing big in an open source visualisation framework which mean that anything Microsoft doesn’t get to can be built by the community.  Take a look at the Power BI Visuals Gallery to see what is already available from the community.
Other Well that depends on your area of speciality. I predict that statistical tools like R will see enormous growth in the future off the back of Microsoft integrating the tool into Power BI. R is a tool that has the potential to add value to most industries, but it has been too technical in the past to be within the reach of most BAs.Some industries are into Big Data, but that really only applies if you have at least one of the three Vs of Big Data (Volume, Velocity, Variety).  These days “volume” means Billions of rows of data (and sometimes that doesn’t even need Big Data).  While the future of Big data is real, I personally don’t see this as being the ‘main game’ for most BAs any time soon.

What is the right way to learn?

There are lots of different learning styles, but here are the best resources I know of for learning these tools.

Live Training

Reading Books

I keep an up to date recommended reading list in my knowledge base here.  As well as information about books, I keep a list of great websites to learn from down the bottom of the page.

Online Learning

If you want a comprehensive lesson on how to use Power Query, checkout my training course here https://exceleratorbi.com.au/product/power-query-excel-power-bi-online-training/

There are lots of online resources to learn from. Some of the best I have found are:

Rob’s blog: http://www.powerpivotpro.com/

My blog of course: https://exceleratorbi.com.au/exceleratorblog/

Stuff from the Italians 1 http://www.daxpatterns.com/

Stuff from the Italians 2 http://www.sqlbi.com/

Ken Puls’ blog: http://www.excelguru.ca/blog/

Power BI Community: http://community.powerbi.com/

Chris Webb’s blog: http://blog.crossjoin.co.uk/

Other Opinions?

What do you think?



  1. Nice article Matt. I totally agree that companies ignore the Self-Service revolution at their peril.

    Products these days, and especially the Power BI tools, offer end users so much scope and agility that central IT departments just cannot compete. They need to accept them, promote them and work with their business counterparts to ensure maximum value is derived from them.

  2. Well done Matt.

    Best all encompassing explanation I’ve seen.

    I’ve bookmarked this page as I’m sure I’ll be referring to it frequently.

  3. Matt

    SS now means Self Service and you are absolutely right to make the distinction between old BI and the new Tier of tool the bring BI to the business users themselves.

    Keep up the focus and this driving of awareness Matt as like you I’m sure that the tipping point is close.

  4. Matt this is a great article. It should be required reading for any Business Analyst trying to get started in this brave new world. I particularly like the way you have put some bounds and structure around this topic. The article places a good wrapper on the PBI Service, the PBI Desktop and PBI Mobile.

    I also agree with your comment about R and its emerging role. At the same time anyone who follows the Power BI rEvolution knows that this is more than a desktop driven play. Power BI can and does move all the way from the desktop to the very large “big data” spaces that are in our world. I think this means that the BA of tomorrow has an increasingly valuable and significant role to fill in their organization.

  5. Hey Matt, great article and just what I was looking for – a succinct summary of the Microsoft stack. The landscape is changing so quickly so this is a great reference.

    I’m a heavy user of Excel, but it’s definitely time to move beyond pure Excel and start integrating the Power BI tools. So this overview is extremely helpful. I’ve got a copy of Rob Collie’s book, Power Pivot and Power BI, which I’m just starting to dip into. Have also bookmarked your site to come back to.

    No surprise that MS are now leading in the Gartner quadrant chart, when you consider the power of this new BI layer on top of the already super capable, versatile and popular Excel. Going to be an interesting space to be in for the foreseeable future!

  6. Hi Matt,

    Thank you for this nice article.
    A friend of me asked me recently which are the best BI tools to learn, I sent him your article.
    However, I advice him to learn SQL language for querying RDBMS.
    Have a nice day

  7. Excellent post & summary, especially as Microsoft publishes so many new features in such a short time.

    As a business analyst, I am also convinced it’s a revolution as it changes my way of working and makes me happy to play and share so easily big data & analysis with limited interaction with IS guys.

    However, I also feel a strong resistance in the business analyst planet regarding these tools. It may be linked to my own experiences. But I see 3 main constraints on a quicker growth of PowerPivot .
    From an Excel user point of view, it’s a new language and way of thinking to learn. I am stuck to see how people prefer using concatenate and vlookup rather than PowerPivot. I believe they are more comfortable with what they know. But they are also constraint by the time and see PowerPivot as a big investment (even if it’s a good one ;))

    This is linked to my second point, how to convince a manager that with PowerPivot a business analyst can be by far more efficient. If the manager allows some time to Business analyst to learn PowerPivot, it’s a more comfortable place. But managers are often not aware of all these new tools. And if the system really doesn’t work smoothly, I found often that a 3rd party is contracted to implement automatic dashboards. These dashboards will last until a new manager or service arrive and so change the need of analysis. I may miss some posts on the internet , but I found that the information is more oriented for business analyst rather than convincing a company to upgrade its system with expected cost savings and other benefits.

    The last point is actually the system of data management in companies. I am also stuck by the fact that there is so many data in companies but no proper tools to use them. How many places still use office 2010 with old Sap BW version. They only start at looking at MS 2013 only (2016 is a big word!). We can see this as a massive potentiel for good Business analyst! But in this case the missing point is the knowledge of how to I implement a proper BI architecture & background.

    That’s why I think PowerBI has a better future than PowerPivot in the short term. It’s easier to blow the mind of stakeholders with PowerBI rather than PowerPivot and attract their attention. I also see power query as a good tool to open the mind of business analysts. At least to show them there are free options available…. In Excel 🙂

    Again thanks for his post Matt as it’s a great summary and permits me to write this food for thought 🙂

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