Let me start off by saying Excel is awesome. It is undoubtedly one of the most popular programs in the business world and does everything from simple calculations to complex financial modeling. Everyone knows how to use it because it has been the standard of the business world for so long. But it is this deep-seated reliance on the tool which creates a reluctance to adopt Business Intelligence reporting.
As a BI Consultant, my most difficult challenge isn't gathering requirements or building dashboards with complex logic... it’s trying to convince business users and leadership to adopt BI and divest of their bulky, manual, yet ever-reliable Excel reports. How do you successfully take away a tool people have used from the beginning of their careers and expect them to trust an automated process that they have no control over to magically give them the data they need to do their jobs?
Standardization from the top down
From my experience, I have found the best way to convince a business to make the switch from Excel reports to BI is through leadership requiring standardized reporting. Leadership should understand some of the potential risks and hidden costs of using Excel as their company-wide reporting tool.
With Excel you run the risk of users changing numbers to make their business look better. Excel also lacks security around report and data access, so when someone emails a report with sensitive information to the wrong group or to an external email, there is nothing limiting what the receiver can see. While Excel allows users to double check the data is correct by doing simple validation, it also allows them to build one-off reports using Excel as their data source. This lack of standardization makes version control a nightmare and can lead to hours of editing down the road. Editing multiple versions of reports and trying to keep track of the logic in each individual report is exhausting and costly in both time and budget.
If leadership understands these risks, their top down strategy should encourage reporting teams to accept the new tools. If leadership is not able to make this decision, I have found the next best option is...
Let them test drive a BI report
One client I worked with had a 40MB Excel file with a different tab for each slice of data that anyone in the organization wanted to see. This was just one of hundreds of manually maintained Excel reports that were refreshed and distributed monthly. All it took to convince them was to rebuild that 40MB view in BusinessObjects Web Intelligence, allow them to filter the data using input control drop down menus, and put the report in their hands to try it out. We built 10 report views which 15 different Financial Directors were each manually refreshing in Excel. Using Web Intelligence scheduling, they now receive monthly reports with refreshed data tailored to each of their categories. This saved each director over 3 hours a month (a collective 45+ hours a month) that they can now spend analyzing their data and making decisions instead of refreshing reports.
Partnership between business and technology departments
One huge benefit of Excel is that it is self-managed. If a formula doesn't work, a business analyst goes in and makes a change. BI introduces the need for an IT department to manage and troubleshoot the system when something goes wrong. There are platform, security, server, sizing, and architectural requirements to consider before implementing BI Reporting throughout an organization. Without that strategic vision and alignment between the needs of the business and the capabilities of the IT organization, BI Reporting will not be successful and certainly will not be scalable.
BI also introduces the need for more technical developers. Whether the development team lies within the business or within IT varies by the organization. Depending on the tool, the level of technical skill can be moderate (Web Intelligence, Xcelsius/Dashboards, Lumira) to much more complex (Design Studio, EPM). Nonetheless, these reporting tools empower business users with insights and ease of data access far beyond the simplicity of Excel reports.
There will always be a place for Excel in organizations. While not efficient for large scale reporting, Excel is a very powerful tool that will be used for many years to come. Many BI tools (EPM, Analysis for Office, BEx Analyzer, Xcelsius) use Excel as an interface because the developers know that Excel will never disappear and want to ease the transition for Excel-savvy business users. Most reporting tools and advanced data analytics tools (Tableau, Qlikview, Lumira) even have an option to use Excel as a data source.
There is so much potential to save time and effort by exchanging Excel for BI reporting. As in my earlier example, if BI reporting for just a small portion of a business resulted in 45 hours of saved time each month, imagine the opportunity for cost savings that can be discovered when implementing BI reporting across the entire business. In order to succeed, organizations need to realize the risks and costs of continuing to do their reporting in Excel and make the transition to BI technology for their reporting needs.
John Cintolo is a Business Intelligence & Data Analytics Consultant specializing in SAP BusinessObjects, SAP BW & Tableau