The Power of OLAP and Excel
Should Excel be a key component of your company’s Business Performance Management (BPM) system? There’s no doubt how most IT managers would answer this question. Name IT’s top ten requirements for a successful BPM system, and they’ll quickly explain how Excel violates dozens of them. Even the user community is concerned. Companies are larger and more complex now than in the past; they are too complex for Excel. Managers need information more quickly now; they can’t wait for another Excel report. Excel spreadsheets don’t scale well. They can’t be used by many different users. Excel reports have many errors. Excel security is a joke. Excel output is ugly. Excel consolidation occupies a large corner of Spreadsheet Hell. For these reasons, and many more, a growing number of companies of all sizes have concluded that it’s time to replace Excel. But before your company takes that leap of faith, perhaps you should take another look at Excel. Particularly when Excel can be enhanced by an Excel-friendly OLAP database.That technology eliminates the classic objections to using Excel for business performance management.
Excel-friendly OLAP products cure many of the problems that both users and IT managers have with Excel. But before I explain why this is so, I should explain what OLAP is, and how it can be Excel-friendly. Although OLAP technology has been available for years, it’s still quite obscure. One reason is that “OLAP” is an acronym for four words that are remarkably devoid of meaning: On-Line Analytical Processing. OLAP databases are more easily understood when they’re compared with relational databases. Both “OLAP” and “relational” are names for a type of database technology. Oversimplified, relational databases contain lists of stuff; OLAP databases contain cubes of stuff.
For example, you could keep your accounting general ledger data in a simple cube with three dimensions: Account, Division, and Month. At the intersection of any particular account, division, and month you would find one number. By convention, a positive number would be a debit and a negative number would be a credit. Most cubes have more than three dimensions. And they typically contain a wide variety of business data, not merely General Ledger data. OLAP cubes also could contain monthly headcounts, currency exchange rates, daily sales detail, budgets, forecasts, hourly production data, the quarterly financials of your publicly traded competitors, and so on.
You probably could find at least 50 OLAP products on the market. But most of them lack a key characteristic: spreadsheet functions.
Excel-friendly OLAP products offer a wide variety of spreadsheet functions that read data from cubes into Excel. Most such products also offer spreadsheet functions that can write to the OLAP database from Excel…with full security, of course.
Read-write security typically can be defined down to the cell level by user. Therefore, only certain analysts can write to a forecast cube. A department manager can read only the salaries of people who report to him. And the OLAP administrator must use a special password to update the General Ledger cube.
Other OLAP products push data into Excel; Excel-friendly OLAP pulls data into Excel. To an Excel user, the difference between push and pull is significant.
Using the push technology, users typically must interact with their OLAP product’s user interface to choose data and then write it as a block of numbers to Excel. If a report relies on five different views of data, users must do this five times. Worse, the data typically isn’t written where it’s needed within the body of the report. Instead, the data merely is parked in the spreadsheet for use somewhere else.
Using the pull technology, spreadsheet users can write formulas that pull the data from any number of cells in any number of cubes in the database. Even a single spreadsheet cell can contain a formula that pulls data from several cubes.
At first reading, it’s easy to overlook the significant difference between this method of serving data to Excel and most others. Spreadsheets linked to Excel-friendly OLAP databases don’t contain data; they contain only formulas linked to data on the server. In contrast, most other technologies write blocks of data to Excel. It really doesn’t matter whether the data is imported as a text file, copied and pasted, generated by a PivotTable, or pushed to a spreadsheet by some other OLAP. The other technologies turn Excel into a data store. But Excel-friendly OLAP eliminates that problem, by giving you real-time data for a successful BPM system.
To learn more about OLAP, click here.
“Excel is one of those applications that the business world cannot live without.”
So says one of 27 Excel experts commenting on Microsoft’s Power BI Suite and its effect on the great wide world of spreadsheet users.
As Excel lovers, we couldn’t agree more!
There’s a wealth of wisdom in the observations made by these 27 pros. Along with the main topic of what’s new in Power BI Suite, there’s excellent insight on the use of Excel and BI generally. (For a good post about what one expert calls a “running joke in BI communities—‘What is the most used feature in any business intelligence solution?’”, see But, Does It Export to Excel?, from PARIS Technologies.)
About what’s new with Power BI Suite, the experts agree that it delivers significantly powerful new capabilities: from connecting to enterprise data (Power Query) to aggregating differently sourced data (Power Pivot) to creating exciting visualizations (Power View and Power Map—watch out, “Visual Analytics” products!), this suite of tools signifies a whole new era of “self-service BI” for Excel users.
Smart guys and gals that they are, the experts point up some caveats. How will these new capabilities affect a company’s “B.I. workflow[s]”? And, mightn’t Power BI, by empowering Excel user(s), propagate more—and more complex—silos of data among disconnected groups of users? Will IT lose total control, if users feel it’s their Excel-given birthright to reach back to underlying data sets for BI solutions? And as to collaborative work—will SharePoint be the answer, finally?
All the caveats and concerns are certainly worth considering … That said, from our standpoint: we begin with the premise that user-empowering technologies—Excel or otherwise—are a good thing! As for the caveats, won’t someone please invent a technology that addresses concerns about security and collaboration? And one that provides for other application needs, like planning, budgeting and forecasting? Because that’s what people do in Excel! And while they’re at it, a solution that is inclusive of other non-Excel users? (Hmmm, maybe someone has – see here for a description of PARIS’s Olation).
“The future looks very bright for Excel and BI,” says another expert. Here’s to a future that’s bright for all BI users—and no caveats required!
Read the original article, from InvestInTech.com here: 27 Microsoft Excel Experts Predict the Future of Excel in Business Intelligence
The article, The File-less Organization: Why Excel Isn’t Enough for Businesses, from Dataversity.net is quite astute in the way it identifies Excel as a problem–noting that each manager gathers his or her own version of the numbers to bring to a meeting. And so in the meeting everyone has a different version of the state of affairs, and things can easily devolve into an argument over whose numbers are the “most right”. Sound familiar?
I was so excited when I began reading because this article gets it exactly right in the beginning, but at the end, it seems to recommend dashboards as the solution to this problem. Except that dashboards are usually representations of those same error-prone, manually compiled spreadsheets. The ‘replace-Excel-with-dashboards’ scenario is more of a band-aid theory: once you get past the pretty graphics, you’ll discover that you traded one problem for another! Don’t get us wrong, we love dashboards, but we think they should be real-time, fed from the data source directly. This requires a sophisticated BI solution, which the article confuses a little bit with dashboards. Typically, dashboards have limited calculation capability. With the newest, advanced business solutions, like Olation, the relational data source is combined with a data calculation engine and modeling solution that, yes indeed, works with Excel, not against it.
By Bill Tastle, our newest OLAP.com contributor
As a Professor at an AACSB accredited business school, I am responsible for preparing business students who are eager to enter the marketplace upon graduation. Naturally, I spend a lot of time researching about what skills will best serve them. This can be more of a challenge than one might think because today’s skills may not be in demand tomorrow but one thing appears to be quite apparent; the need for graduates trained in the methods of business analytics will be in demand for at least the next decade. Thus, my business school faculty members and I have been discussing how best to incorporate Business Intelligence (BI) skills into our existing program.
This is a bit exasperating if one’s business school/college is AACSB accredited, because the required set of courses that comprise the curricula have very little room for extras. BI, I must argue, is not an “extra” but rather, a critical component to a student’s undergraduate business education.
So, I carefully examined the landscape for suitable software tools to bring into my undergraduate classroom environment. I spent considerable time reading everything I could find from many, many companies and multinational corporations hawking tools for BI. Eventually, I happened upon a company featuring a strong “Excel user-friendly” product.
There seemed to be a natural logic to doing BI in Excel, given the pervasive use of spreadsheets in the business community, but what I had discovered is that many software vendors try to address the Excel “problem” by doing away with Excel altogether.
This company had a different approach, which is to embrace what Excel has to offer as a familiar front end. I sent off an email asking for information and virtually immediately was in contact with someone at the company and quickly received their literature. I read it! Carefully! The more I read, the more excited I became.
It is pretty obvious that all business schools teach Microsoft Excel, some at a trivial level, which is little more than a superficial introduction, and others are more advanced levels. Perhaps I am a statistical outlier, but at my school, sophomores must become Microsoft Expert certified to pass their required business technology course.
So, the ability to bring a BI tool directly into Excel in the form of a simple add-in has made all the difference in the world. Students receive an introduction to the world of BI and quickly discover what is meant by “multi-dimensionality,” an important concept when business performance models (“cubes” in BI terminology) are being constructed.
I could not do as good of a job teaching Business Analytics if I had to teach an enterprise database program first, just to get to their dashboard graphs. Furthermore, being able to attach the BI software program to other sources of data made it all the more fascinating to students who are amazed to discover they can access data not only from other worksheets, but also from database tables. This is also a fantastic achievement, getting data from multiple sources with different data structures.
I am about as pleased as can be. In fact, I am offering an additional course in BI and I have other courses undergoing development. The pedagogy involved in the skills of Business Intelligence is being written in this decade, and the benefit of using an “Excel-friendly” tool in the classroom brings daylight to the mysterious area of “intelligence gathering” and how it is used in decision-making solutions. For me, it is particularly exciting because it is the beginning of a thrilling direction in business education.
Next time: Analytics in the Business Dean’s Office