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What's wrong with Excel Business Intelligence? Plenty.

Is it possible to use a spreadsheet such as Microsoft Excel for Business Intelligence? Of course. There are add-ons and dashboarding tools designed to let you do just that. But is it actually wise to use Excel Business Intelligence? That, in short, is a very different question.

Excel business intelligence wrong

Granted, Excel is hugely powerful. And to most of us, a familiar and trusted office productivity tool. But that doesn’t mean that a move to Excel Business Intelligence is a smart one.

Quite the reverse, in fact. Going down the Excel Business Intelligence route could turn out to be an enormous mistake. And one with business-damaging consequences.

Let’s look at why.

Excel Business Intelligence: the data extraction challenge.

The first problem is getting the data out of your ERP system, and into Excel. Simply put, you’re going to need several technologies, which you then knit together yourself.

Take a business using a Microsoft SQL Server database to power its ERP system, as many businesses do.

First, you’ll have to design and build your data warehouse, using a separately-purchased instance of SQL Server. Then you’ll have to populate the data warehouse with Microsoft’s SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS) ETL tool. Then you’ll need to create multi dimensional OLAP cubes using SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS). And finally, you link to Excel, using a pivot table.

None of this is hugely complex, of course, but the simple fact is that someone has to do it—namely your IT function. And someone also has to have the budget to purchase the second instance of SQL Server, and the associated integration utilities.

Put another way, what might have looked like a cheap option—let’s use Excel, because we already have it—suddenly starts to look rather more expensive.

Excel Business Intelligence: audit, audit, audit.

The second major problem with the idea of Excel Business Intelligence is that Excel itself is a tool that wasn’t designed for enterprise-class analytics and reporting. Heck, it’s a spreadsheet program!

And frankly, even some of the biggest proponents of Excel Business Intelligence concede that this can be a challenge. As Ron Person, author of Balanced Scorecards and Operational Dashboards with Microsoft Excel points out, spreadsheet best practices take on a whole new significance.

In part, this is down to user training, professional documentation standards, and giving users a proper education in spreadsheet design and deployment. Use range names in formulae, for instance. Use an Excel Business Intelligence spreadsheet architecture that separates data, formulae, and chart and reporting areas. And have all Excel Business Intelligence spreadsheets regularly audited.

Even so, horrors lurk. Like the pharmaceutical company he encountered where critical spreadsheet formulae had been overtyped with numeric values. For several years, crucial business decisions had been made based on a flawed understanding of product margins.

The good news: avoiding such nightmares with Excel Business Intelligence isn’t impossible, given sufficient organisational willpower, and the budget for regular auditing and training.

But frankly, doesn’t that rather take the edge off what had been billed as an affordable solution that you already possessed?

Excel Business Intelligence: Cloud BI is faster, better, and cheaper.

So is there an alternative to Excel Business Intelligence that’s genuinely cost-effective, and which doesn’t involve massive upfront IT expenditures?

At Matillion, we like to think so. In fact, with Matillion BI, the only upfront expenditure is a one off fixed-price setup fee.

Thereafter, you get a full enterprise-class Cloud Business Intelligence solution, delivered on a monthly subscription basis, with no further hardware or software required. Everything you need is in the Cloud, delivered as part of that affordable monthly subscription.

Better still, it outperforms another supposed advantage of Excel Business Intelligence: implementation speed. Simply put, a typical implementation of Matillion BI can take as little as four to eight weeks elapsed, from signed order to users being trained.

All for that affordable monthly subscription. Frankly, why bother with Excel Business Intelligence?