Data Management & the Continued Use of Excel
Small and medium-sized businesses aren't able to afford business intelligence software platforms that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fortunately, that's no longer an obstacle with the rise of affordable, easy to use BI tools like arcplan. Once you've decided that you need better, faster answers to your business questions, you start to get into the nitty gritty details of what a BI deployment means and how you need to prepare your data. Let's continue with our series on the most frequently asked questions SMBs have when it comes to BI. This time I'll address questions about data management and spreadsheets.
5) How much data do we need?
The #1 technology challenge for SMBs is getting insight from the data they already have. The average SMB has over 27 unique data sources according to research conducted by The Aberdeen Group – from ERP systems and General Ledgers to CRM tools, social media and more. Your company should carefully consider the amount, type, and "freshness" of data that your organization requires for its reporting.
- How many data sources are really critical to our decision-making?
- Do we need real-time data access or will daily or weekly updates do the job?
- How far back do we need to go? Do we need 5-year-old data or is only recent data important?
I suggest starting out small – for example, with 2 years of back data – and growing your data availability over time as needed. Don't worry about all the big data hype you're hearing. You may have the volume, velocity, and variety that characterizes big data eventually. But for now, if you're like most SMBs and are trying to tackle specific business problems, it's best to start small and make data available at a pace you and your users can handle.
6) What if we don't have a database?
If you're thinking about business intelligence, your business has data. It might scattered across multiple sources and ultimately just need to live somewhere where it can be aggregated for reporting. But it's too expensive and time-consuming for SMBs to develop data warehouses. If you already have an investment in SQL Server like many SMBs do, you might choose to stick with that as your database – it's basically the next step up from Microsoft Access. Many BI solutions like arcplan natively connect to SQL Server.
But if you're really starting with nothing but Excel files, your best bet is to create (or work with your BI vendor to create) an OLAP database. OLAP stands for online analytical processing and it enables you to get fast answers to your business questions. If you've heard analysts talking about "cubes," they are the heart of an OLAP system and enable you to view data from many dimensions. I won't get too technical here – the point is that an OLAP database would be a fast, affordable option for creating a database that can be used by your BI system. You can have something up and running literally in days.
7) Can we continue using spreadsheets for our analysis?
Many BI vendors say Excel should be eliminated altogether in favor of their own interface, but that's not realistic. Excel is still the most pervasive analytics tool in the world and also the most commonly used database because it is relatively easy to use and inexpensive. If Excel use is ingrained in your organization, then your BI vendor should enable you to continue using it (in a smarter way, where the best parts of Excel are integrated into the BI infrastructure). In such a system, power users can continue using Excel for analysis while it's directly connected to your database. This way, they can work in a familiar environment while maintaining data integrity and security.
With a BI solution like arcplan, with its Excel add-in arcplan Excel Analytics, you can even:
- Enable users to write-back to the data source right from Excel or store comments alongside your data (especially helpful for budgeting & planning, where users need to enter supporting details for particular line items).
- Distribute reports in Excel on a scheduled basis, eliminating the need to compile reports weekly or monthly. They’ll automatically be sent out with the most up-to-date data.
- Perform what-if analysis in Excel.
- Work offline in Excel and connect to the data source at a later time to sync your changes.
The short answer is yes, you can continue using spreadsheets for your analysis if you purchase the right BI solution. Choose to work with a BI vendor that leverages – not limits – Excel, making the tool an asset rather than a potential liability.
Next time I'll tackle a few more important questions facing SMBs in your quest to select the right BI software solution.
Check out the rest of this series: