Legacy database visualization and analysis tools like Microsoft Excel are still commonly used for reporting purposes. However, this practice is far from optimal. Here will discuss the following reasons why BI solutions are superior to traditional spreadsheets:
Collaboration, Distribution, and Publishing
Scalability and Performance
Security and Monitoring
Traditional spreadsheet programs are very useful — but only for entry-level users. The more your company is growing, the more complex functions you will need for reporting, and programs like Excel are limited in various aspects.
Moreover, these passé tools require lots of manual tweaking of data and macros/formulas in order to achieve results that are easily automated in BI systems. The need for manual tinkering naturally increases the risk of human error. This issue becomes even more pressing if we add to it the necessity of managing different versions of your report or sharing it with other team members. Usually, multiple team members share dataset files or reports via email or shared folders in local networks which may lead to version control nightmares.
In turn, Business Intelligence software is able not only to automatically analyze datasets but also provide users with rich, easily shareable visualization capabilities. Thereby, even unskilled users can intuitively generate reports monitoring sales, costs, productivity, and other business functions. The wide scope and flexibility of BI tools makes it easier to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a business.
So, what are the advantages of BI systems over traditional spreadsheets?
Old-school spreadsheets are very clunky when it comes to opening large data files. Some programs do not even allow loading or viewing datasets bigger than a given number of rows or megabytes.
In contrast, Business Intelligence tools enable impressive data compression in addition to analysis and visualization functions. This fact makes them very snappy and fast. With them you may work and view your data directly in the BI system and preserve a full overview of the dataset.
Moreover, with modern BI tools you can easily combine, concatenate, and merge various datasets, even those from different departments like sales, marketing, etc. With traditional spreadsheets this was only possible manually, which obviously slowed things down and put the integrity of the entire dataset integrity at risk due to the threat of human error.
Preparation, modification, and transformation of data is very convenient in BI software. Analytical and statistical models can be generated using BI dashboards that include different dimensions and data attributes like date-time combinations. BI tools often provide various time functions like calculating Year-To-Date KPIs and so forth. Besides, BI software can easily perform all standard data edits and manipulations such as filtering, adding, merging, combining cells/rows/columns, and changing formats.
Traditional spreadsheet handlers are able to easily create, copy, and paste data tables. They do not, however, allow connecting other tools like Twitter, Facebook, or Google Analytics. In order to hook these up, old-fashioned programs often require third-party plugins. Concatenating data from different sources like SAP or SQL Server can also be problematic for old-fashioned spreadsheet software.
Modern BI tools are designed to combine data into a reportable model with connector functions dedicated to different data handlers. Interactive dashboards then deliver instant visualizations and analyses that can be refreshed in real time.
As outlined above, BI tools enable automatic data consolidation from various sources. Moreover, they are capable of automatic data collection and allow for scheduled data refreshes which make manual data processing obsolete and unnecessary. Therefore, they free up business users’ time to be put toward more valuable activities.
This BI-enabled automation adds value in two ways. First of all, these systems are less prone to mistakes as they require far less manual, human involvement. Second, reporting is automated. When you set up a BI system capable of preprocessing, analyzing, and visualizing data, you can easily modify reports by tweaking the parameters of your models and appending or updating your original datasets. In this way, you are able to create scheduled, strategic reports and/or deliver the updated information directly to your users, contractors, and clients. This way, interested parties will constantly stay up to date on critical information.
Producing charts is relatively easy and painless in Excel and other similar, basic programs. BI tools often provide similar methods to relate simple data with workflows users have grown accustomed to with spreadsheet programs.
However, more complex visualizations are much more challenging in Excel and are not easy to implement let alone automate. There are no automatic operations except calculations and pivot tables, which need to be set up manually ahead of time. Data preparation and preprocessing require creating formulas, changing cell formats, and combining and pasting data.
In comparison, relatively complex visualizations involving geodata, maps, and timeframes are often in the standard toolkit of a lot of BI software. Some BI programs even allow creating or buying custom visualizations to meet unique requirements.
More abstract reports regarding operations, for example, can be made comprehensible and intuitive with BI systems. They often offer drag-and-drop functionalities and other handy utilities to modify specific visuals by adding groups or markers to a graph, for instance. In this sense they are more like familiar office programs than complicated programming environments.
Generating user-defined branding and color schemes are also easy in BI systems. Marketing teams can use them to handle such tasks themselves without relying on analysts. As a result, it is easy to generate charts and graphs with one consistent color scheme in line with company branding guidelines.
Using Excel or other traditional programs on mobile devices is difficult, ineffective, and sometimes impossible. Monitoring KPIs in mobile BI dashboards is a far better solution, especially in terms of viewing and visualizing spreadsheets. Moreover, mobile versions of BI systems often preserve most desktop functionalities around analysis and statistical interpretation. Some BI solutions have dedicated mobile apps with access to downloadable dashboards for offline work on a plane, for example.
Collaboration, Distribution, and Publishing
We all know how problematic and irritating it is to work on an Excel spreadsheet simultaneously with colleagues. All your files need to be manually shared or uploaded to a virtual drive. You have to be careful when modifying the files to avoid version conflicts, which are especially problematic when working with Big Data.
BI tools allow you to publish reports that are accessible to your collaborators. They can comment on your KPIs and visualizations based on the context of each view. Moreover, each aspect of the report is often adjustable and can be displayed and modified in real time in each collaborator’s personal workspace. Thereby, analytical models do not need to be rebuilt or reset; everything can be adjusted on the go.
Scalability and Performance
As the importance of gathering and analyzing vast amounts of data grows, Excel quickly becomes a bottleneck for your models. Depending on how many columns you have, Excel slows down dramatically when you reach approximately one million rows. BI solutions are typically adjusted for millions of rows of data and run their own memory load optimization engines.
BI tools are designed to store and calculate data either on desktops or in a cloud environment. The latter solution allows for easy scalability and resource savings. Moreover, the constant improvement of performance, ease of access, and reliability is one of BI tool developers’ top priorities.
Security and Monitoring
Standard spreadsheet viewing programs do not have their own security gateways. They rely on operating systems, network file access rights, and individual computers’ security settings.
Excel relies on inconvenient password-based security. If it is not properly set up, anybody can easily update, delete, copy, and paste rows and columns in the file. This can obviously compromise the security or confidentiality of the data in a spreadsheet.
BI software solutions have many security layers controlling and monitoring users’ activity and access rights. They make it simple to implement security protocols like LDAP or Active Directory authentication. Access rights can be swiftly and flexibly established at the dashboard, analysis, and reporting levels. The original owner of a dashboard/dataset can give relevant people access to specific information in a report based on their level of expertise or responsibilities.
Many spreadsheet programs are theoretically free but are not very useful when it comes to modern business needs involving gathering, analyzing, and reporting data. Excel is still a popular business tool, but it is time-consuming and relatively inflexible. On the other hand, BI solutions save time, resources, and money.
Today’s data-driven businesses require new solutions so as not to overburden their IT departments with gathering, preprocessing, and analyzing data. BI tools automate a variety of business processes, facilitate the merging of data from different sources, offer swift visualization capabilities, and feature row-level security.