If you’d like to read part one, click here.
Part two of this series will focus on two processes: Scalability and Indifference.
If your capacity to share Excel reports cannot change in size or scale, or the processes by which this information is shared cannot be produced in a range of capabilities, it’s highly probable that scalability is at the core of the problem.
Scalability (or rather, the lack of) rears its ugly head whenever attempts are made to take Excel reports beyond where they reside (A.K.A. on your desktop, for your eyes only), and share them with scores of others; whether they be internal stakeholders, or external customers and partners who wish to consume information. If this process weren’t already difficult enough, it becomes even more cumbersome if the goal is to share reports in a professional manner, especially when data is to be delivered as an asset to these external organizations. These days, many companies monetize their data or use reports as a way to validate whatever they produce for their customers. Unfortunately, Excel (and even PowerPoint to that extent) simply aren’t cutting it in terms of the level of professionalism you’d expect to have when sharing information with external users. This is a primary reason for why a huge chunk of our customers have transitioned from Excel-based reporting to embedding a business intelligence platform.
But before we can even begin to think about the complications surrounding the look and feel of the reports that are shared from Excel, we need to return to the root problem of scalability, which is security. The number one problem in regards to scalability is in Excel’s ability to protect information in a scalable manner. More specifically, in its lack of ability to apply security frameworks to different datasets and still have the same reports shared and reused by a number of different users. Sure, it’s possible in Excel (via VBA scripts, other sophisticated mechanisms, different types of workarounds, etc.), just as it’s possible to explain the word “the”. This process in Excel is highly complex, bound to fail, and simply not scalable.
Refine the Process
Row/Role Level Security
The typical organization consists of employees of varying seniority and role-type. Some may be executives, some may be managers, some may be associates, some may be… you get the picture. With the vast reserve of data most companies possess, there are likely subsets of data that different individuals should (and should not be) privy to. For example, a Regional Sales Manager in Africa does not need access to national sales data in Europe, and vice versa. This is an even bigger concern when sharing data with customers, where we’d want to make sure one customer cannot see the data of another. While extremely difficult to achieve in Excel (not to mention substandard at best when executed), with a business intelligence solution, the once arduous task of defining which subsets of data specific users can see becomes rather simple.
With Dundas BI, administrators can apply custom attributes – values that identify which subsets of data users are allowed to see – directly on top of the data source whereby the data is extracted from, and automatically display filtered data. This means that the same dashboards and reports can be used across multiple users, each refreshed with their own data. Let’s take a quick look at what this looks like in Dundas BI. The following video clip simulates the data different users will be able to see based on their custom attributes:
When discussing scalability, it would be foolish to limit ourselves solely to the act of sharing reports with other consumers. In a perfect world, it should be permissible for those who are viewing dashboards to interact with one another on top of the data. Dundas BI makes this possible by authorizing users to document what they’re seeing on a dashboard or report through the use of notes (or annotations). Notes are useful as they provide additional context and encourage communication with others who are viewing the same data. What’s unique about leaving notes in Dundas BI, is that since they’re associated with specific data, the same notes will appear automatically on other data visualizations or views that are displaying the same data.
A similar practice can be performed in Excel, however, where the methods vary, are in the manner by which notes are relayed to other users. Notes in Excel are static as they remain in individual cells in individual spreadsheets, whereas notes in Dundas BI are fluid and can trigger notifications. For example, the owner of a particular dataset (i.e., North American Sales) can set up Dundas BI to send automatic email notifications when users publish and respond to notes on their dashboard. What this means is that every time questions are asked or comments are provided on top of the data, everyone with access to that data will receive the note directly in their inbox. This makes it abundantly easier to ensure contextual information is shared across different users, and encourages greater collaboration.
In this context, scalability refers less to the growing volumes of data, and focuses more on the process of taking what’s been created and diffusing it with others both internally and externally. Consider taking advantage of a solution that promotes collaboration and the sharing of data, as there is little value in maintaining reports with minimal capacity for dissemination.
Whoosh! That’s the sound of a weekly report moving from your inbox to your trash bin. You know the report I’m talking about – the one you clearly stopped caring about and only open so that the unread notification is removed. If you find yourself relating to this, it’s indicative of a lack of interest or indifference towards your reports. It’s fair to assume that you don’t see the value in them.
Refine the Process
We tend to recognize the causation behind indifference towards Excel reports as a two-headed beast:
Enhance Visual Appeal
The visual appeal of dashboards and reports has an immense effect on those who consume them. As emotional creatures, we’re hardwired to show interest in beautiful things and our perception of them is typically more positive. Users naturally gravitate towards visually stunning dashboards, which has a stated impact in regards to initial adoption. Adoption is arguably the single most important indicator of success for any software, let alone reporting solutions, as little value will be derived from the tool if no one uses it.
Where Excel comes up short in this regard, is in its scarcity of visual design elements. Dundas BI enables its users to create pixel-perfect dashboards using powerful, highly-customizable data visualizations that help them gain valuable insights and drive faster decision making. It’s possible to then take the same beautiful visualizations associated with dashboards, and simply align them to the enterprise’s reporting needs in a dedicated reports designer. Regardless of whether our users choose to create multi-page reports or ad-hoc reports, Dundas BI is flexible and interactive enough to allow for the creation of complex views in a simplified, attractive manner. “If you build it they will come” holds true here as well – a professional, visually appealing design will entice users to not only open the report but treat it more seriously and interact with it to ask additional questions based on insights they can’t easily spot in the traditional tabular-based Excel reports.
Beyond visual appeal, there’s the matter of relevance, particularly in regards to what users can accomplish with Excel reports and how applicable they are in the day-to-day operations. More often than not, organizations tend to produce spreadsheets and reports for the sake of having them, without having the ability to truly dive deep into and control their data to deliver striking insights. The reports produced are often accompanied by brief summaries that consumers tend to skim, and ultimately become numb to over time. Another primary characteristic of Excel reports that contributes to this apathetic behavior is its style of output, which is tabular and static (i.e., offline, non-interactive, difficult to consume on multiple devices, etc.).
With Dundas BI, it’s possible to create interactive and professional reports that prompt the user to gain a more accurate and deeper intuitive understanding of their data, by consistently pushing them towards the next question, and the next question, and the next question.
Despite its wild popularity, there are significant drawbacks with Excel that a business intelligence solution addresses more appropriately. While spreadsheets perform adequately for simple calculations with data of smaller volumes, it’s important to recognize that certain Excel-based processes are simply better suited for BI. If you’ve suffered from any of the above processes during your everyday routines, and are looking to take advantage of the abundance of data at your disposal to make better, more informed decisions, we highly recommend investing time in evaluating a solution that delivers more than just data exploration.
Dundas Data Visualization is a leading, global provider of Business Intelligence (BI), Data Analytics and Data Visualization solutions. Dundas provides organizations with the most flexible, innovative and scalable BI, dashboard and reporting software enabling users access to all their data for better decisions and faster insights.