Beefy BI apps threaten to squash Excel

More powerful business intelligence tools are threatening the dominance of Microsoft’s Excel in the workplace but industry experts say it’s too early to write off the venerable spreadsheet yet.

“I think BI ubiquity will be upon us in the two and a half years. But Excel will not lose its value in the business,” according to Catherine Boivie, senior vice-president of information technology for Pacific Blue Cross an extended health care and dental benefits provider based in British Columbia.

About a year ago, her company’s personnel began using BI software from Cognos to prepare reports that evaluate drug claims trends and track revenues.

“Our people used to request the IT department for such analysis, but with the new BI applications they can now do it from their desks,” she said.

The analysis tool also enables PBC employees to produce coverage and premium quotes.

However, Boivie said, for simpler task Excel will remain popular “because it is a very good spreadsheet.”

One of Excel’s major advantages is its pervasiveness in the workplace for several decades.

“Over the years, people have become very familiar with the look and feel of Excel,” said George Goodall, senior analyst for consultancy firm Info Tech Research Group, in London, Ont.

As a spreadsheet, he said, the software is a very versatile tool for “storing data, doing simple calculations and passing around that information.”

But in recent years concerns over data integrity, security and compliance with various regulations governing information management have highlighted the advantages of BI applications, Goodall said. “The question now becomes – what information do we allow to reside in Excel?”

Since data is contained in the spreadsheet itself there is very little by way of security to prevent users from intentionally or inadvertently passing information along via e-mail to unauthorized viewers, he said.

Traceability and lack of standardization is another issue that most firms using Excel grapple with. For instance, when a user initiates some complicated calculations on Excel it would be very hard for another user to “dig out that formula,” said Boivie.

Such a situation often leaves employees “dealing with disparate spreadsheets trying to determine who wrote what,” Goodall said.

Organization had long struggled with security risks, lack of an audit trail and manual processes that “managing performance on Excel alone bring to the enterprise,” said Paul Hulford, product marketing manager for Cognos Inc.

“With Sarbanes Oxley (a U.S. accounting regulation inspired by the Enron scandal) and other regulations, that level of risk in no longer acceptable,” he added.

Hulford said one solution is to “bring the best of both worlds to power Excel users” with BI tools such as the Cognos 8 BI Analysis for Microsoft Excel.

The service oriented architecture-based application enables users to do their exploration and analysis within Excel while the data resides in the secure environment of Cognos 8 BI. The tool provides automatic refresh of data when numbers change.

Business Objects, another BI tool vendor, also found it necessary to “embrace” Excel because it is one of the areas people work.

In the earlier years of BI technology much of the products coming out of vendors were applications targeted at a narrow group of IT people and analysts, said James Thomas, vice-president of marketing of BI content and tools for Business Objects.

But is the past two years the trend has been towards making BI software more pervasive in the corporate environment. “BI developers wanted to reach out to people where they worked. And people worked in applications such as Excel, MS Office, and PeopleSoft.”

For example, Business Objects has Crystal Xcelsius, a point-and-click software that turns data into more easily accessible reports and presentations for executives and line employees.

The product can transform Excel spreadsheets into Microsoft PowerPoint, Word, Adobe PDF and Web-based interactive presentations, Excel dashboards or “visual what-if models,” said Thomas.

Microsoft itself has integrated Excel into its own BI strategy, according to Ryan Dochuck, product manager for Microsoft Canada.

“We surveyed our BI customers and the number one request we got was to enable them to export data to Excel because it is such as fundamental office interface,” he said

The demand encouraged incorporating Excel interface with such products as PerformancePoint 2007, Microsofts planning and forecasting tool.

Info-Tech’s Goodall believes Excel will continue to be used for sometime “at the individual level and for basic analysis.”

“As BI tools become cheaper and easier to use, use of the spreadsheet will eventually be considered suspect practice because of error replication issues, regulation compliance and security concerns.”

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