By Jack Guarneri

But...does it export to Excel

A friend who is a longtime BI consultant was speaking to me about the shortcomings of software products that promote their prowess in Data Visualizations. He said that he knows a customer that bought one such product and effectively wasted $50,000.

At one point the customer asked this about the data visualization software: “Will it export to Excel?” The software, regrettably, does not export to Excel. However disappointing—or perhaps urgently problematic—that answer was for the customer, there’s also an irony: dumping numbers from the data visualization software into spreadsheets was not what the customer had in mind when they made the purchase. After all, one of the key selling points—something that was essentially promised—was that the product, in addition to featuring world-class dashboards, would “finally address analysts’ over-reliance on Excel.”

My colleague and I shook our heads: it wasn’t the first time we had heard something of the sort. Upon reflection, I believe it’s a question (“Does it export to Excel?”) that, in one form or another, we hear in many conversations with prospects: “How does it connect to Excel?” “What if I want to see the data in a spreadsheet?” “Can I click a button and…export it to Excel?”

Please understand: this is not a hit piece on Data Visualization software. Most certainly there is an enormous amount of understanding to be gained by seeing a company’s key metrics, performance indicators and plain old total quantitative results (sales, revenue, widgets manufactured this month, etc.) impressively presented in a chart/graph/you-name-it-kind-of-dashboard.

Spreadsheets Are Analysts' Go-To

That said, this is about the ongoing and undeniable fact:
Users want to continue to work in Excel. Period. This is the case even for users of visual analytics products.

Maybe it’s especially so for users of data visualization products: though such users are “delivered analytics insights by visualizations,” often one of the first things they think about is exporting to Excel.

Why this enduring instinct to work in spreadsheets? Maybe it’s because “inquiring minds” don’t just “want to know”: inquiring minds want to go further, do more, get their hands, so to speak, on the data they see in charts and graphs. Data visualization tools lead to more questions, requiring further analyses. Fish gotta swim, after all. Birds gotta fly. Analysts gotta analyze.

Might spreadsheet partisans be better (or at least equally) served by doing this “go further” work in dashboard products? They might be able to. Visualization tools often include some calculation capabilities. But the fact that they don’t want to is another reason for the pervasiveness of spreadsheets: so many analysts develop strong skills over the course of their careers in Excel. Why abandon what you know, especially if it suits your needs so well?

A Forecast Example ("You Can't Type Numbers in a Graph")

“Excel familiarity” aside, there’s a whole lot that Excel can do that leaves visualization tools in the dust. Let’s consider a hypothetical: a dashboard has been set up at a large retail firm to show an impressive KPI for gross margin, in total, across 3 product lines, selectable by month, as well as by region (keeping in mind that, given seasonal sales, product pricing may change, and may be adjusted according to location). There’s also the availability to drill through to obtain the same KPI for individual products and locations, and the underlying revenue and cost figures. But the analyst needs to go further (or, perhaps, has been asked by the CFO!): to forecast margin results by switching to a lower-cost supplier that can provide a few products to each line. Just for fun, let’s say that if the new supplier is selected, then the analyst’s firm will potentially lose on volume discounts provided by the current supplier. This hypothetical involves “what if” forecast scenarios, making cost-benefit comparisons between suppliers and comparing net results for the 3 product lines.

A few things are combined here that Excel is particularly adept at:

  • Modeling data – the potential new supplier will need to be added to the scenario model
  • Calculations – which can be quite involved, even in this simple example
  • Entering numbers/variables – the costs indicated by the new supplier, and different discount rates
billion-row-excel-meme

Our analyst, to forecast margin results with the new supplier, needs to start somewhere—almost certainly with the base case, i.e., the model that currently exists and is represented in the dashboard. And so, to obtain data about the current product lines—margin, revenue, and cost figures; month and region “dimensions”—it is reasonable to assume that he or she would ask: “Does it export to Excel?”

Another irony: once a new forecast model has been created, it’s also likely that the analyst will want to make an impressive presentation of it…and thus might use the "modeling spreadsheet" as source data to create a forecast dashboard in the Data Visualization tool!

A Better Way, with Live-Connected Business Intelligence

The theme here is not to exalt Excel, but to point out: different tools are not only preferred by different users, but these tools are also very well suited for different tasks.

Let’s return once more to my colleague’s comment about the customer that “had effectively wasted $50,000”: Might that money have been more profitably spent?

Here’s an idea: a Business Intelligence environment that will accommodate both data visualizations and forecast planning—and can even keep Excel dynamically connected in the mix.

Business Intelligence Technologies features solutions that connect different tools for different needs according to different users’ preferences and requirements, keeping all systems and data in sync—with actual live updates. These are solutions that will address all manner of data modeling necessary for planning, analytics and reporting (including data visualizations).

There are even strategies that will make spreadsheet users think twice before asking, “…but does it export to Excel?”

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