Excel for BI? OK to Keep the Excel User Interface, But Ditch the Spread-marts

How many times have you heard the argument that Excel is not a good platform for BI because it undermines the ability to establish a single version of the truth? Siloed spreadsheets breed data inconsistency, inaccuracy, and inefficiency. From an IT perspective, spreadsheets seem to fly in the face of good data management and data governance practices.

But, from the user perspective, Excel's ability to combine data from multiple data sources, its charting and graphing capabilities, and ability to show trends over time are must-have requirements for many types of analyses. In some cases, taking it away might require the prying of users’ cold dead fingers from their spreadsheets.

These two views seem to be at odds with each other. But are they? Not necessarily! It’s true that unauthorized independent spread-marts and any “under-the-desk” data stores are the enemy of good data governance and data management practices. Individual users should not be maintaining  their own analytic databases. But there is no reason why data analysts should have to give up Excel as a user interface for analyzing data.

To make the most of data analytics, organizations do need to establish a single version of the truth, providing data analysts with trusted data that is consistent across the organization. Various architectural approaches and technologies can be used, but the effort should be overseen by IT, and the end result should conform to an established model of taxonomy, data quality and role-based access.

There are organizations that have succeeded in integrating different types of data from many sources and building a foundation of trusted data. The architecture of the trusted data/data warehouse environment may take many forms, incorporating numerous data structures and technologies. Such an environment can support various types of data analysis, with the analysts using the BI tools and analytic algorithms and applications that best suit their needs. As long as data is accessed from the trusted environment, it is fine to use a tool like Excel to do the analysis, charting, graphing, etc. But data should not be stored in spreadsheets outside of the data warehouse environment, and updates to the data warehouse environment should comply with the established data governance practices.

About the Author: Vickie Farrell