It is the frustration of every person in SAP BI - after demonstrating the coolest new features in a SAP BI tool a hand in the audience will rise and someone will ask: “Nice, but how do I get this into Excel?”.
The reason I loathe the question is not because I don’t like Excel, but rather it implies that the beautiful product I just demonstrated is not considered good enough. It is felt that something extra is needed, something Excel can deliver and the fancy new tool cannot. And that hurts. Putting my hurt pride aside, there are some serious risks associated with using Excel as BI tool. Let me explain.
SAP recently launched SAP Cloud for Analytics (C4A) and according to SAP, Analytics will never be the same again. It promises to break through silos of BI applications. All too often these different applications need their own infrastructure and, even worse, their own data set to work on.
SAP C4A now provides functionality for budgeting and planning, predictive analytics, standard reporting, dashboarding, data explorations and other BI functions, all on the same platform.
What the product will not deliver though, is a seamless user experience when using it from the Cloud and when using it from the comfort zone of Excel. SAP C4A will be delivered without an Excel plug-in.
Is this a brave decision from SAP to release the user community from the burden of Excel? Or is SAP setting itself up for failure, hampering user adoption by denying easy integration with an essential tool?
To answer these questions we need a better understanding of why business users do BI in Excel in the first place. But before I go into the detail of that, let’s have a look at the issues and risks associated with Excel reporting.
The issues and risks of using Excel for SAP BI
I have yet to find the first organisation where Excel was not pivotal to SAP BI reporting. And yet, most of the organisations I work for are very successful. What helps in being successful with Excel as a strategic reporting tool is when organisations are aware of the following risks and issues related to the use of Excel:
Excel can incorporate data from any source and the integrity of the sources used for reporting is not always confirmed. In addition, data can easily be manipulated in the end report and errors (in formulas) can go undetected. Successful BI reports in Excel are the reports which are routinely reconciled with trusted sources.
There are usually no development standards for Excel reports, and the combination of VBA and complex Excel formulas and structures can result in something that can only be supported by the person who first created the report. Excel reporting can be sustainable when the report is kept simple, and/or when development standards and best practise approaches are used.
Excel reports often contain a very rich data set, often on a hidden sheet. This dataset is emailed and lives on USB sticks, unguarded. It is next to impossible to effectively safeguard the access to Excel report to authorised users. The effectiveness completely relies on the discipline and integrity of the people who (legitimately) receive the report in the first place.
Excel reports can only be consumed…with Excel. Distribution relies on access to shared network folders or a collaboration platform like Sharepoint. There is no ‘mobile’ interface for Excel reporting.
The issues and risks above do not apply to modern, best of breed BI reporting solutions. These reporting solutions have been around for a while now, and still Excel seems to be a preferred tool of choice in many organisations. Why is this?
Reasons why Excel is used in the first place
I suppose it will always be difficult to wean people off a solution they are familiar with if there aren’t any clear incentives. But Excel is not popular just because people have been using it ‘forever’. Below are some reasons which are either related to inabilities of popular BI solutions, or highlight things which Excel is just very good at. It is important to bear in mind that most users are looking for a tool which can ‘do it all’, rather than having to switch between say, one application for printing reports nicely, and another application for visualising data.
So in no particular order, here are some reasons why people stick with Excel for BI:
- The report formatting in the standard BI report is not ‘pretty enough’ and/or deemed unsuitable for printing
- Data held in local spreadsheets needs to be included (team budgets, individual targets)
- Narratives and comments are added
- Additional functionality is developed in Excel (VBA, Excel Formulas) for example for guided navigation or for interfacing with other products.
- Ability to work offline at planning and analysis, specifically when travelling.
- The ease of use to add complex operations on complex data sets on an ad-hoc basis
- The large number of rows and columns that can be on one (ordinary) screen using the zoom function – without having menus and panels taking up valuable space
BI without Excel, will it work?
The list above is not exhaustive and different people like Excel for different reasons. By not providing an Excel plug-in for SAP C4A there is a risk that people use C4A simply as an instrument to download the raw data. They will then import this in Excel and continue to use Excel as the BI presentation tool.
SAP believes that C4A has enough to offer to seduce users to stay on the platform. SAP certainly promises the right things: The ability to save reports with ad-hoc calculations and ad-hoc added data; ability to blend data from different sources, the promise of having all BI functionality in one platform and above all the promise to ‘change analytics as we know it’.
SAP has given a clear statement of intent and this bald move can either be a stumbling block to user adaption or an accelerator of the success of C4A. I believe that many users want the Excel ‘look and feel’ and to some degree the Excel flexibility. Whether SAP C4A gives a similar satisfying user experience and enough flexibility remains to be seen. I, and many others, am still waiting for my trial account to be activated. I will postpone making my judgement until I have had hands on experience.