Playing detective: using SAP Analytics Cloud for Business Intelligence

23 September 2017

Peter Humble

Peter Humble

Director, BI and HANA Centre of Excellence

SAP Analytics Cloud provides you with a number of capabilities, right at your fingertips.  Learn how to make the most of Business Intelligence (BI) with slick data integration from a variety of touchpoints at the click of a button. Plus, we explore how you can use smart visualisation tools to empower your organisation.

For those of you that are new to the SAP Analytics Cloud (SAC) solution, it is a Software as Service (SaaS) analytics platform providing integrated BI, Planning and Predictive functionality. This combination is tremendously powerful and is one aspect that makes SAC such an interesting proposition. When coupled with SAP Digital Boardroom, a highly interactive and visual solution for real-time KPI monitoring and root cause analysis, it has capabilities that any organisation should consider… for the right use case.
At a high level, SAC provides many key features that you would expect from a BI platform. This includes hybrid data access, interactive visualisations, data exploration and built in collaboration. The offering has been further enhanced with the recent launch of the mobile application

“Do I Feel Lucky? Well, do ya, Punk?”

When you log in to SAC, especially if you are from a SAP BusinessObjects Enterprise OnPremise background (“classic” BusinessObjects I once heard it called), you will immediately notice a huge difference. As I mentioned in my intro blog, ‘SAP Analytics Cloud: A name changer or a game changer?’,   both the User Interface and User Experience have been carefully considered. A great example of this is how easy it is to get started.
Let’s assume for a second that you have some data in Excel. Obviously, no one would ever use Excel to store data or run their business but just stay with me. To get started, a user can simply drag an Excel file onto the SAC canvas and get presented with these options.
Figure 1: Do You Feel Lucky - the option that is displayed when dragging a Excel source onto your browser
Whenever I see this, I imagine Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry asking “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” I don’t feel under as much pressure as Clint’s adversary as there is not .44 Magnum being pointed at me (apologies if you are too young to know what I am talking about). This is an excellent feature to get up and running quickly, within a couple of clicks the user can start to work with data and begin to explore their information.
Figure 2: The "explorer" view of the data that has been loaded
You can very quickly add the visualisation to a story page and immediately have it available through the mobile app.

Figure 3: SAC Mobile Interface

So, what if I don’t feel that lucky?

The first thing to mention is the data access options. You can select either a Live Connection or an Import Data option. The Live Connections are currently SAP systems and mean that the data remains in place and that queries are executed against that source when needed. Import Data, as the name would suggest, will retrieve the data from the target system.
The reality is that most times when working with SAC, you will need to create a model before working with the data. There are a number of ways to achieve this, which does seem to provide flexibility. However, I think the number of options can be a little confusing, especially when you seem to get different ones depending on which route you take.
The modelling feature is there to enhance the data and prepare for analysis. It will automatically identify dimensions and measures, although you do have the option to amend if required. You can do this from the details screen, which also gives you a good profile of the data.
  Figure 4: The Data View
If you notice any problems with the data then you do have some options to correct. However, this option is only available on data sets that have been acquired, as opposed to live data connection options.  In the test data set that I was using, there were some incorrect values. After selecting the column there was a cool “smart transformation” option that meant with one click I could amend any incorrect data values. 

Get visual with Geo Enrichment

You also have the option to geo enrich the data allowing for interactive mapping visualisations to be created. In this example, I’ve created a geo dimension using latitude and longitude values that were in the original data set. I have created a Geo Map on which I’ve included the Location dimension and Revenue measure.
A nice feature in the mapping visual is the ability to identify focus areas by using the polygon tool. There is a free hand option meaning that you can draw non-standard shapes to select the areas you need.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned there is Predictive functionality built into SAC allowing users to easily take advantage of this capability. The first glimpse of this is a feature called Smart Discovery.
Selecting the Smart Discovery option allows the user to make selections from the available data. You can pick the measures that you want to include, or potentially exclude, and any relevant filters. You click Run and the discovery will begin.
 Figure 7: Use Smart Discovery to identify even further insights
The display is a graphical representation of what elements within the data are impacting on the measure that you initially selected. In the example shown above, it appears that Gross Margin has the biggest influence on rental count. Selecting one of those influencers then provides further information that may have otherwise been difficult to find. This is an excellent feature as it will give the additional insight to help guide your extended analysis.
For more information relating to the predictive capabilities within SAC, read Peter Douglas’ article: SAP Analytics Cloud #1: Giving predictive power to the people.

That’s very nice but tell me about creating visuals

So how easy is SAC as a tool for creating visuals? To be honest, it’s pretty good. However, there is one immediate challenge. Before you start to create visuals, you need to create a story, to which you can add multiple pages. If you’re after the best mobile experience, then you need to select the responsive layout option. That’s not a problem if you know it is going to be consumed via mobile, however, what happens if you don’t know? Does this mean that every story must be created with a responsive layout just in case?
Potentially yes, however from my viewpoint i dont' think this really is a problem, it's simply something to be aware of. The much bigger question and one for another time is “has using Mobile for Business Intelligence delivered on the dream?”
Once you’ve selected the type of page you want to create, using one of the templates available, you can then start to create some graphs and charts. To continue the theme of supporting the user, there is a wizard feature that will help “build my story for me”. With this feature, you select the measures and dimensions that you are most interested in and SAC will automatically create a story with what it believes are the most appropriate visuals.

You’re in control…

In case you are not happy with what has been created, you have access to the Designer tool, which contains both a builder (what chart type and data do you want) and styling (how do you want it to look) options. It’s easy to insert a new chart with drop down options to select the dimensions and measures you want to display and provides the option to create custom calculations.
Once you’ve added the required visuals and shared the content, users then have a variety of options to work with the story. Whether that involves creating story based filters or chart based ranking, the UI makes these steps simple. As a user starts to find interesting information in the story they can share this with a wider audience using the commentary feature. One click, add the relevant text and the comment will be available in the story.

An honest perspective

I haven’t spent a lot of time working with SAC, which allows me to provide an interesting perspective as in my experience, most blogs are written from the position of someone who is a subject matter expert, but in this case, I am the user.
From this perspective, I didn’t find the modelling part of the application that intuitive. The feeling lucky option was great, but if you have to structure the data, I felt this was something that a novice would struggle with. This could potentially be addressed with some training, or the various online guides that are available.
With regards to the core BI capabilities, I’ve only scratched the surface of what is available to users but I really like what I’ve seen. Aside from the modelling element, it is simple to use, easy to work with the charts and looks great. If you then add on the Planning and Predictive elements and to top it off the Digital Boardroom you have a very comprehensive solution.
Does it do everything you would want? Probably not. Is it a replacement for an on-premise enterprise BI platform? Not yet. However, if you already have other cloud solutions that you’re struggling to get insight from or a departmental requirement that you’re not sure how to resolve you should at least explore SAC.  Add into these considerations the desire to avoid complexity when meeting requests to provide data externally, to a suppliers or vendors; there are suddenly numerous use cases for SAC.  Finally let’s not forget the frequency of updates leading to the regular addition of new features.  This all makes for a compelling argument to at least give this fast maturing solution a road test.

This post is part of a series delving into the capabilities of SAP Analytics Cloud.  For further insights click on the links below.

SAP Analytics Cloud: A name changer or a game changer?

SAP Analytics Cloud #1: Giving predictive power to the people

SAP Analytics Cloud #2: SAP Predictive Analytics vs. Analytics Cloud

SAP Analytics Cloud: Digital Boardroom – who says you can’t teach an old boardroom new tricks?

About the author

Peter Humble

Director, BI and HANA Centre of Excellence
Pete started his Business Intelligence journey approximately 15+ years ago when working for PepsiCo UK. This was when the passion to empower people with insight was initially ignited, and he has hasn’t looked back since.
Having spent some time in the Partner ecosystem Pete became a BusinessObjects veteran, spending over 10 years in Presales at BusinessObjects , followed by SAP,  This solid background in the core capabilities of the SAP BusinessObjects BI solution provides Pete with a deep understanding of how customers can achieve the maximum benefits from SAP's suite of analytical tools and solutions.
In addition to various Presales roles, Pete was the Global Lead for the BI and Predictive Community of Practice, working closely with a variety of global stakeholders to gain a wider understanding of business priorities.  From here it enabled the team to deliver the latest insights,  best practices, foster collaboration, and ensured the global Presales organisation had what it needed to deliver the ultimate customer experience.
Pete is an integral part of Bluefin's BI and HANA Centre of Excellence.  Working together with customers he gets to understand their business opportunities and aligns these to the ever-changing technology landscape, facilitating them to achieve their goal of getting the right information to the right people at the right time.