Excel is one of the world’s most popular BI tools.

It’s also the source of much unhappiness. (See, for example, my post The Pivot Table Gateway Drug.)

So, why do I think suffering in Excel can be the first step to BI success?

Because if your users are doing something month after month in Excel — and it’s consuming hours and days of their lives — you can immediately deduce a few things:

1. Your users REALLY want this data

I have a client that runs a behavioral health program for children.

For each child enrolled in the program, my client had to make sure that a long list of documents was created and periodically refreshed. The data was in a pretty unusable format. So, one person spent two to three days a month organizing this data to ensure that they remained in compliance for each of several hundred cases. It was painful. 

And you better believe that when we automated this process, they used that new report EVERY SINGLE WEEK.

How many reports in your organization that were “absolutely critical” have never been used or perhaps never even tested? Isn’t it better to know that people really want something before you start?

2. Your users will (almost always) find the time to work with you to get the data into a more useable format

No developer can go it alone. They need user cooperation. 

And if you have a person who needs data — and you can show them a better way forward — they will make time for you.

Let’s take the above example of the person suffering three days every month to organize their data. Sure, proving out the new results took time. But they had their eyes on the prize — and so they made the testing happen. (Indeed, having the numbers in Excel meant that testing could be easily handled.)

Of course, I did say that this is only “almost” always true. Some people either enjoy suffering or really don’t want to change — and so they won’t find the time for testing.

3. You’ll know what the data needs to look like

It’s hard to get two people to agree on how to best present data. But if they’re already working in Excel, they can show you exactly what they want to see. No guessing. No (or minimal) formatting changes.

This is also a good reason to maintain a basic knowledge of Excel charting. Because if people already have an Excel spreadsheet working, it’s far easier for you to play with that spreadsheet to create samples than build an actual report in a BI tool.   

(Then again, as I mentioned up top, the ability of people to see exactly what they want can lead you down the road to perdition if you’re not careful.)

But if you choose the right path, Excel suffering can be the first step to BI success.

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