Date posted: 18/09/2018 8 min read

How Power BI reaches far beyond Excel

The take-up of Microsoft’s Power BI is growing in Australia and two Excel experts explain how usage is moving beyond early adopters.

In Brief

  • Businesses can use Power BI to extract insights and analytics and reorganise operations to save time and money
  • Power BI stores data on the cloud and can bypass Excel to search for trends, automate and extract data and lower the risk of errors
  • Experts Tim Heng and Cecile Nguyen are to speak at the World Congress of Accountants in Sydney

By Adam Turner

It’s three years since Microsoft's Power BI – a “business intelligence” tool that makes it easier to visualise complex data – came out of preview. Power BI is designed for data transformation, drawing on business data from a range of sources to create detailed reports and dashboards.

Stepping up from Excel

Many accountants still use Excel to produce this kind of insight for managers and C-level executives. But Excel is a “clunky tool” compared with Power BI, both when it comes to creating reports and sharing them throughout an organisation, says Tim Heng.

By freeing up time for the accountants and analysts from the manual grunt work, they can spend more time extracting insight from the data and adding value to the business.
Cecile Nguyen SumProduct analyst 

Heng is a director of Australian financial modelling consultancy SumProduct. He and colleague Cecile Nguyen, a SumProduct analyst, will take the stage at November's World Congress of Accountants in Sydney, sharing their insights into how accountants can use Power BI to help businesses achieve their financial goals.

Power BI can take advantage of the hard work done in Excel spreadsheets by extracting data to create reports, Nguyen notes. Alternatively, Power BI can bypass Excel entirely and connect directly to data sources such as SAP, Oracle and Xero. Power BI doesn't usurp the role of a database.

“With this direct link in place, Power BI really simplifies your period-end procedures as it can automate the extraction from different systems and combine them together as opposed to manually doing it yourself,” Nguyen says.

“This dramatically reduces the risk of error due to incorrectly handling data – and allows easy re-run and refinement with the latest data. By freeing up time for the accountants and analysts from the manual grunt work, they can spend more time extracting insight from the data and adding value to the business.”

In search of insight

Power BI’s ability to streamline business processes alone can make it a valuable investment for many businesses, but it can go further. Rather than just replicating existing Excel workflows within Power BI, Microsoft's business intelligence tool can study large swathes of business data to recommend new ways to analyse the data, extract more granular insight and visualise it.

“When you import your data into Power BI, it can run a series of analytical tests to search for things like outliers, trends and other insights that you might not be aware of,” Nguyen says. “ While some companies don’t use Power BI’s insight tools to produce reports, these tools still help them refine the questions that they’re asking of their dataset.”

Power BI is designed to wean businesses off reliance on paper, but it is possible to print information for stakeholders who are still dragging their feet on moving into the digital age.

“Often the hardest bridge for business to cross with Power BI is the adoption phase, getting everyone comfortable with accessing this information from a computer or handheld device rather than relying on pieces of paper,” Heng says.

“Also, many companies that we’ve spoken to have this general security fear around putting data into the cloud – especially with changes to the Privacy Act – but Microsoft's cloud is just as secure, if not more, than your typical Australian corporate.”

By default, Power BI stores its data in the cloud, with onshore options for Australian organisations that must abide by local data protection rules. Alternatively, businesses can deploy an in-house Power BI server if they want to keep their data close at hand.

Hosting the data on a server rather than printing or emailing reports makes it easier for businesses to manage and track the flow of sensitive information. It also offers more granular access options, such as “row-level” security that limits the visibility of specific data to specific users.

The take- up of Power BI is growing in Australia, but Heng says it is still in the realm of early adopters. Those who do get onboard tend to embrace it wholeheartedly and make the most if its advanced features.

“They’re generally cutting out Excel from the reporting process, but not across the business as a whole,” Heng says. “Excel becomes an ad-hoc tool for more detailed analysis, calculations and business planning.

“That said, I’ve seen businesses do innovative things with Power BI like upload their data to the cloud, let the Microsoft servers run their analytics magic on it, and then find patterns and produce insights which allow them to reorganise their business operations in a way that saves tens of millions of dollars.”

Understanding what you need

Power BI also includes support for natural language queries, such as “what were my sales in New South Wales in the last five years?” This opens up the power of Power BI to a much wider range of users. “ This is one of the biggest innovations when it comes to what’s been referred to as self-service business intelligence,” Nguyen says.

“Traditionally, the CFO or finance manager might ask a question about specific sales figures in a meeting and you'd need to add that request to the reporting package for the next month, but with Power BI you can answer that kind of question on the spot within seconds.”

While Power BI is much more flexible than Excel when it comes to creating and sharing data visualisations, its underlying query tools are actually built into Excel. Initially they were available via the Power Query plug-in, but now they’re baked into the ribbon in Excel 2016 and Office 365 under the name “Get and Transform”.

Microsoft typically develops new query features for Power BI first and then hones them before they appear in Excel. Regardless of whether accountants are using Power BI, Heng says they should certainly be making the most of the Get and Transform features now built into Excel.

“Many accountants have been using Excel for decades, but haven’t really changed the way they’ve used it in that time, even though this is probably one of the best advancements in Excel in the last 20 years,” Heng says. “ People get complacent with the tools that they're using, but now that it’s built into Excel, hopefully it can become a real game-changer for accountants.”

Tim Heng and Cecile Nguyen at WCOA

Tim Heng and Cecile Nguyen will speak on Power BI, business intelligence and analysis at the World Congress of Accounting (WCOA).

What: WCOA 2018: Global Challenges, Global Leaders

When: 5–8 November 2018

Where: International Convention Centre, Sydney

Who: More than 6000 delegates from more than 130 countries

More details: visit WCOA2018 Homepage

Adam Turner is a freelance technology journalist and Sydney Morning Herald columnist.