An Article By, David Tan, Chief Technology Officer
In the last 24 months or so, Microsoft has released dozens of new applications. Many of them targeted specifically to users of Office 365. I’ll guarantee they have programs you have never heard of. Sway, Flow, Teams, Planner? Any of those ring a bell? They are all examples of new point applications Microsoft is churning out to help make their cloud office offerings infinitely more valuable. I could spend an entire article talking about each of them, but I won’t. Maybe next time I’m looking for something to write about! What I do want to talk about is probably my favorite application Microsoft has released in this flurry of innovation – Power BI.
An often overused term (I’ve overused it often myself) is the Democratization of Data. Essentially what it refers to is making data available to all users at all times across all platforms and devices. In other words, when you’re in a meeting discussing business strategy, you should be able to open your laptop and pull up last year’s sales numbers and make informed decisions on the fly. You should be able to do the same thing when you’re using your phone on the floor of a manufacturing plant, flying across the country, or sitting on a beach and get struck by inspiration. Data is the gold that runs our businesses and there should be no restrictions on accessing it and analyzing it.
Power BI is Microsoft’s business intelligence tool that truly makes data available and meaningful to all users. Traditionally, when we had to make data-based decisions, we had 2 options. First was to use one of the behemoth BI and data analytics tools. I’m not picking on them when I say products like Cognos are not exactly approachable to the typical end user. The other option, and the one we often went with was to rely on Excel. Ah, Excel, the most powerful tool in your data tool belt! Who hasn’t slaved over a pivot table to make data look and act the way you needed it for analysis! Power BI is the next evolution of using your data in meaningful ways, and it’s very much accessible and approachable to the typical end user – not just data scientists and business analysts.
In some ways, Power BI feels like what Excel might have become in about 5 more years of upgrades and improvements. It’s a simple application (on the surface) that you can use to surface highlights or trends, create dashboards, and slice and dice your data in meaningful ways. I say on the surface because Power BI has a lot below the surface that makes it very much an enterprise BI tool capable of offering incredible power and functionality around data and analytics.
The key to BI is getting data into the system – obviously. Power BI is not like Excel in that you can’t actually use to enter data in a spreadsheet style. You can however simply open any Excel file you have already right inside the application and it will immediately go to work. The minute you open the file and Power BI ingests all the data, in offers up insights from what it sees and infers. In other words, there is absolutely no work up front to start getting access to real intelligence. Excel isn’t the only way you can get data into the system however. You can pull from hundreds of different systems and sources – all the critical formats and applications you’re already using today. Plus, if you use Power BI on a company-wide basis, you can publish data sets that anyone can get permission-based access to, which will update in real-time. In other words, you can push the data out to the people who need to see it and work with it, and they can get their job done quickly and efficiently.
Working with data inside Power BI is truly intuitive. Let me give you an example. I had a large spreadsheet of log data I was working with and it had dates for events in each row. When I imported it into Power BI, it immediately recognized the date field was a date. When I put the data into a grid, I was prompted by the system to be able to break it into time slices. In other words, I immediately was able to view the data by day, week, month, quarter and year. I hadn’t done any work to this point. Since I chose the largest slice (yearly), Power BI automatically made my chart a drill-down, meaning clicking on the year broke it into quarters, then months, and so on. Again, this all happened automatically.
This is a very simple example. I took the data and in less than an hour I had trend charts and heat maps and bubble graphs. I was in all my data glory. Describing how easy it was to accomplish and how powerful the application is doesn’t even begin to do it justice. I’m imploring you, if you work with data of any sort and need to try and pull intelligent insights from it, please look at Power BI. Better yet, call me and let me take you through it. It will be time well spent, I promise! If data really is the fuel that will run our businesses going forward, Power BI is the match that sparks the explosion to move you forward!