Typical scorecard for evaluating PowerPivot vs. other self-service BI tools.

This is How an Organization Might “Score” PowerPivot vs. Other “Self-Service BI” Tools
I think this scorecard is INCREDIBLY misleading.  I aim to give you a better one.

PowerPivot vs. Other Self-Service BI Tools.  A proper scorecard.

In my experience, the scorecard SHOULD look more like this.

Yes, This Post IS Relevant to Excel Pros!

Hey, I know there are “BI” people reading the blog and “Excel” people reading the blog.  This post is relevant to both of you, I promise, and not just the BI crowd.

Excel Pros, this has everything to do with you, because sooner or later you are going to encounter these other self-serve BI tools.  Someone is going to try to force them on you.  So you might as well be prepared for the conversation if and when it arises.

Relevant to Purchasers of Self-Serve BI

If your organization is in the market for a self-serve BI tool/platform, I highly recommend considering this new perspective I have to offer.  Regardless of what tool you choose, I think you will have a much clearer view of the overall landscape.

Relevant to Microsoft, Too

If you work for MS and are involved with selling PowerPivot versus these other self-serve tools, my goal is to give you a new way of talking about PowerPivot, one that is simultaneously factual and devastating.  If you learn to speak this language, you will double your success rate in the short term and triple it in the long term.

If you work for MS on the product development side, if I may be so bold, I’d suggest that this topic should have a seat at the table when it comes to planning future releases.

There are TWO Trends Playing Out Today, Not One

PowerPivot empowers TWO trends:  top-down and bottom-up.  Other tools will only be top-down.

Self-Serve BI Takes an “Ivory Tower” Activity (BI) and Makes it More Accessible/Participatory.
Yes, PowerPivot “Fits” There for Sure!  But PowerPivot Also Empowers the World’s Legions of Excel Pro Analysts, Giving Them Professional-Strength Capabilities.

Why do I point this out, that there are two trends?  I do it because in evaluation and sales scenarios, that bottom-up trend is typically invisible!

Let’s take another look at the illustration:

When evaluating self-serve BI tools, we often miss the power of our existing Excel analysts.

The Larger (and More Impactful!) Dynamic is Often “Invisible” to an Organization
That is Evaluating Self-Serve BI Tools

Are You Looking for “Self-Serve BI” Or “Better Results?”

Why does an organization find itself in the market for a self-serve BI tool like PowerPivot, QlikView, TIBCO, or Tableau?

  1. Because the organization has insufficient insight into its data.  Hey, if there wasn’t some shortfall in your awareness, you wouldn’t be in the market to make any changes at all!
  2. Because traditional BI is too expensive.  For many organizations, “real” BI has never been an option.  This self-serve BI trend sounds like a good, lower-cost option.
  3. Because traditional BI is too slow.  Those orgs that CAN afford traditional BI often find that it fails to meet many needs, particularly needs that emerge on short time scales.
  4. Because you were told to go get it.  Hey, this happens.  An executive is reading a magazine article, recognizes many truthful themes in the article (some combination of 1-3 above), and then decrees that the organization is going to adopt self-serve BI.  But really, this is just another flavor of 1-3 above.

That’s how it starts.  A self-serve BI tool is a means to an end.  You need one to solve some combination of #1-3 above.

But “getting a self-serve BI tool” quickly becomes a goal in itself.  #1-3 fade into the background, and your immediate task is to pick the right self-serve BI tool for your organization.

Scorecard Time!

And what do we, as analytical human beings, do next?  We make a scorecard!  We make a list of important capabilities and then we start comparing the various tools relative to those capabilities.

There is nothing wrong with that.  How else are we going to decide, anyway?  Gut feel?  Scorecards and checklists are important to any such process.  I am not besmirching the practice of scorecarding in general.  But there are two places where the process goes astray a bit.

  1. The available tools tend to define the scorecard just as much as they are judged by it.  Most of the self-serve BI tools on the market kinda…  resemble each other.  Spend enough time evaluating them, and they start to blur together.  Naturally, their common capabilities become the line items in your scorecard, and the underlying needs of your org take a backseat.
  2. The focus falls on the tools and not on how they will be adopted and used.  Let’s say Tool X has more power than Tool Y.  But what if Tool Y will spread like wildfire in your org, enthusiastically embraced by the business, and engender whole new realms of collaboration while Tool X is met with resistance?  How will you know that just by scorecarding the tools?  Don’t you need to “date” for awhile before you “get married?”  Imagine picking your spouse strictly based on a scorecard, without truly getting to know him or her first.  (Actually, in a nutshell that IS why my first marriage was a bad fit – I scorecarded from a distance).

What do the scorecards miss, then?

A lot.

It is very likely that Excel is already the lifeblood of your organization.  You have people in your org who provide the majority of the digestible insights, and Excel is their language.  It’s wrapped around their spinal cords.  It’s in their DNA.

These people will be the primary power users of any new self-serve tool you adopt, and yet I typically see them completely excluded from the evaluation process.  I get why they are excluded.  But when it comes to data, these people are your #1 asset, your biggest weapon.  How you empower them (or fail to empower them) is a monstrous component of whether your self-serve BI initiative delivers on its original goals.

All of the tools (PowerPivot included) tend to look a lot easier to learn than they are.  The sales team from each company will make them all look simple of course.  None of them actually are.  They are all going to require training, and they are all going to require a “break-in” period.  But if you have Excel pros on staff, training and breaking in on PowerPivot will be easier than any of the others.  If you’re starting completely from scratch, that might not be true of course.  But if Excel is your baseline, PowerPivot is a much smaller leap than a brand new tool.

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One of these things is not like the other ones…

Excel/PowerPivot is FAR more flexible than ANY of the other tools.  Excel’s popularity is not just an accident of history.  The capabilities of Excel positively dwarf any of the other tools, because the other tools don’t even try to do what Excel does.  For more on this, see the network effect.

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Let’s be clear:  you click this when your BI tool fails you.

“Export to Excel” exists because of Excel’s flexibility, not just because of Excel’s popularity.  One of the most popular all-time posts on this site covered this, but why would any self-respecting BI tool NEED an Export to Excel button in the first place?  Because the BI tool doesn’t offer something that the user needs.  That’s right, it’s because of missing functionality.  I challenge any self-serve BI tool to remove Export to Excel from their product and see what happens.

If Excel isn’t your BI tool, all of that “Export to Excel” activity leads to fragmented intelligence.  Hey, it’s the third most common button in BI apps (after OK and Cancel) because a lot of thinking and analysis still takes place in Excel, even after you have a real BI app.  That is not going to end when you adopt one of the self-serve BI tools either.  With PowerPivot, you have the opportunity to capture all of that work done “in the margins” and incorporate it into your hive mind.  Those “last mile” analyses can themselves be standardized and shared, rather than lost in the shadows.

There are a few more things to say, but this has run a lot longer than planned, so I will stop for today.