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“Help ME (Power BI)…  Help YOU (Office).”

Reviving the “Open Letter to MS” Tradition

In the past, I’ve written some things aimed at my former Microsoft colleagues.  Places where I think their strategy could benefit from adjustment.  Generally speaking, those posts have been about how the “BI teams” at MS should better leverage their Excel advantage.  Given recent developments, I think those messages are more important than ever.

But today, I am reversing that lens, and talking instead about how the Power BI suite of tools is a tremendous gift to the Office team.  Aha!  Bet you didn’t expect THIS dramatic turning of the tables from Rob “Excel is Everything” Collie, DID YOU??  Gotta stay on your toes around here.

You Don’t Have “Users.”  You Have “Producers” and “Consumers!”

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I think the word “user” is responsible for a lot of strategic damage.  It lumps everyone into one big, convenient bucket – hiding some crucial, underlying dynamics.

Most users of productivity software can actually be subdivided into Producer and Consumer subgroups.  I’ve written about this before, and I think it explains why tablets are simultaneously so popular (they are awesome for Consumption) while simultaneously unable to replace laptops (they suck for Production).

Furthermore, I think the word “collaboration” paints a distorted picture.  Only a fraction of Important Work is created by multiple people simultaneously operating on a shared document or virtual workspace.  It’s a very happy image, and it “sells” well, but in my experience it’s not how the world really works.

Instead, most Important Work is Produced by one person and THEN shared with others – the Consumers. 

Skeptical?  OK, I Understand That.

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Let me make a few clarifying points.

1) Review is an important form of Consumption.  Producer makes something, shares with others, and gets feedback.  EX:  You can review a slide deck on a tablet, but seriously, you wouldn’t want to Produce one.

2) A single individual often plays both roles – Producer and Consumer – multiple times in a day.  You may produce a spreadsheet and consume a video.

3) Most decisions are made outside of the Producer / Consumer dynamic – in email, in meetings, and on the phone.  Pure communication, in other words.

4) Software, however, has little impact on “pure communication” decisions.  Sure, you may use an email client or web conferencing software, but the more those tools try to help you, the more they just get in the way.  Generally speaking, you can swap Pure Communication software and not miss a beat.

(Although it DOES surprise me how many people think Gmail is an acceptable business email system – I tried it after leaving MS and went running back to Outlook and Exchange as fast as possible.  I know lots of smart people who love Gmail however so perhaps I am missing something.)

5) So while it’s true that > 95% of software usage is of the Pure Communication variety, I think it’s a big mistake to become too focused on that (whether you are a software customer OR vendor).  Because, again, that’s where software is most interchangeable and least differentiated.

6) It’s only in the Production-intensive stuff that software makes a significant difference. So let’s set aside Outlook and Word.  Let’s focus instead on Excel and, to a lesser extent, PowerPoint.  (In past years I would have left PowerPoint out of this equation, but after producing dozens of intricate animated sequences for the Online University, and stepping up my presentation game quite a bit, I’m now a believer in Intensive PowerPoint.)

Now Let’s Apply Producer/Consumer to “MS Office vs. Google Docs”

Let’s try two different statements/observations:

  1. 95% of my users never use more than 10% of the features of Office.
  2. 100% of my Producers are heavily reliant on the advanced features of Excel.

Both statements can be simultaneously true!  But one leads you to try to ditch Office and the other leads you to a richer understanding of Excel’s, I mean Office’s, importance.

And here’s another way to say #2:

    3.   100% of my Users *are* reliant on those advanced features – by either using them as
          Producers, or by Consuming the work of the Producers.

This is why we hear stories of organizations “switching” to Google Docs and then, um, switching back.

“Advanced” Features – More Used Than We Think

What makes a feature (of Office or any other software) “Advanced?”  Many ways to look at this, but I think the most honest definition of “Advanced functionality” is this:  We label a software capability as “Advanced” if and when it is something that we ourselves do not personally use.

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And that’s a pretty restrictive definition, isn’t it?  But super believable at the same time.  It’s easy to imagine an IT director saying something like, “yeah, we can get by without PivotTables.  I don’t even know what those are.”

The dirty little secret here, of course, is that many of the leaders of the Office product unit at MS have never used Pivots either!  (And yes, Google Docs does have a Pivot equivalent, though not quite as fully-featured as Excel).

Well guess what, the world freaking RUNS on Pivots.  Those same leaders routinely make decisions based on information produced by Pivots (and other advanced features of Excel) without ever knowing it.

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“Advanced” Features – Also the Hardest to Replicate

This is our last “stopover” before the punchline, so hang with me.  Advanced features from Vendor A are much harder for Vendor B to replicate than “simple” features.

For instance, it’s a lot harder to build something like, say, DAX’s (Power Pivot’s) FILTER() function than it is to build something like the IF() function.

And that doesn’t just mean “number of engineering days required.”  It also means “harder to duplicate from a compatibility standpoint.”

I remember, back in the early 2000’s, when I worked on Excel, Bill Gates was very defensive of Office’s file formats.  He wanted them to remain secret and undocumented, so that it was harder for competitors to build Office-like suites that could produce and consume compatible files.

Chris Pratley, who was then Group Program Manager for Word, had a different take.  He argued that the file formats were the easy part.  Duplicating the myriad behaviors of the Office apps, by contrast, was damn near impossible – even if you have the same file format.  At first I was surprised by this stance, but after considering it for a day or so, it was clear to me how correct he was.

As a product designer/referee, I used to make dozens of decisions every day about how the product should behave.  Dozens.  Each day.  Things like “should the + drilldown indicator be there even if there’s nothing underneath to show?” and “how many rows of data should we inspect before determining whether a column is Text or Numeric?” 

And while some of those decisions were obvious, many of them were subtle and nuanced.  I’d have been hard-pressed to duplicate my OWN decisions, even one day later, with perfect fidelity.  Sometimes really, the difference was a coin flip.

Which brings me to an intermediate conclusion:  you can NEVER get close to 100% compatible with a sophisticated software package.  Forget it.  It’s a pipe dream.

To make this super clear…

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And yes, the same thing is true of the Office team rebuilding Office.  Forget it, impossible.  No way.

If you’re in IT, don’t be fooled by anyone’s claims of compatibility.  The simple stuff will be compatible, and this will give the surface impression that they’ve done a good job duplicating their competitor.  But the more advanced stuff, and the more subtle stuff, will be different much more often than the same.

Conclusion:  Office Should Further Embrace Advanced Features (like Power BI!) that Empower Producers

I think the advanced features of Excel are THE reason why Office maintains its dominant market share – a decade after everyone thought Google was going to take it down.

Of course, the “new” generation of productivity workers are starting from a more web-centric place than “old timers” like me, so we can expect Google to keep chipping away at that dominance.

So Office folks, maybe you should take another hard look at those “alien” Power BI features.  It’s not often that another team shows up and offers you decades’ worth of high-end, nuanced, and insanely useful Producer functionality, essentially for free.

Embrace that stuff.  Market it hard.  Put it back in all SKU’s of the product.  And then ask the BI teams to give you MORE of it.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Would love to hear what the community thinks about this, especially those of you who have used both Google Docs and Power Pivot / Power BI extensively.  So leave us a quick comment if you would.  I think MS may take interest in such comments too.

Rob Collie

One of the original engineering leaders behind Power BI and Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, Rob Collie founded a consulting company in 2013 that is 100% devoted to “the new way forward” made possible by Power BI and its related technologies. Since 2013, PowerPivotPro has rapidly grown to become the leading firm in the industry, pioneering an agile, results-first methodology never before seen in the Business Intelligence space. A sought-after public speaker and author of the #1-selling Power BI book, Rob and his team would like to help you revolutionize your business and your career.

This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. In 2003 they conducted a survey involving VP-IT of several of their clients and then came to the below conclusion

    “95% of my users never use more than 10% of the features of Office.”

    It is due to assumptions like this that we got a non-productive difficult to customize UI’s like the ribbon

    2007 then went on to become the worst version of Excel released till date

    It took 3 years to reduce the damage and then introduction of features like Power Query, Power Pivot , Fuzzy-Lookup, Data-mining to kind of bring productivity back in focus.

  2. Great post Rob. A few thoughts:

    Is the reason why such a major gap exists between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ is both due to usability/exposure difficulties AND obstacles of sharing end products? To me, as a minor producer, the most difficult thing to do is share files effectively across all platforms and retain performance at an acceptable degree – across different versions.

    Maybe the reason why such powerful tools are currently getting buried is because Google docs, though inferior in advanced features, allow for the simple aforementioned sharing and producing capabilities accessible to anyone within an organization, not just the power producers? I’m thinking Office, in order to completely rob Google’s grasps for market share, needs a new suite with higher end file compression that translates effectively within an application – think Office Producer 2015 or Office Audience 2015. Cloud based Office that retains full-features that do not need to be transferred or converted. Think of SharePoint, but instead of a collaborative space, more of a ‘pinterest’ space, where each user can create full-featured office products (uploaded or not) and record presentations around their own files. I know I can’t be the only one that has had to sit down a consumer of my reports and spend time explaining to them the features and capabilities of said deliverable.

  3. Great perspective and so very true. These are my favourite types of blog posts.

    This difference between producers and consumers could also be why changing software is so damn difficult in organizations today. Once everyone is using a certain project management tool or CRM tool – any change, even to an objectively better system – often winds up with folks trying to do the old thing in the new system…even to the point of customizing the new system.

    And that extends to replacing Excel spreadsheets with a more automated solution too. Objectively…automation is wonderful. But, in reality, there are many nuances that are incredibly hard to replicate that those producers insist on having replicated. 20% of the functionality takes 80% of the time to replicate.

  4. It’s the edges of MS Office where value to an organization really exists, where the producers live.

    I work for local government in NC, just down the road from SAS headquarters and have been to some pretty impressive show and tells of their software. dazzling us simple bureaucrats something good. But I knew that the general skill level of our organization would not be able to grasp, much less effectively use the product being touted.

    It was through this website and then some digging into the PowerPivot additions to Excel 2013 that I saw how far a leap MS took with this upgrade. Now the power is available for those few producers to create SAS level (well, close enough to it) analytics and make it available for the already sunk cost of Office. Amazing. The oohs and ahhs of local government employees will be reverberating down work halls for years, and exclamations of “I had no idea Excel could do that!.

    But it took me getting “glancing” information from a MS Excel rss feed and then searrching on my own to even know what MS was doing.

    So yes, I agree that it would behoove MS to maybe market a bit more to the producers, as they can then funnel the value down to the already primed (software in place) consumers.

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