BI’s Dirty Secrets – Why Business People are Addicted to Spreadsheets

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BI’s Dirty Secrets – Why Business People are Addicted to Spreadsheets

SecretMicrosoft Excel spreadsheets are the top BI tool of choice. That choking sound you hear is vendors and IT people reacting viscerally when they confront this fact. Their responses include:

  • Business people are averse to change; they don’t want to invest time in learning a new tool
  • Business people don’t understand that BI tools such as dashboards are more powerful than spreadsheets; they’re foolish not to use them
  • Spreadsheets are filled with errors
  • Spreadsheets are from hell

 IDC estimated that the worldwide spend on business analytics in 2011 was $90 billion. Studies have found that many firms have more than one BI tool in use, and often more than six BI tools. Yet a recent study found that enterprises have been “stuck” at about a 25% adoption rate of BI tools by business people for a few years.

So why have adoption rates flatlined in enterprises that have had these tools for a while? Are the pundits correct in saying that business people are averse to change, lazy or just ignorant of how wonderful BI tools are?

The answers are very different if you put yourself in the business person’s position.

First, business people are likely working many hours and multi-tasking. Demands on their time are ever increasing regardless of the state of the economy. Without any spare time, they need a compelling return on investment before learning a new tool. Spreadsheets have been the bedrock of reporting and analysis for quite a while, so if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

With spreadsheets business people can slice and dice data, pivot it, calculate new metrics and display in compelling visuals. What they need more than a new slick presentation tool is comprehensive, clean, current and consistent data.

Second, moving to BI tools mean that business people have to depend on their IT staff to create the dashboards, cubes, visualizations and reports. Since many business people feel that there is a significant IT bottleneck resulting in a long waits before they get their reports, they keep turning to spreadsheets. After all, neither their competition nor their boss is going to wait for IT to generate the report they needed yesterday.

There are certainly many compelling reasons to convince a business person to use a BI tool, but the usual slick demo and “it will practically do your job for you” pitch is not going to change a business person’s mind.


Next: What are the real problems and how do we entice business people to use BI tools?



  1. Jagan Gudur says:

    Business intelligence / decision support initiatives that focus solely on the presentation of data are doomed to fail, at least over the long run. The emphasis should be as much and, preferably, more on quality data and business rules to interpret the data. This is hard work and often requires a cross-functional approach to correctly understand the data and draw the right conclusions. A flexible, feature-rich BI reporting tool can see successful adoption, but only after the quality of data and business rules guiding data interpretation have been sufficiently addressed.

  2. chet says:

    One of my favorite sites is this one:
    I hear and agree with what you are saying though. How do we, as IT, get them on board (without scare tactics)?
    We are a bottleneck…how do we better empower the people that pay our bills?

  3. Gil Pizano says:

    Very good article here. I really enjoyed some of the interesting notes such as “they need a compelling return on investment before learning a new tool” because it helps to point out a real concern that I have when it comes to the mindset of some BI people out there. Being able to speak in terms of ROI is a must for any BI professional in order to be successful. We can’t forget the main purpose of BI. To help business decision makers make better business decisions. It’s with truthful data that people are (supposed to be) able to make better decisions. It can be the CEO all the way down to the entry level analyst.
    This said, another area that the article mentions is the original method of an IT department creating a report or a dashboard for people to use.
    Why not help the end-user create their own reports, their own dashboards where IT would be there to support and enable the end users of BI. The end-user will often be the ones who understand their data best. Probably better than anyone else in the company simply because it’s data that they are consistently working with. Allowing them direct ability to be able to perform their own BI related inquiry will go a long way in providing satisfaction to the end-user. If they have any quarrels with performing such a task on their own, then I utilize the Steve Jobs school of thought for innovations and the end user. “Asking the end user for what they want is usually a waste of time because they may not understand exactly what they want. Instead, show them what they can have and the value that it will bring them (value in the eyes of the end user, not the IT person) and let them have a need for what they can have.”
    Thanks again for such a good thought provoking article.

  4. Bill Cabiro says:

    I Fully agree. With well over 500 million users around the globe, it’s no wonder that spreadsheets are the de-facto Business Intelligence/ Analytics application.
    Many companies have no choice but to use spreadsheets because their BI solution does not provide the strategic answers Marketing, Sales and Management need to grow the business. These companies typically populate their BI with internal raw data from the ERP. This is only half of the story. People in strategic areas need other original sources of data not found in the transaction system.
    They need to access external market intelligence to compare it with company performance metrics. This can be market and customer segmentation, updated customer and competitor merger and acquisition status, competitive opportunities, business and products under threat, market size, etc. Unfortunately, this information usually only resides in market intelligence spreadsheets developed by Marketing, Sales or Finance. full article
    Regards, Bill

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