The Catalyst to Corporate Power Pivot Success

by Matt Allington

Many businesses (dare I say most) are yet to get started with Power Pivot and Self Service BI.  Often the first person in an organisation that discovers Power Pivot doesn’t know how to navigate the political and cross functional challenges within the organisation to make it all possible.  The tragedy of this are the missed opportunities – lost time is lost money.  There are huge benefits that can flow to businesses if they could just get this happening. There are benefits for IT and the overall business, including lower IT costs, faster speed to value realisation and indeed green field analyses that would not have even been contemplated as feasible without a Self Service approach and a tool like Power Pivot.

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How to get started?!

So what is the relevance of all this?  Well I recently caught up with SQL MVP Grant Paisley (from Angry Koala) for lunch where we discussed these challenges. I first met Grant when I was Director for BI at Coca- Cola Asia Pacific. Martin Kirby (my Microsoft Account Manager at the time) brought Grant in to see me and talk about the new Power BI tools that Microsoft had been developing. In many ways, this was one of the first days of the rest of my life.  Rob recently suggested that Grant and I get together again and see what opportunities exist to collaborate. Well as it turns out Grant had been doing a lot of thinking indeed.

As we chatted over lunch Grant talked about some really exciting concepts that had not occurred to me in the past. You see Grant has a few more Kilometres under his belt on this topic than me (for my US buddies, the relative proportion of Miles under our belts is still the same!). Grant comes from a SQL background and Grant (and his company) are experts at dealing with big scale, enterprise strength BI solutions in significant companies.  Grant is an expert at helping IT do what it does best – delivering consistent and reliable solutions to the users. I on the other hand have a lot of real world experience with business problems, customer pain, using Excel as a business tool and generally living the life of a user.

What Grant has highlighted is that there is an opportunity to help companies with both SQL expertise and Self Service BI/Excel expertise at the same time.

Talking with both IT & Business is a big opportunity

Both IT and Business users all want the same thing – they want users/customers to get what they need with the minimum cost, effort and disturbance. And yet there has been a life long struggle between business and IT people, with each trying to translate their own needs to the other party.

With the introduction of Power Pivot for Excel, business users now have the potential to solve many of their own BI reporting needs without the need to run to IT every 5 minutes to make a change to a report (or worse still make a change to the data model).  Well more correctly, business users are able to solve their own problems PROVIDED they can access the data they need, ideally from the source.

Database11 The Catalyst to Corporate Power Pivot Success

But even if the user can access the data directly, the data is often in a format that is not ideal for Power Pivot.  Rob often talks about finding a “SQL friend” to help you shape to the data you need for your Excel based Power Pivot reports.  This is a great strategy because unfortunately the shape and format of data that is used in relational databases is usually sub-optimal for use in Power Pivot Data Models.  Of course you could (and should) use Power Query to help you shape your data, and this will get you going and even keep you going.  However nothing is as good as working with IT to get a direct and consistent access to the data that you need in the exact format you need.  So getting help from someone with access to the underlying database and knowledge of how to write views in SQL can be invaluable for a Power Pivot Excel user.

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Typical structure of tables in a data model when sourcing direct from a relational DB

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A much better table structure for PowerPivot – achievable when working with your IT department.

Two bows are better than one!

There is a big opportunity here to divide and conquer, and engage with both IT and the business at the same time with a targeted message that makes sense for the audience.

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IT talking to IT

In my experience IT departments can be quite suspicious of users that want to get access to the database.  I guess IT departments are paid to be suspicious and cautious – after all it is the job of IT to make business data highly available and consistently correct.  And that’s where a professional SQL company like Angry Koala comes in.  Grant and others like him are used to engaging with IT departments and also understand the Power Pivot story.  SQL BI professionals have the best opportunity to explain the Power Pivot vision to an IT department, and help the IT pros understand the benefits of helping the business users get direct access to the required data views to build their reports.

Business talking to Business

On the other hand, business people will get the best benefit from talking to people that talk their own language.  Generally speaking, business people know A LOT MORE about Excel than IT folk, and that should be no surprise given it is the business people that are the professional users of Excel.  So by having an Excel/Power Pivot/DAX expert talk directly to the business people about how to leverage Power Pivot will help business users buy into the vision.

Then bring it all together with synergistic results

So by focusing on both of these areas at the same time, it is possible to communicate the value proposition to businesses as a whole in a way that would otherwise not be possible.  And when the message is delivered correctly, there will be benefits that come in the form of lower IT opex and capex costs over time, faster speed to value realisation for the business, and value realisation in areas that would not have been contemplated as even practicable without such an approach.

And the opportunity is available to all

So this is a model that Grant and I are now focused on, but of course it is available to all people that have the vision and relevant skills to bring the parties together.  In many ways, one of the biggest costs to businesses is the cost of doing nothing, so there is no time like the present to bring senior IT and business people together to create the spark to realise the benefits.  I encourage people that are stuck at the starting line to reach out and connect to the people that have the relevant skills to help you get this party started!

I would love to hear about the challenges you are facing in your organisation to get this thing happening.  What are your challenges?


Matt Allington is a professional Self Service BI expert, Power Pivot consultant, trainer and Blogger based in Sydney Australia.

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