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It’s time to evolve from spreadsheets to self-service analytics

Companies have spent countless hours grappling with spreadsheet software to decipher data; from manipulating text to setting up pivot tables, a lot of effort goes into creating a chart. The notorious shortcomings of spreadsheets for business-wide data capture and analysis, plus the need for clean, flexible data models gave birth to the business intelligence (BI) and analytics market. But to enforce analytics across an entire business has typically required qualified employees that have deep knowledge of data structures and the technical ability to apply algorithms that solve business needs. These people are rare and often expensive.

Democratising data

Self-service analytics is an approach that allows employees in any role and with any skill level to access and work with business data, even if they don’t have a background in analytics or data mining. However, because this ‘democratisation of data’ allows users of all levels and experiences access, it’s important that the user interface is user-friendly and intuitive with clear navigation. Visualisation through dashboards can enable users to clearly view data, and make it a more compelling experience across the business, through automated data profiling and a data-forward approach to analysis.

The future of analytics

There is an appetite for self-service analytics in businesses across the world. Research from our 2015 State of Self-Service Analytics report found that ninety five per cent of IT organisations plan to invest in self-service BI in the next two years – an eleven per cent increase from 2014. The justification is clear, with ninety one per cent of business and IT agreeing that it is important for business users to access data and information without the help of IT.

Spreadsheets: only part of the story

Tracking and visualising data using spreadsheets is now archaic as advances in computing allow employees of all levels the access to the data they need to make informed decisions. Using spreadsheets and keeping the data access to top-level management can create a variety of problems. First, middle-management might only have access to status reports, which may not necessarily contain up-to-the-minute data, and therefore will not have the insights needed to make forward-looking decisions. Additionally, without guidance from the application, employees will revert back to the technology they understand. Spreadsheets continue to proliferate and analysis is performed on data that is easy to access, rather than the best fit.

Spreadsheets are inherently designed for personal use and single-user-access, making them difficult as a tool for collaboration and difficult to maintain without risking duplication, as copies are sent around as attachments. As time passes, spreadsheets can become error-prone, and since they are typically a desktop-based application, the ability to access data remotely is hindered and makes it harder for employees to make fast decisions on-the-move.

Moreover, a spreadsheet only offers one piece of the story. Business data now resides in a wide-variety of locations, from CRM or marketing applications to social, video, and other unstructured data types. There is no way to ensure that you are getting a 360 degree view of the business.

There is also an element of risk with spreadsheets from a scalability aspect – working with large datasets can cause the programme to respond slowly, and lagging can cause programmes to crash, affecting productivity. Dashboards allow businesses to host data separately and be accessible from anywhere.

Businesses may be concerned about the training involved in helping users understand what data is available and how the information can be queried to make decisions, but once the IT department has set up the data warehouse that supports the BI system, users should be able to analyse data and create reports with very little effort. IT can also provide the necessary security controls and auditing measures that ensure users are given the right data access, and also provides IT with the transparency they need to see who accesses what data.

How self-service analytics can help

Self-service analytic tools allow users the flexibility to explore, blend, and visualise data from a range of sources to produce new insights and action as necessary. Customisable self-service analytics put the workforce in control of their own informational needs. Additionally, interactive dashboards that include features such as heat maps, gauges, and geographic maps allow users to not just see the data, but to engage with it and focus on their specific metrics of interests to explore deeper.

Tom Cahill, VP EMEA, Logi Analytics

Image credit: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens