Over the past three plus years that I have been working with SharePoint, I have never had the pleasure of giving an Excel Services presentation to a client. Well, thanks to our awesome sales team this past week I was able to do that very thing. I have been a part of some Excel Services implementations, but they were really focused on trying to create a “poor man’s” business intelligence solution with use Excel Services and Excel on top of an Analysis Services OLAP. Of course, this was prior to the announcement of rolling in Performance Point to SharePoint Enterprise. My experiences with using Excel Services as a BI solution somewhat skewed my opinion of the product towards the negative. After this experience, I can say that I am really beginning to understand more of the benefit of the current and the future MS Office Services offerings. The looks on the faces of the ten business users from various groups were priceless. A lot of them just stared in awe and when they started asking question, they almost didn’t want to stop. This almost reminded me of the reason that I got into this business, to get a rush from seeing the customer satisfied and praising you as if I had performed some sort of a miracle. It was a great feeling.
I gathered a bit of information through emails with the client’s business units and prepared for my presentation. There was not much out of the ordinary. The two business units were both working directly with spreadsheets, compiling data for periodic reporting and sending them around through emails. There was mention of pulling data from several of their internal systems and present them in pivot tables and charts. It sounded like there were many different target audiences of this data. I was able to dig up an old slide deck from the Microsoft Office team. Here is what it has listed as the benefits:
- Incorporate spreadsheets in portals and dashboards
- Eliminate “multiple versions of the truth” caused by distributing copies of spreadsheets
- Control access to spreadsheets for regulatory concerns or to protect proprietary information
- Leverage servers to offload long-running calculations from desktop machines
- Reuse logic & business models built in Excel in applications written in other languages without having to re-code the logic/business models
It turns out that each one of these is applicable to this client’s situation. As we dove deeper into their current usages of Excel, I was able to uncover that they have formulas in spreadsheets that are passed around from spreadsheet to spreadsheet. It was also discovered that they are dealing with stale data quite often and feel the pains of doing so. What really made them excited was the ability to create dashboards allowing them to create different perspective levels of their data. I was able to review some of their spreadsheets and determined they could easily be presented to their target executive and senior management audiences in meaningful perspectives. What happens today is that they send these big spreadsheets to this audience and they end up just asking the business unit for the information anyway. They get information overload having too many details and it just makes the business unit do double the work. Another exciting feature for them was the ability to pass parameters from SharePoint to a named area. There is a rate quote spreadsheet that they use today that would be a great fit for this feature. They could expose it to their users from Excel Services through a web part page or just a link to the viewer.
Other good things may come out of the conversations during the presentation, such as IT working with the business unit to allow for more real-time data integration. In one case the business unit was taking a CSV generated by a nightly SSRS report, converting it into an Excel file, and creating pivot tables off of the data. IT mentioned that all of the logic for flattening out the data and performing the calculations was performed in the report. They seemed more than willing to expose a stored procedure in which the business unit could use as a data source for a spreadsheet. While this is a much better solution than what they have today, I stressed that it is the first step that they should be taking to move to a more business intelligent environment. This does not mean that they need to create an OLAP, but it does mean that they need to aggregate their data from their mainframe and other operational systems into a reporting warehouse database(s). This will allow the business users to have more flexibility in querying their data so as to have better insight into their business.
I will be following up with the client after my vacation to see how things are going, but I suspect that they will be reaping some benefits in the very near future.