Director Accounting Insights Ltd.
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Power BI: Is it the right tool for SMEs?

9th Apr 2018
Director Accounting Insights Ltd.
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Power BI

There is a lot of talk about Power BI, but is it right for small to medium sized businesses (SMBs)?

Getting a Power BI solution to work really well for your business does require more groundwork than simpler, more traditional reporting but the skills needed are not onerous and once in place it can really be worth it. Let me explain.

Let’s consider two types of user of a reporting system:

  • The Business User, who is the person who uses the company’s dashboards and reports.

  • The Analyst, who is the person who prepares reports for the Business User.

New tools like Power BI are game-changers, but do not remove the main reporting pain point in an SMB that is the lack of anyone with the time and the skills to perform the role of the Analyst.

3 reasons for the Business User to adopt Power BI

Automated Alerts and Push Notifications

Rather than have to review the daily, weekly or monthly reporting pack only to find out that everything is ok, wouldn’t it be nice to be notified of any exceptions?

Power BI handles this very nicely in two ways.

  1. In the Power BI Dashboard you can configure notifications to track a particular number (for example sales, margin, receivables overdue) and generate a notification if the number goes outside a given range. You can see these notifications when you login to Power BI, or set up an email alert.
  2. If you happen to use an iPhone then you can set up the Power BI iPhone app to generate a push notification like a text message alert.

You can still go to the dashboard and report as normal, but you can also set up your own personalised notifications if there is a particular number that you want to track. You could even set up notifications to tell you if your reports are not up to date.

Setting up Power BI notifications in your iPhone

So for the busy manager in an SMB, automated notifications could deliver real benefit and save a lot of time “just checking” to see everything is ok.

Awesome visualisations

They say that a picture tells a thousand words, but what about a picture that you can interact with and maybe use to visualise many dimensions: maybe sales and margin by sales rep, customer and product?  A really good visualisation will deliver the important messages much faster than endless tables of numbers.

Power BI has taken all the visualisations that were in the Excel Power View plugin and extended them further. Not only can the Analyst serve up to the Business User some great visualisations out of the box, but the Business User can change these very easily to suit his or her needs. Here is an example map-based visualisation of Sales in the last 30 days:

Now in addition to the standard bar charts, pie charts etc. that Microsoft provides, there is a huge gallery of custom visualisations that your Analyst can import into Power BI to tell you the story the way that you want it. Take a look also at this video that gives a flavour of just how easily you can add these to your report.

To spot new trends faster - forewarned is forearmed?

So you are looking at your sales number year-to-date and they are better than the same period last year. That’s great isn’t it?  But let’s say that the trend has reversed, perhaps within a certain customer segment. Overall the numbers are still up on last year but it is only a matter of time before they start to fall. Your company is operating on some quite thin margins and getting your stock levels right is really important. With tools like Power BI it is much easier to set up models to watch the underlying trends than perhaps it would be using conventional Excel worksheets. You can set up a model for example to measure year-on-year sales acceleration. A negative acceleration could tell you that trouble is coming even though your year-on-year sales are still ahead.

Take a look at another example below. It is a customer sales heat-map that analyses buying patterns over the last year to identify anomalies - good or bad. It identifies sales in the last 28 days that were more than one standard deviation above or below the average 28-day sales for that customer. Don’t worry about the technicalities around standard deviations; it is automatically updated every day and acts as an early-warning for changing customer buying patterns. It is a very simple way to help focus discussions in your sales meetings or with your customers.

Customer sales heat-map produced by Power BI

3 reasons for the Analyst to adopt Power BI

To combine related data into a single model

If you are building out a reporting solution for your company, then you will almost certainly have data that is related but perhaps held in separate spreadsheets or other sources.

For the Analyst, Power BI provides a very simple way to see and build relationships in your company data. In Power BI Desktop (which is free to download and use) you get pretty much all you need in the one place - from ways to get the data in the first place from different sources, then to transform it and build relationships for your reporting model.

Power BI Desktop Modelling View

If you add a Dates Table to your model, you can combine data that are not directly related along a common dates axis.

Having your data together in a single model makes it very easy for you to respond to new requests from the Business Users and also to enable your more advanced Business Users to customise their own reports.

To automate your data load and make data transformations very simple

As mentioned above, one of the nice things that you can do with Power BI Desktop is to connect to different data sources and then transform it as it comes in. In this video, I have a table from Sage 50 cloud Accounts that contains information in text format about the accounting year. What I want to do is to extract the date information from this so that I can plot my visualisations against months of my financial year rather than the calendar year. Now if I am an Analyst working in-house for one company, I might just hard code this. But say I am an accountant providing business dashboards to many clients, then I want a more automated way to do this.

You will see from the video just how easy it is to do this kind of transformation in Power BI. I tried it in Excel using different text commands, but it was just so much easier to set up and automate in Power BI (at least it was to me).

The example in the video was done without writing any code at all. You can get more advanced, by using a query language called “M”, but for many many cases this will not be necessary.

To share your spreadsheets

So you have some really useful spreadsheets. You love Excel. You just want a better way to share them, or their contents. Well Power BI and Excel work really really well together.

Some of the things that you can do include:

  • Bring an Excel sheet into a Power BI Report or Dashboard as a table of information

  • Import a PowerPivot model into your Power BI model

  • Export data from your Power BI report online into Excel

  • Set up a live connection between your Power BI model and an Excel sheet on OneDrive, or even just part of that sheet, or even a single cell!

Here is a one-minute summary of these capabilities and a 40-minute tutorial.

Summary - is this a golden opportunity for SMBs?

Here are six compelling reasons why Power BI can make sense for a small to medium sized business. Never before have such powerful business intelligence tools been so within the grasp of an SMB - neither from the point of view of cost, nor ease of use.

Useful links


Replies (2)

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By richardterhorst
12th Apr 2018 10:52

Is this an advert?

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Replying to richardterhorst:
Hugh Johnson
By Hugh Johnson
18th Apr 2018 18:30

Hi Richard,
It is not intended that way. Maybe it was over-emphasising Power BI specically? I guess this is my experience, but I think you could make the same argument generally about the new wave of "self-service" BI tools. The point is that without someone to take on the "Analyst" role, then these are not really self-service - at least not in the sense that say a spreadsheet is. However, if an SME were to find someone (internally or externally) to take on this role then the delivered BI solution can really be self-service. Given that most SMEs use standard accounting packages from companies like Sage, Intuit and Xero there is an opportunity for economies of scale for this Analyst role and where better to look than accountants in practice?

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