Sightings at recent trade exhibitions have confirmed that Microsoft’s Excel-based Power BI reporting tools are spawning a new generation of reporting services and applications.
Microsoft’s hold on management reporting has been under threat for a decade or so, ever since cloud-based tools such as Spotlight Reporting and Adaptive Planning arrived on the scene. But it will take more than that to knock Excel off its perch as the profession’s preferred reporting application.
When it was first introduced as the PowerPivot add-on to Excel 2010, Power BI greatly expanded the data summary capabilities of first-generation PivotTable tools. As Simon Hurst explained when Power BI became part of the core Excel 2013/Office 365 package, the data management and manipulation tools were set to redefine the spreadsheet.
Since then developers have been exploring the possibilities, with more than 100 featured on the Power BI UK partners list. The recent Sage Summit and Accountex events gave us a chance to see what is on offer in the finance field, including:
- PwC Impact forecasting centre
- BDODrive - outsourcing and reporting service from top 10 firm
- Suntico BI - using Power BI as a platform for consolidated reporting from Sage 50 Accounts
Down under, meanwhile, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ) is partnering Microsoft in a “predictive accounting” initiative called Kairos.
The PwC and BDO projects show how the larger firms are looking to adapt their technology capabilities into outsourced finance services packages for medium-size businesses. PwC, which just opened an Impact centre in Belfast to focus on the Sage side of its Myfinancepartner service, is pioneering even more specialist forecasting services around Power BI.
While others are catering for the cloud generation, Suntico BI spotted a gap in the market to support companies are looking to extract meaningful reports from Sage 50 Accounts. As fans of David Carter’s old PivotTable tutorials will recall, there is a phenomenal level of interest in this area.
Starting from £69 a month, the cloud-based Suntico BI service is billed as a “content pack” that can import and normalise data from Sage 50 to give immediate insights, explained senior vice president Hugh Johnson at Accountex last week.
Suntico has done all the development work to integrate Power BI with Sage 50 and make its data analysis-ready in a set of standardised report formats. The concept, said Johnson, was to stop managing directors and finance chiefs “looking at what you did last month, and start looking at what you did last night”.
Explaining why Suntico focused on the Sage user base, he added, “Ninety-five per cent of sales invoice data is still on premise in Sage 50. Power BI makes it really easy to get to it.”
Suntico has put together reports that include demand forecasts based on seasonal sales patterns and a sales “heat map” that lets managers compare actuals against forecasts by period, product and even sales representative.
One of the advantages of Power BI was that it draw in non-financial data from other sources such as CRM software. “By default, Power BI makes it really easy,” said Johnson.
“I’m not a coder, but I built the sales heat map myself in an afternoon.”
Because of the Sage 50 connection, Suntico has been on the radar of Milsted Langon’s head of BI Chris Downing since 2016. “We have a very broad client base using Sage 50, because that’s what accountants know and love,” he said.
“Power BI is a massive opportunity. It’s a natural extension of what we already offer in BI, management reporting and real-time analytics. We’ve been fine-tuning Excel to do that for years, but Power BI offers the ability to do reporting on the fly with the added value of deep dive insights with a few simple mouse clicks. It provides the ability to connect you to all kinds of databases and delivers information in a far more user-friendly fashion.”
With Microsoft Office 365 and Power BI integrations evolving for the likes of Sage 50c and Xero, Downing said the reporting tools were “a natural progression for where the market is going with management information”.
Chris Dowing will delve more deeply into Power BI in a forthcoming Microsoft/ACCA webinar, How modern accountancy practices are using data to add value, on Thursday 24 May at 10am.
Here’s what Microsoft’s James Akrigg and Mark Sykes from BDODrive had to say at Accountex about how Power BI is feeding into new reporting techniques and services: