London FP&A Club: Harnessing Self Service BI

“Everyone I know still wants to get data into Excel so they can work with it in a format they know [and then link it with other datasets and map it to financial models],” Dr Geary told financial professionals at the January 22 meeting in central London. “Excel won’t simply go away.”

A renowned computer expert, Dr Geary is inventor of the Excel add-in for the structured query language (SQL) server and a contributor to Essbase, the first multidimensional online analytic processing (OLAP) database cube.

“After 20 years Microsoft has finally realised Excel is here to stay and launched a suite of powerful new business intelligence (BI) self-service tools that can help you maximise its effectiveness. I think Excel has gone through a quantum leap over the last few years,” he added, explaining to FP&A Club members that it was now better placed to help finance professionals carry out the analytical aspect of their job. The era of self-service BI has truly dawned.

The evening was dedicated to teaching the 31 senior financial professionals in attendance the best ways to import data into and out of Excel; how to establish relationships with other datasets; and make better correlations in order to build enhanced analytical models.

The presentation from Dr Geary also introduced alternative tools to VLookUps, such as Microsoft’s new PowerPivot pivot table.

“This has been included in Microsoft’s Excel package since 2013 and has been available as a free download since 2010,” explained Dr Geary, who urged attendees such as Matt Shrieves, global FP&A systems manager at AIG; William Howell, finance director at SPX Corporation; and Simone Collins, finance manager at Polycom to download it.

Speaking as Club attendees introduced themselves, Hans Gobin, financial director at pharma firm, Norgine, said: “I use BI quite a lot, so it’ll be good to see what is new. That is why I am here this evening.”

The new PowerQuery, PowerView and PowerMap tools are also useful additions from Microsoft, alongside PowerPivot. Geary’s presentation discussed how big data programming frameworks, such as Hadoop, can support the processing of large datasets, helping finance professionals to release the full power of predictive computer modelling upon their corporations.

Geary, who recently joined British Gas as a BI solution architect, also outlined his new project to introduce self-service BI to the 40,000 staff employed by the power utility. Without divulging proprietary detail, he explained how the large corporation has evaluated different BI solutions, suites and packages before settling on a new platform. “We are trying to use silicon valley big data technology like Hadoop so that we have one version of the truth, instead of lots, and more flexibility in future for individual staff members to harness the power of self-service BI analytics,” he said.

Personal BI queries and scenarios can be built via Excel and its add-ons, he added. Users can then communicate their models with colleagues via SharePoint for workgroup BI, or corporate BI via Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) for wider dissemination. SSAS is an online analytical processing (OLAP), data mining and reporting tool in Microsoft SQL Server; used regularly by organisations to analyse and make sense of information spread across multiple databases or disparate tables.

Big data analytics becomes much easier, however, when the user employs a tool familiar to all FP&A professionals at the initial stages, such as Excel. He or she can build their figures and then link it to a database and graphical interfaces in order to truly unleash the power of computer modelling. It’s also possible to port datasets around, integrate different data from elsewhere and then publish and disseminate it however you wish latter on down the modelling process.

“In conclusion, I think PowerPivot and its associated new Query, View and Map tools in Excel is the biggest change to the system since I first saw Excel back in 1986,” said Geary, as he handed over to co-presenter Peter Ladd, director of the Pinion Partners consultancy.

Ladd ran through a live example for the FP&A Club audience, showing them how the theory works in practice by entering figures into an Excel spreadsheet for product, customer, quantity, price, sales data and other such subsets. He next outlined how PowerPivot can be used to compress it, so it can be combined with different datasets – say via Hadoop, or a weather database for instance – and then exported, allowing the data to be used graphically via modelling tools.

“We’ve demonstrated it’s a lot simpler than hiring an expensive BI guy to come and build you a data cube from scratch,” said Geary, as the live demonstration ended. He added that this is precisely why self-service BI has become such a hot topic for finance professionals.

Q&A and Reaction Quotes: FP&A Practitioners Speak

Following his presentation a Q&A session saw Emilia Kusmierczuk, group finance and MI manager at science-based service company LGC, ask Dr Geary: “Who will use the new Microsoft and other self-service BI tools [demonstrated tonight] and for what ends?”

“The new technology is aimed at financial controllers, heads of FP&A and finance professionals such as yourselves,” Geary replied. “You can use self-service BI for financial modelling and analytical purposes.

“It’s not so good for the planning aspect of your financial planning and analysis jobs but for the latter A for analytics element it’s perfect,” he added. “Marketing people can use it to research customer sentiment too and mine the mass of unstructured data available via social media and other sources. There are multiple end uses.”

At the evening’s networking session, Timothy Green, head of FP&A at insurance broker, Cooper Gay Swett & Crawford, told gtnews: “We’re all familiar with Excel. This was a very useful presentation because it proves you don’t need a totally new system to get new BI functionality – add-ons such as PowerPivot, packaged with Microsoft Office 2013, and other similar tools can help map data and build effective financial models, while helping to integrate data from many different sources.”

The session would serve “as a springboard to go away and research the topic further,” Green added. “For instance, I intend to look at the demonstration videos that presenter Nigel Geary shared at the end of his talk showing a PowerPivot data relationship video and how it can be used as an alternative to VLookUps.

“The Microsoft Power BI website was also useful. The event was a useful teaser and introduction into how to become an expert in self-service BI and I intend to look at further resources to continue my education.” 



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