Cognos Makes Peace with Excel

C8 BI Analysis for Excel isn’t some gussied-up version of your business-analyst-power-user mentor’s Excel import and export capability, officials promise.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. That about sums up the attitude of business intelligence (BI) and performance management (PM) players with respect to Microsoft Corp.’s Excel spreadsheet tool. For years, BI and PM vendors have pushed discrete client alternatives to Excel, touting usability, security, and collaborative enhancements that—prior to Microsoft’s Excel 2007 release, in any event—were clearly superior to Excel’s out-of-the-box offerings.

But users clung to Excel—especially on the financial side of the house. As a result, BI and PM vendors have labored to accommodate Excel in their own offerings, first by means of Excel import and export capabilities, and, increasingly, by means of embedded support for Excel; or by virtue of a native Excel-like (and Excel-compatible) spreadsheet facility of their own.

Cognos Inc., like other vendors, introduced Excel support in its own BI (http://www.dw-institute.com/research/display.asp?id=7126&t=y) and PM (http://www.itcinstitute.com/display.aspx?id=133) products several years ago, in the form of Excel import and export capabilities. Last week, however, Cognos announced a new Excel-friendly spin on BI and PM—Cognos 8 (C8) BI Analysis for Excel, which it expects to ship sometime later this year.

"It’s about the need [for users] to analyze information in a way they’re comfortable with. [So they can] grab data from different sources, add data to a report that they want to do further analysis on that doesn’t exist in the report, either structured or unstructured data," says Delbert Krause, director of performance management product marketing with Cognos. "This is about end users, business users, financial analysts—people that use Excel, so we expect them to have intermediate-to-expert skills in terms of interacting with Excel."

It’s also about codifying and instantiating repeatability—or repeatable processes—where possible, says Krause. In place of wildly proliferating spreadsheets—i.e., what TDWI director of research Wayne Eckerson has famously called "spreadmart hell"—and no single version of the truth, Cognos pushes a controlled, repeatable, and dynamically refreshable spreadsheet alternative. Or—to put it another way—what Ventana Research principal Robert Kugler has called a "better-than-spreadsheet spreadsheet."

"No one wants to rebuild a spreadsheet that has some analytics every month. They want to create reusable, continual things. They want to be able to refresh and continue those. And they want to be able to do that in Excel. Their Excel skills are strong, that’s what they use," Krause comments.

Thanks to compliance requirements and mounting concern over corporate information security practices, companies are under pressure to bring their arrant Excel spreadmarts to heel. That requires reining-in arrant spreadsheet practices, too. For many organizations, Office 2007 and its Thin Excel capability (exposed via SharePoint) might be enough; for other organizations, better-than-spreadsheet alternatives from Cognos, Actuate Corp., Applix Inc., and others might be more suitable.

But for C8 BI shops, Krause argues, BI Analysis for Excel might be just the ticket. "They may be Cognos users already that already get a report. They may be a class of users that have never embraced Cognos BI because they work in Excel all day, [so] they don’t need structured reports," he comments. "These [customers] have concerns in their day-to-day job about the quality of their data, the accuracy of their data—you know, where it’s coming from. They want their Excel users to source their trusted and secure data because that will keep some control and compliance around the data. This isn’t [an] everybody-in-the-company-gets-Excel [situation], it’s more about users that have signed off and that we trust with the data getting [access to] it in Excel."

There’s a further wrinkle here, too, says Krause: on top of everything else, such users require autonomy. "They require self-service. They can’t put reports into an IT queue. That might be weeks of waiting. They don’t have weeks. Their demands might be very unique in terms of the data sources and combinations they want to look at, and, by the way, they were probably asked to do it yesterday by the CEO. They need this kind of environment," he comments.

In this respect and others, Krause argues, C8 BI Analysis for Excel is designed to cater to a wide range of users—albeit a user class, that in general, is familiar with Excel. "We’ve accounted for every behavior, from drag-and-drop to right-click to double-click and drill-down. You might bring your information over, you can change it, you can change the layout filter," he explains.

In most of the scenarios which Krause describes, C8 BI Analysis for Excel is positioned as a tool for analysts and power users—in other words, for a user class that (as Krause himself conceded) isn’t so much interested in consuming polished reports as in accessing, and working with, raw, unfiltered, but trusted data. If or when users do desire to design and publish polished reports for wider dissemination, however, they can easily transition from BI Analysis for Excel to Cognos’ Report Studio environment. "If I want to create a report for distribution … in Report Studio that’s controlled and vetted for the right security, we’ve created that capability," Krause indicates.

At the same time, Krause reiterates, the forthcoming product’s interactive features—which are intended to support analyst- and power user-like interaction with and analysis of data—comprise its strongest selling point. "The linkage for the Excel interaction is beautiful. If I were to do a column variance between 2004 and 2005, and put it in the right [column] by year, I would have a variance number. As I drill down, those calculations would expand; as I change filters, the data would change. There’s kind of a view manipulation that gets you fresh data, but there’s also a view manipulation that expands your calculations of what you’ve already created."

For this reason, he argues, Cognos’ forthcoming BI Analysis for Excel capability outstrips the vanilla Excel import and export capabilities that some vendors offer. "A lot of solutions traditionally say, query the data and export it into Excel. That’s not bad for the first time around. If you want to extend the query and you’ve wrapped calculations around your export, you’ve got to start over again. So this combination of linking between the exploration of the query and the cells is very important," he concludes.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.