Microsoft's Schizophrenic Approach to Business Intelligence

Ann All

Earlier this year I wrote about Microsoft's PowerPivot, a new business intelligence tool that allows users to bypass IT by using Excel as a front end for data. Taking IT out of the BI loop that way could seemingly create a governance nightmare, although Microsoft contends PowerPivot will win fans in IT by reducing the need for members of the IT team to build reports and freeing them for more strategic tasks.


So I was interested to see BI guru Howard Dresner's take on PowerPivot. After attending a recent Microsoft conference, Dresner opines PowerPivot is one of the latest examples of Microsoft making a once-fringe technology -- in this case in-memory, columnar data structures -- more mainstream. He also sees PowerPivot as a "bottoms up" BI solution, one driven by users rather than IT.


Is that a good thing? Dresner isn't so sure. Microsoft also offers SQL Server and SharePoint Server, "top down" BI solutions designed more from an IT rather than an end user perspective. He wrote:

They are robust yet complex products, requiring IT technical skills for design, implementation and support. They further the IT Department's mission to standardize models and enforce policy surrounding user access and interactions. In this scenario, dashboards and scorecards are designed and built using PerformancePoint and Analysis Services and are delivered broadly (and consistently) to management and users across an enterprise via SharePoint Services.

This is dramatically different than PowerPivot, which puts end users and not IT in the driver's seat. Dresner suggests Microsoft should figure out who its customer is, business users or IT, and then present a more cohesive BI marketing pitch.


Interestingly, IT Business Edge contributor Rob Enderle earlier this year made the same point, writing that Microsoft's desire to appeal to all constituencies, including end users and IT, results in "products that are not really focused on any one of these groups, largely incomplete or counter-strategic from the perspective of any of them, and that generally underperform their market potential." The question Microsoft needs to answer, he said: Who is your primary customer?

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Jun 22, 2010 8:45 AM Alan Alan  says:

There is a basic flaw in your premise. Microsoft in fact has both groups as its customer and has no intention of changing that. This is a client tool - aimed at the user and providing them with functionality. It in no way shapre or form gtets in the way of the IT tools. Instead it empowers each and every customer organization to make that strategic decision for themselves. Do we want IT in charge and have them build tools for us, or do we want the business user in charge and have them use tools the way they want.

If anything, not understanding this point misses a fundamental point that IT in general has as a huge blind spot - in the end it is the business users who matter. IT should be supporting them. IF an end user tool is the right tool then support it. IF it isn't then it is IT's job to quickly and effectively get the right tool to business users rather than block a solution becuase it isn't 'right'.

In fact Microsoft is doing the right thing by giving BOTH groups of customers a choice.

Jun 22, 2010 9:08 AM Stray__Cat Stray__Cat  says:

I do not see any incompatibility in pursuing both strategies. They give the implementer the freedom to chose the correct approach for the specific company.

In many years of BI, I realized that some companies need a strict control over data to gain advantage from BI, some others are extremely lax but there are no issues because everything seems to flow naturally to the right direction.

Jun 22, 2010 9:26 AM John Kyle John Kyle  says:

Ann - I think this debate will continue for a long time.  Those of us that have been in the BI industry for a while strongly believe that a centrally managed BI/data warehousing infrastructure is the core engine of corporate decision-making.  And, correspondingly, for many BI practitioners, Excel is the enemy.  But, the reality is that users are still more comfortable and proficient in Excel.  I agree with Stray Cat.  Both strategies are valuable.  We would all agree, I think, that wide-spread, manual Excel reporting with little or no centralized data management is not healthy.  But at the same time, overly centralized, top-down BI models are too restrictive.  I believe that Excel Automation is a great compromise.  What is it?  Automated data access and querying (centralized, if you like) and automated delivery (by email, etc) of fully functional Excel reports (formulas, pivot tables, dynamic charts).  This allows the IT department to manage the data assets and access rights, but gives the users the ability to work in Excel.

Jun 23, 2010 3:33 AM Richard Kemp Richard Kemp  says:

As an end-user and as a BI developer, I can see and appreciate the usefulness and power of flexible tools such as PowerPivot.  I do not see a conflict in having both as customers.  In fact I see this a great advantage.

First, IT is slow.  From a user's perspective, really slow.  New reports, dashboards, etc, just take longer than most users are willing to wait for NEW analysis of data.  They need help-yourself tools like PowerPivot.  They can use these tools to gain new insights into existing data, views, etc.  Once they develop these new insights and reports, they can "throw it over the wall" to IT, who can put the final tweaks and/or adjustments necessary to put into a production setting for all to use.

Second, IT is clueless - from a business data perspective.  Of course there's a lot of variability in that statement from one corp to the next, but the fact is nobody knows the data better than the business.  Its the business that needs free unbridled access to open tools which provide them new insights.  I strongly object to the idea that reports come first and only from a centralized 'borg' hive.

I view PowerPivot as an analysis tool first, and a reporting tool second.  Let the users analyze, let IT productionize.

Jun 24, 2010 1:15 AM Donald Farmer (MSFT) Donald Farmer (MSFT)  says:

Interesting view. Unsurprisingly I disagree with much of it. See my response at:

Donald Farmer


Jun 29, 2010 4:34 AM seozest seozest  says:

Agree John.This debate will continue as everybody  perceive different views.

But I think  both strategies are compatible.


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