Real-time BI with Power BI and Excel
Why Still Talking about Excel?
Most Power BI users probably know how to get data in from Excel. This is usually how everyone starts using Power BI and possibly the most used connection for building self-service reports. However, you might not be all familiar to the reversed process: getting data in Excel from a Power BI dataset. This sounds like a trip back to the 90’s of BI. Why would I dare to write about it?
Excel is perhaps the most well-known self-service analytical tool. Its success resides on the simplicity of getting value out of data even for non-technical fellows. After the release of Power BI, some of us thought it came to replace the king of the analytical tools. I might accept I was wrong. Excel can still do something that Power BI can’t: to act on data.
Surprisingly, this is a very common request by Power BI users. They often might ask for changing a forecasted value in a report to see its impact on the results. There are some new solutions in Microsoft for solving this type of requests, such as Power Apps. But these tools are still not that well known, and their implementation requires developers to acquire specific training. Hence, I believe that these two, Power BI and Excel, are still going to be dancing together for some time.
A New Era after Composite Models
Not only they are good dancers, now the music sounds fantastic too. Good tunes are played since December 2020, when Microsoft announced Power BI composite models. This seems to be a great achievement in the BI world. Sincerely, I am just a beginner, so I did not see this to come. But if Alberto Ferrari says it publicly, then we must believe that this is the beginning of new BI era.
“We got used to monthly updates with Power BI, but not all the months are the same. Guys, the December 2020 version of Power BI is an historical milestone in the development of Business Intelligence. Historical. Milestone. I am not saying this lightly; I am old enough to have seen many things happen in the Business Intelligence world. Some were nice, some were cool… this is neither nice nor cool: this is huge: finally, can seal the marriage between self-service and corporate BI” – Alberto Ferrari
With composite models, Power Bi developers connect datasets located in the cloud with new datasets saved locally in their computer. Datasets define the analytical power of our reports. But now with composite models, developers expand the limits of their data models, and consequently their analytical power too. As Alberto said, this is a great opportunity for making self-service BI more self-service and to start doing real-time analysis. Indeed, we, as modelers, are now the obstacle for this transformation to happen.
Hints on Analysing Power BI Datasets in Excel
Accordingly, I believe that a brief refresh on how to bring data from Power BI to Excel would be beneficial.
- Copy table. As easy as it reads. The user copies data from Power BI Desktop to Excel with a right click on the desired table. This method might be useful for a quick analysis and only if the user has access to the .pbix file.
- Export data. This is a fast way to get data from a specific visual in Power BI. You might export data to Excel when performing own analysis on numerical values behind a visual. These are usually one-use type of analysis. The data is not connected to the Power BI dataset and any new update requires of manual work. For detailed description of the feature, visit the link https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/power-bi/visuals/power-bi-visualization-export-data
- Analyse in Excel. This option creates a pivot table connected to the Power BI dataset. Due to the existing live connection, Excel has access to the full Power BI data set, without row limitations, secured by Microsoft account credentials and row level security. For the same result, only available with some specific Office SKUs, Excel users click Get Data feature to connect to their available Power BI datasets. For more specific info, check Microsoft documentation in https://docs.microsoft.com/en-gb/power-bi/collaborate-share/service-analyze-in-excel
- Power BI featured tables. You can create a connection to enterprise data so that you enrich your Excel tables. This feature is found with the name of Data Types under the Data tab. Don’t forget to set “Is featured table” to Yes in Power BI Desktop. Then publish the dataset into the Power BI web service and ready. Full documentation about this exciting feature can be found in the following links: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/power-bi/collaborate-share/service-excel-featured-tables and https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/power-bi/collaborate-share/service-create-excel-featured-tables.
A Game Changer: Excel Data Types
All these possibilities might be considered in your future use case. However, among all of them, I find the last option very relevant when seeking for real-time BI. Featured tables and Data Types allow developers to combine manually input and Power BI data in the same Excel table. Together with composite models, companies can enrich existing enterprise data models. I would rather show you how with a current customer use case.
Use Case: Leveraging CMDB in M&A Projects
The Business Case
Company A is large and international enterprise and as such, it is involved in several mergers and acquisitions (M&A) cases at a time. It seeks for leveraging the utilization of their existing configuration management database (CMDB) in their M&A projects. They aim to build a resilient virtual data room (VDR) and vendor due diligence (VDD) process. So, the company needs up-to-date reporting and multiple sources connections.
The lifecycle of the reports is long enough to fulfil the needs of the M&A project, from several months to few years. During this time, project scope and IT entities (i.e applications and workstations) change continuously. And these changes are not shown in the spreadsheets that product managers and analyst work with. Currently, these Excel files are manually updated every now and then. In addition to CMDB data, the Power BI reports include the manually input data from these Excel files. With the existing capabilities, data changes pass unnoticed, analysis are never 100% certain, and manual work slows down processes.
Company A wants to increase their capacity to do analysis on actual data while speeding up the process. This way, the company aims not only to report about individual projects, but to unify the analysis and get overall conclusions from all ongoing M&A projects.
Step 1: Golden Dataset
The first step has been to build a golden dataset with all available data from an on-premises database. Generally, direct access to the on-premises data has required specific IT knowledge and skill, only available in the IT department. With golden datasets, Company A lowers the barriers for business departments to have access to relevant and secured enterprise data. To build a working architecture, we have followed Matt Allington’s fabulous post https://exceleratorbi.com.au/new-power-bi-reports-golden-dataset/
Step 2: Export to Excel
The second step is to facilitate project managers with tools to set up the project scope. Within the golden dataset workspace, project managers have now reports to support project scoping. Project managers don’t have rights to modify the on-premises data. So they need always to communicate their changes to IT department for database updates. They use Excel to export a list of the IT elements in scope. For this, they use the Export to Excel feature actionable through the visuals in the reports.
Step 3: Setting the Workspace
Next step is about setting a new workspace for the new project. This way we restrict access to project information only to the project contributors. Only them has access to this specific workspace, which uses Teams as a collaboration environment. In this workspace, they can save their analysis tools such as Excel workbooks with their standardize tables. Additionally, they can find ready-made reports connected to the golden dataset.
Step 4: Power BI Reports
The last step is to build the Power BI reports. The reports combine data from the golden dataset and manually input data in Excel files. This is only possible due to composite models capability. The developer uses Get Data to connect to the golden dataset (Power BI dataset). And the same way to connect to the Excel shared in Teams (SharePoint folder). Power BI does the rest to establish a live and secured connection. Now the reports are ready, but not automatically up-to-date.
Bonus Step: Featured Table and Excel Data Type
For an optimally automated solution, we need to make use of Power BI featured tables. The team needs up-to-date data from the golden dataset. They want to perform their analysis without having to open many windows. Consequently they want to have the actual data available in their standardized Excel tables. Here is when new Data Type feature of Excel comes to use. They just need to include the row ID from the featured table. Finally, the rest of the data automatically appears on the dedicated columns within the Excel table.
Now always up-to-date reports are ready. The project contributors can conduct their analysis, modify the values in the Excel and see the real-time impact in the Power BI reports.
Main Take Away
As Alberto Ferrari has mentioned, composite models enable the future of real time analysis in BI. Additionally, connecting Excel tables to golden datasets brings companies enormous flexibility for building future self-service BI reports. Although not necessary, the new Power BI featured table capability was missing to obtain automated end-to-end processes. This is key to increase the speed and, more importantly, the integrity of the data.
This real case includes many new features, still in preview, so we must be still careful about their impact. But do not hesitate, try it and let’s keep learning.
And why not learning together. Have you tried to build something similar? Dis you find a better solution? What did work to you? Is there a step you wish to know more about? Please, feel free to contact us.