Cognos plugs in to Excel plug-in trend

Excel-based interfaces for business intelligence are becoming a trend in the marketplace, indicating that the spreadsheet application is here to stay, according to an industry analyst.

Ottawa-based Cognos is the most recent vendor to provide such capability to the market with its new offering, Cognos 8 BI Analysis for Microsoft Excel 8.2.

Released last month, this product comes on the heels of other business intelligence offerings that tie-in with Excel, a program ubiquitous in the enterprise and used a great deal alongside (and sometimes in place of) business intelligence solutions.

Microsoft released last month the new PerformancePoint Server 2007, which allows user to work their business intelligence solution through an Excel interface. Information Builders International, too, placed great emphasis on its new Excel plug-in earlier this year at its annual user conference.

With most business intelligence vendors, including Business Objects, Information Builders and SAS, providing tighter integration with Excel, the spreadsheet program “will never ever be phased out,” said Boris Evelson, principal analyst in Forrester Research’s business intelligence arm.

“Information technologists can’t keep pace with the changing business requirements. In IT, with new databases, quality control, security, and collaboration, there’s no way they can react so fast—there’s always a lag-time. Users can do 80 per cent of their modeling and what-if analysis in Excel, it’s easy to use, and it’s already on their desktop,” Evelson said.

This accessibility and ease of use inspired Cognos to craft the program, in which “the business intelligence user interface is Excel,” said the company’s senior product manager Paul Glennon.

He said that, while Cognos’ business intelligence suite typically replaces the use of spreadsheets, they still are quite useful to the average financial analyst or business manager.

“It’s flexible, and many users want to be able to go to Excel,” said Glennon. “They want to bring business intelligence information into Excel, whereas before they had to break the connection with the spreadsheet.”

Cognos 8 BI Analysis for Microsoft Excel 8.2—which requires no server-side implementation and is merely installed at the PC level—allows users to work with the flexibility and familiar cell-based structure of Excel (a task bar shows business intelligence data), while still being able to communicate with their data.

The program offers visualization and drag-and-drop capabilities, and formatting and calculations are retained after the data is refreshed.

Most of the other business intelligence vendors cite the on-the-ground user as their target audience, a trend that continues apace as the idea of “pervasive BI” becomes more and more popular in the enterprise.

For this most recent release, Cognos is targeting the higher-level users – such as the financial analyst and business manager – with the program’s advanced analytics capabilities., rather than the power-users like an IT staffer or the front-line workers, like customer service representatives or field workers.

Glennon cited Cognos’ GoOffice as the go-to program for the lower-level users, like the IT staffer or front-line workers, as it allows users to port self-authored content into productivity applications like Word (and Excel).

Forrester’s Evelson said while Excel interfaces are all the rage in business intelligence, they’re not the future.

He said, “Where it’s going is not Excel only as the user interface. What these programs are missing is a whole other BI pancake layer, where it not only provides an Excel user interface, but also offers a truly seamless integration with Excel as a data source , data transformation mechanism, and other Excel based applications.

“Right now, it’s only linked to the top layer—(vendors) have to work to bring Excel from top-to-bottom with the (business intelligence data source).”

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