Big isn't always better, especially in BI

I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times; accounting software is the most important tool any business owns. The accounting package holds so much valuable information about products, prices, customer payments, supplier trends, gross margins, profitability patterns, asset ratios and the likes.

Because of this, it should be considered the starting point for every strategic business decision. In fact, it should be used as the business intelligence hub.

Intelligent business decisions
Owners of smaller businesses tend to shy away from business intelligence systems. They argue that accessing and manipulating their financial information into manageable reports is difficult, time-consuming and often expensive, because the software comes at a hefty price, on top of which experienced consultants need to be employed to manage the process.

Many of those who have made the investment complain that their BI system is complex and intimidating. After speaking to a number of financial managers who have BI tools in place, it seems almost customary to export the data out of that tool and into Microsoft Excel. Once the data is in a program that users are comfortable with, it is manipulated into the format needed for reporting purposes. What a waste of both time and money!

Crossing the Excel hurdle
The obvious solution to this challenge is a BI tool that uses Excel as a “front-end”, where information can be manipulated and easily understood. As a business application, Excel is pervasive, easy to use and available on almost every computer. In addition, most business people have an understanding of how it works, and if they don't, training is easy to come by and inexpensive.

Sure, Excel presents some information management challenges. A valid concern is that it can get confusing to use because Excel offers no structure or automated approach to creating, editing or running reports. If users aren't careful, they can find themselves in spreadsheet hell. But with some programming tweaks, an easy to understand front-end with drag and drop functionality, coupled with clever back-end integration into an accounting system, Excel can access all the relevant data to deliver powerful BI insights for better business decision-making.

With 21 years' experience in the SME market, Pastel understands that smaller businesses don't have internal resources that can design complex financial reports on the fly. So we've developed a BI tool that seamlessly integrates our accounting programs to Excel. This isn't an export-based technology, it's a real BI solution based on everyone's favourite spreadsheet application from Microsoft.

Excel is excellent for BI
The benefits of using Excel for BI are far reaching. Not only is it relatively inexpensive when compared to independent BI programs, but because Excel can be used by the business owner rather than a consultant, data access becomes nimble and time-efficient too. In addition, because it integrates directly into your accounting software and automatically updates reports as the accounts change, human error is eliminated, making BI reports a current and trustworthy reflection of your business.

It's taken us more than five years to evolve our BI interface into an application that the majority of South African businesses feel comfortable using. We now have more than 20 000 users, which is testament to the fact that Pastel's BI solution delivers on its promise of being a quick and easy way to access valuable information in a non-daunting manner. Any business needs information to give it direction. In fact, it will suffocate without it. So, regardless of size, I encourage every business owner to bring their data to life and invest in real business intelligence – it will be one of the best business decisions they ever make!