Microsoft adds a touch of BI to Office 365

Microsoft Power BI for Office 365Microsoft is bringing business intelligence to the SMB and midmarket segments with Power BI for Office 365, a new cloud-based applications that extends the reporting capabilities of Excel and enables Web-based sharing.

For solution providers, Power BI for Office 365 is an opportunity to open business intelligence capabilities to their business customers, as well as provide complementary services and support that facilitate the analytical process, or so says Microsoft.

“With new functionality built-in to familiar tools like Microsoft Excel 2013 and Office 365, you have a complete platform on which to build BI solutions and services… Power BI opens up huge potential for partners to enable companies to derive actionable insights from data, consume them from a variety of form factors and collaborate across the organization – big or small. Power BI truly democratizes the Big Data paradigm and creates a new market for our partners to serve with Microsoft,” wrote Phil Sorgen, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Group, in his blog.

Sorgen may be right, to a certain degree. Power BI for Office 365 does provide greater analytical capabilities than available in Excel. However, the ability to publish and manipulate data isn’t Big Data or even business intelligence. Data only becomes business intelligence when you know what you’re looking for and understand the data required to make informed decisions. For solution providers, this is a limitation as much as an opportunity.

At first blush, it’s hard to put into words precisely what Power BI for Office 365 is. The cloud-based application is a complement to Office 365, giving users the ability to create and share reports on business operations and trends based on data held in the popular Excel spreadsheet. But it’s also a sharing utility, allowing reports to be published and manipulated in the cloud, much like SharePoint.

Power BI for Office 365 is part of Microsoft’s long-running ambition to make all of its productivity apps interoperable. Going back as far as Windows Vista, Microsoft has aimed to make Word, Excel and other apps natural extensions of the other. This latest release is an extension of that in the cloud era.

Microsoft is clear that Power BI for Office 365 is an add-on application. While it’s technically part of the Office 365 family of products – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc. – it doesn’t come with the standard package and it’s only available for Office 365 Professional subscribers at a cost ranging from $20 to $40 per month per user. Sorry Home Premium users, you’re not eligible.

The plus side of Power BI for Office 365 is the ability to publish large data files in the cloud, open for search and manipulation. Users can create reports and enable natural language queries to understand business performance and trends. Microsoft has already created templates for finance, sales and marketing, and human resources.

As Microsoft describes it, Power BI for Office 365 unlocks the data contained in Excel to make it more actionable and valuable. This is evidence, as a spreadsheet isn’t a good business intelligence tool; it’s more of a Trapper-Keeper. But for Power BI for Office 365 to become the tool that Microsoft says it is, users must have the right data to begin with.

This is where Microsoft sees opportunity for partners. In addition to collecting a piece of the Power BI for Office 365 annuity, solution providers can help their customers organize their data, collect the right information for analysis and, in some cases, even perform the analysis on their behalf.

“Today, there is a great opportunity to grow your business making business intelligence a reality for your customers—helping them put data to work to make better decisions faster, to focus on the right opportunities, and to win more business,” Sorgen wrote.

Microsoft’s channel chief isn’t wrong. The challenge is few solution providers, particularly in the SMB segment, have the skills, insights or experience to talk with customers about business analytics. Having data alone doesn’t lead to business intelligence; it requires processes and governance to ensure the right information is collected and organized to produce actionable reports. To that end, Microsoft hasn’t offered guidance on how solution providers can attain and mature such offerings.

Calling Power BI for Office 365 a part of the Big Data trend isn’t incorrect, but it’s imprecise. It appears the service is more an enhancement to SharePoint and Excel than true business intelligence. For solution providers willing to make an investment in learning and operationalizing business analytics skills, Power BI for Office 365 does open some interesting new service and support avenues.

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