At a glance
By Adam Turner
In the age of data-driven decision-making, it can be tempting to let the numbers do the talking.
Spreadsheets and simple charts can often tell a powerful story to finance professionals, but numbers need to be transformed into a narrative to fully unpack and share their insights. Here’s where Power BI comes in.
1. It can pull data from multiple sources, including Excel
Since emerging from Microsoft’s SQL Server Reporting Services team, Power BI has established itself as an invaluable business intelligence tool for creating detailed reports and dashboards.
Rather than replace Excel spreadsheets, Power BI can take advantage of hard work already done in Excel, because the two programs are tightly integrated into Microsoft’s suite of business tools. This allows Power BI to draw data directly from Excel.
Power BI can also draw data directly from a wide range of other sources across the business, such as SAP, Oracle and Xero.
One of Power BI’s greatest strengths is its ability to ingest, standardise and cleanse a disperse range of datasets. This reduces the time that accountants spend collating and polishing data, and can increase confidence in data accuracy.
2. It’s a powerful data visualisation tool
Primarily designed for data transformation and visualisation, Power BI helps accountants gather, shape, analyse and visually explore data.
It’s more powerful than Excel graphs or pivot tables for this purpose, partly because it is easy to filter, drill down and look at issues from multiple perspectives.
“Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty,” says Dr Stuart Black, enterprise fellow in data, analytics, disruption and innovation in the Department of Accounting at the University of Melbourne.
“Realistically, your worst-looking visualisation is probably going to be more effective than your best-looking table. You don’t need to be da Vinci – you just need to effectively get your message across.”
3. It’s for finding insights and data storytelling, not presenting numbers
Power BI is best suited for when accountants need to uncover insights and paint a picture, rather than just present the numbers, Black says.
“As an accountant, is it your role to just tell someone a bunch of facts? These days, your role should be to present them with relevant facts, which are framed and visualised in a way that helps them make a better-informed decision,” Black says.
“This is where Power BI can be a very powerful tool in a modern accountant’s arsenal. It lowers the technical barriers to working with complex data, uncovering insight and presenting it in an accessible way.”
While Power BI allows accountants to help people see the big picture, the ability to look at live data in real time ensures that presenters can easily dive into the details where required. Powerful filtering options also make it easy to offer different views of the same data to different stakeholders.
4. Its insights are accessible to other stakeholders
Power BI can make insights accessible to other stakeholders, not just the person who did the analysis. Reports, dashboards and tiles can be embedded into online portals, intranets and other applications, including Teams chats.
Power BI also supports self-service for providing real-time, easy-to-understand analytics.
This lowers the barrier to entry when it comes to engaging with business and financial data, allowing accountants to evolve from the role of gatekeeper to facilitator.
Much of this can be automated, allowing accountants to spend less time collating data for other members of the business and more time on higher value tasks.
5. It supports natural language queries
One of Power BI’s strengths is support for natural language queries. Accountants can interrogate the data by simply typing what they wish to know, rather than relying on the complex syntax of a structured programming language.
This makes it easier to examine and understand the relationships between datasets in search of deeper meaning, says Fahim Khondaker, partner and leader of data analytics and insights at Australian accountancy firm BDO.
Rather than simply reporting that sales were down last month, accountants can use Power BI to consider “so what?” questions, such as why it happened, what it means and what can be done about it, says Khondaker.
“This is where Power BI really shines, letting you deliver more value by teasing out those kinds of insights and conveying them to others in a more engaging and meaningful way.
“Beyond a presentation tool, it’s also a powerful collaboration tool for helping make decisions in conjunction with business leaders – that’s perhaps where its real value lies.
“Of course, it doesn’t do your job – it doesn’t answer those questions. It’s just a powerful tool that helps you exercise your professional judgement and understanding of the business to uncover and deliver actionable insight,” Khondaker explains.
6. Its strength is in its simplicity
While Power BI can help accountants take their insight and stakeholder engagement to the next level, some believe it falls short on storytelling and artistic capabilities compared to rivals such as Tableau.
“For me, Power BI’s simplicity is its strength, but you could argue that it is not quite as pretty as some options,” Khondaker says.
“Thankfully, it can tap into external libraries if you want to polish the look.”