At a glance
By Adam Turner
The role of the modern accountant has evolved in recent years. Today, accountants are moving away from number-crunching towards complex data storytelling and acting as trusted advisers.
This shift means the ability to analyse and visualise data has become vital, in order to effectively convey information to stakeholders to support decision-making.
This is where mastering business intelligence and visualisation software such as Tableau becomes an invaluable skill for accountants. Spun off from Stanford University data science research, Tableau was founded in 2003 and later acquired by Salesforce in 2019.
Here’s what Tableau delivers:
1. It can draw data from multiple sources
Tableau can draw on data from a wide range of sources including spreadsheets, relational databases and cloud databases, similar to other business intelligence tools.
This includes tapping directly into business systems like SAP, Oracle and Xero. It can also draw from Excel.
2. It can reduce data preparation time
Tableau can create detailed reports and dashboards without the need for advanced analytics skills.
It can also standardise and cleanse data before processing, reducing the time accountants spend prepping data.
It can also increase their confidence in the accuracy of outliers, says Dr Ashir Ahmed, associate professor and senior lecturer in media and data analytics at Swinburne University of Technology.
“When it comes to data analytics, sometimes it’s the outliers that tell the most interesting stories, especially in accounting,” Ahmed says.
“Tableau’s ability to cleanse and analyse data not only saves time and helps accountants identify financial anomalies, but also helps them determine if those outliers are truly accurate and meaningful.”
3. It can be integrated with a variety of apps
Tableau dashboards can be embedded into web pages and web applications as well as collaboration tools. It offers a particularly tight integration with cloud messaging app Slack, which is also owned by Salesforce.
4. It can handle vast datasets
One of Tableau’s key strengths is its ability to handle larger datasets than its nearest rival Power BI, without limiting the number of data points in visualisation.
Tableau also offers more advanced data visualisation and charting capabilities, although the trade-off is that Power BI can be more user-friendly.
Advanced Tableau: Data Model
5. It can show data in interactive maps
One of Tableau’s strengths is representing data in interactive maps with multiple layers of information, complete with built-in demographic datasets such as region names and population data.
“Representing geographic data on maps and letting you drill down is one area where Tableau really shines,” Ahmed says.
“That’s a real benefit for accountants when it comes to visualising insights, especially when you consider how much business data has a geospatial element, such as regional sales reports.”
6. It can run on multiple operating systems
While Power BI’s desktop version only runs on Windows, Tableau is available on Windows, macOS and Linux.
Although Tableau and Power BI both have their staunch supporters, realistically, a working knowledge of either tool would serve accountants well, Ahmed says.
7. It has free and paid versions
Both Power BI and Tableau offer free versions of their software, but they have limitations. Tableau Public, the free version of Tableau, can only store data in the cloud, while the free version of Power BI does not allow users to share or publish reports.
Tableau offers multiple paid versions of its software, such as Tableau Creator, which is ideal for power users. Tableau Platform is designed to be an end-to-end analytics platform.
More recently, Tableau GPT and Tableau Pulse have also been launched. These incorporate generative artificial intelligence (AI) and are powered by Salesforce’s AI, Einstein.
8. It can create stunning data visualisations
Tableau offers a myriad of options when it comes to presenting data. However, accountants must remember that data visualisation is about clearly conveying insights rather than dazzling an audience, says Dr Stuart Black, enterprise fellow within the department of accounting at the University of Melbourne.
“Visualisation is an important tool for modern accountants, but just because you can create a seven-dimensional chart doesn’t necessarily mean anyone needs to see it or that it adds value,” Black says.
“Never lose sight of the fact that it’s about getting your message across effectively, to help people make better-informed decisions, not baffling them with a dizzying array of special effects.”