Getting Started on Departmental BI with Power BI + O365

Getting into business intelligence is like a three-year-old getting ready to learn to swim, or take up ballet, maybe. You really don’t know what you are getting into. Unless of course you have someone with the related expertise involved in the initiative; then it would probably be like an eight-year-old getting ready to learn to swim, or take up ballet, maybe.

Getting into business intelligence is a big process, involving a lot of money, planning and effort, especially if you need to get it started for the entire organization. And then you have the added headache of ensuring that the relevant important people are all on board.

There is also another scenario, where a few individuals realize the potential of BI, whereas the rest of the organization is oblivious to the idea, or simply do not see the value. Yet.

If you are one of those individuals looking to get into BI, then departmental BI is probably the best way to go. It’s quicker and allows you to get to business value faster, thus allowing you to shape your department’s business direction better and be the pioneer of your organization’s BI initiative. And you would probably only need the blessings of those running the department to get started; Maybe you are one of those persons who gives the blessings even. Either way, getting started with departmental BI (i.e. business intelligence for a specific department, owned by that department) allows you to drive your department’s business better, and spearhead the drive for business intelligence across the organization in the future.

Leaving the preaching aside and getting technical, one of the most popular office productivity suites is Microsoft Office and in its evolution, Office 365, which is a set subscription-based office productivity + related services. Office 365 is quite prevalent across many organizations mainly due to Excel’s dominance for a very long time in the spreadsheet market, extensively used for number crunching and analysis purposes. Coupled with SharePoint Online, which allows for online access of these files as a service gives users the agility and flexibility to work on Excel wherever they are. Plug in Power BI into the mix, and you’ve got a real good recipe to get departmental BI going.

Initial Architecture
Initial Architecture for Departmental BI

The above architecture is a simple one to start off with. Here, relevant data sets are extracted in the form of flat files on a regular basis and uploaded to a SharePoint folder. A data model is then created off the data stored on SharePoint using Power BI, and reports and insights created on top of this. Users can then evaluate the value the model and visualizations provide them, and provide feedback based on an iterative approach, until a general consensus is arrived upon that BI is working for them.

The above, of course, would take a a few weeks to a couple of months to perfect, and for value to be seen. After which, integration with the source systems can be thought out. Until then we have a very cheap solution, which is server-less.

I will follow up this post on a later day on the technical how-to of the above solution.