Power BI: digital skill or Excel of the future?

19 June 2023

Power BI is a business intelligence (BI) service developed by Microsoft. Millions of professionals around the world use this online tool every day to combine data from different sources and publish visually appealing reports. But what makes Power BI such a powerful working tool for professionals, specifically those working in finance? We asked Fleur Snauwaert and Kwinten Van Geit, Power BI experts at TriFinance, for their thoughts on the matter.

As project consultants at TriFinance, both Fleur and Kwinten provide expert assistance and advice to companies in reporting, controlling, and ERP implementations. Having joined in 2018, Fleur is currently working at Daikin, while Kwinten just celebrated his ten year anniversary at TriFinance in 2022. In addition to his consultancy work at Aluminum Duffel, he is also the Technical Mentoring Lead. “This means that I coach about twenty other mentors in the use of Power BI, so that they can do their own mentoring work better. This approach acts as ‘lubricant’ in getting the internal cogs of our knowledge exchange process running smoothly. As an experienced Power BI user, I like to share my knowledge with coworkers and customers alike.”

Fleur is also very familiar with the tool. “I have been part of the data analytics team at TriFinance since November 2021. I regularly give presentations to clients based on Power BI reports, which involves implementing Power BI on their behalf. In consultation with these customers, I build dashboards and offer advice where necessary.”

What exactly is Power BI?

“Power BI is a powerful reporting tool from Microsoft that allows you to visualize and analyze business data smoothly and easily,” Fleur explains. “This is done by importing data from various sources – such as Excel sheets, CSV files, and SQL Server tables – after which the data is converted into useful reports and dashboards. This accessible approach appeals to many users, while its interactivity – with the ability to filter and drill down data – also offers extra added value.”

Kwinten adds: “Power BI is actually made up of two elements: Power BI Desktop and Power BI Service. The first element forms the basis of this software, with a free offline application in which you can develop dashboards. If you want to publish reports and dashboards in an online environment to share with coworkers or customers, you need Power BI Service. You can think of this part as the SaaS part of Power BI.”

Power BI’s accessible approach appeals to many users, while its interactivity – with the ability to filter and drill down data – offers extra added value.

What are the strengths of this software package?

“Those who have gotten the hang of Power BI can make a difference in terms of data processing and reporting,” says Kwinten. “The simplicity, speed, and versatility of this software create great opportunities for professionals in, for example, finance, sales, or logistics. One of its strong selling points is that you no longer need to have numerous applications open side by side to visualize company data. Being able to combine data from various sources saves a lot of time and really improves efficiency.”

“What’s more, sharing information becomes a lot easier,” adds Fleur. “You can share your newly created reports and dashboards without time-consuming email back and forths. In addition, data is automatically refreshed when you share it online. Another advantage of Power BI is the ability to create impressive visualizations using charts, tables, and KPIs, thereby enabling users to interact with their reports and drill down to detailed information. I particularly enjoy this useful feature, often using it for my own presentations.”

The simplicity, speed, and versatility of Power BI create great opportunities for professionals in, for example, finance, sales or logistics.

What areas of Power BI could still be improved, in your opinion?

“Power BI is a bit more complicated to use than its ‘little brother’ Excel,” Kwinten points out. “In order to use the software as efficiently and purposefully as possible, you have to think carefully beforehand about how you want to process and analyze your data. As such, good knowledge of the basic techniques is definitely a must. However, the same can also be said for other software packages as well.”

Fleur agrees with her coworker. “It takes a while to get the hang of Power BI. A combination of training and intensive practice is the best way to master everything this package has to offer. That being said, the same applies to other work tools, so I don’t really see this as an area for improvement per se.”

Kwinten also makes the following point: “We need to be careful not to create unrealistic expectations about Power BI. This package can only deliver if the quality of data entered is optimal in the first place. After all, you can only make good (strategic) decisions based on high-quality company data.”

TriFinance provides Power BI training. How does the team approach this? And how quickly do participants get to grips with the software?

“TriFinance’s training courses are very good, focusing on best practices,” confirms Kwinten. “Our coworkers are given the opportunity to take a set of three training courses, namely data modeling, Power BI Basic, and Power BI Advanced. This training package contains all the information needed to make users think carefully about how to clearly structure data and reports, set up calculations, and evaluate which visuals can be used and when. As a trainer and mentor, I want my coworkers to understand the importance of a good basic approach: anyone who applies Power BI correctly to a (customer) project from the outset will then be able to make adjustments quickly and correctly to suit the needs of the person who commissioned the project.”

As Fleur notes, “In practice, I often see that knowledge surrounding building data models is most lacking among Power BI users. Linking different tables and building relationships is another topic that often requires extra attention.”

How do you think the use of Power BI tallies with the ever increasing focus on digital skills?

Kwinten explains: “I think tools like Power BI prove that working with digital tools doesn’t have to be rocket science, packed with complicated calculation formulas. In practice, we sometimes see complex programming languages being unleashed on reporting assignments, whereas simpler solutions could have been developed through using good-quality data. This is why I see ‘data-mindedness’ as being an important digital skill, as it enables you to think conceptually about the information you need to obtain results, both in reporting and elsewhere. I also believe that logical reasoning and analytical thinking are also key skills. And if you want to use Power BI efficiently, you shouldn’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and tackle a good bit of data cleaning.”

Fleur believes that the skill of customer-focused reasoning also applies here, and that it is a good basis for working with data and Power BI. “Users of smart software can’t just sit back and relax. We need to remain sufficiently critical about the quality of data and concrete reporting options, among other things. An example I often refer to is the use of meaningless graphs – including the excessive use of pie charts – and other visualizations.”

Eager to read more about digital skills for finance professionals?

Companies and organizations who immerse their employees in a sea of digital skills are taking a significant step towards sustainable, future-proof growth. At TriFinance, TriHD and TriTechnology, we invest heavily in digital learning pathways for our employees. Beyond that, we also give companies all the tips and tools they need to build a solid digital strategy.

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