Microsoft Excel is one of the most widely used business intelligence and reporting tools. More than just a spreadsheet, Excel allows users to collect and integrate data for critical analysis and reporting. It’s easy to use, readily available as part of the Microsoft Office solution suite and provides users with the ability to perform advanced analytic functions. 

Despite its many benefits, there are some limitations to Excel that impede a user’s ability to transition quickly from data gathering to analysis. Retrieving data from structured, multi-structured and unstructured sources can be a significant challenge. Most business users and data analysts don’t have direct access to various data sources across the organization and, as a result, they have to rely on IT to pull needed reports. And data collection is only the first step in being able to deliver the right information to the right places at the right time.  

Source data is diverse and rarely presents itself in an analysis-ready format. Most of the time, analysts have to clean, enrich and join multiple data sets to gain meaningful insight. Many turn to Excel to perform manual data preparation (prep) functions, which can take hours or even days to complete.  

The combination of these challenges forces business users and data analysts to spend more time preparing data (up to 80 percent of their time, research has found) than they do analyzing it – an unfortunate reality that incurs costs and causes delays in decision making.  

If this sounds all too familiar, there is a better way. Many Excel users are turning to self-service data prep solutions to augment Excel’s capabilities. Using this technology, analysts can acquire, manipulate, blend, enrich and prepare data from virtually any source – without having to rely on IT for data access or specialized reports – in a matter of minutes. The data can then be analyzed in Excel, Tableau, Qlik or other visualization applications.  

Following are five ways self-service data prep can help users prep less and analyze more, and benefit from major time and cost savings. Self-service data prep helps both business users and data analysts: 

1. Understand their data and determine what needs attention.

Excel allows users to preview a data table, but this is typically a very manual process requiring numerous spreadsheets to be open at once to see which table has the right information. In addition, complex macros may need to be created to hide multiple datasheets. With a data prep solution, users can quickly see and understand data tables before loading, and determine the quality of data and what needs to be cleaned. 

2. Access and prepare data trapped within reports, text files, PDFs and websites.

The manual process of copying charts and data from within reports, text files and PDFs into Excel can take hours. Data brought over into one cell has to be manually parsed into different columns, and each table needs to be manually copied and reformatted. By incorporating a data prep tool, users can parse the document into rows and columns in one click and have all of the tables brought into a standard format for further data prep. Even multi-line reports can be intelligently captured into neat rows and columns.

Data prep solutions also allow for the parsing of website data, stripping out unnecessary content, such as ads and graphics, enabling analysts to bring only selected data into rows and columns. 

3. Mask data to ensure corporate and regulatory compliance.

With Excel, complex macros need to be created to hide sensitive data. The data is never actually removed from the spreadsheet; it’s only hidden, which could introduce serious security concerns. With the right data prep tool, users can securely mask confidential data, such as social security numbers or account IDs, allowing only authorized users to see this information. The data can be fully redacted, consistent aliases can be created for data aggregation, and role-based access controls can be implemented to ensure corporate and regulatory compliance.

4. Reconcile reports.

It’s hard to see significant changes in large data-filled reports. Rules need to be set up to cover thresholds, and they require frequent updating as data changes. Data prep solutions provide users with a full summary of reports that clearly show changes that have been made to source data – and the reports are automatically updated as new data is added. 

5. Automate data prep.

When users have new data, they typically have to manually redo all of the data prep steps in Excel and create complex macros for reports to change on the fly. With a self-service tool, every step of the data prep process is automatically captured, so it can be reused and automated. Users can run a data prep process on a predetermined schedule or have it run automatically as new data becomes available. 

Data Prep Empowers Excel Users

From empowering business users and data analysts to deliver business value with fewer resources, to increasing the quality of analysis output, self-service data prep helps make Excel an invaluable analytics tool. It allows data to be quickly and easily accessed and prepared in the right format for analysis, enabling users to expedite time-to-insight, enhance operational processes and make faster, more informed business decisions.