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Power BI tools make actionable data accessible to all

Microsoft Power BI provides data insights for executives, line-of-business workers and data analysts alike. Here's an overview of what it can do for each type of user.

Businesses are increasingly focused on data-driven decision making, and Microsoft Power BI tools can help companies embrace this trend by making business intelligence technology accessible to a wider range of workers.

Business intelligence is the process of analyzing data to glean actionable information that can assist decision making. Microsoft Power BI is a cloud-based business intelligence service, which is part of the Office 365 business productivity suite. Power BI enables users to run data queries, build data models and distribute reports based on that research.

A hallmark of Power BI tools is making data analysis and visualization user-friendly and easy to distribute, and this opens the door for increased data-driven decision making throughout an enterprise. But before we examine how that shift may play out, let's take a quick look at how business intelligence tools have evolved in recent years.

Evolution of business intelligence

Executives, analysts and those in management roles have long relied on spreadsheets to manage business data. Many have used Excel to help track and monitor key measurements to help drive organizational success. Today, those same users turn to components available in Microsoft Cortana analytics suite -- such as Power BI tools -- to replace or further capabilities previously used in Excel. That shift positions Power BI as the new business management platform for all levels of users within those organizations.

This is something of a departure from the past, when Microsoft saw many customers use third-party business intelligence and data visualization tools. One example was Microsoft's PerformancePoint, which offered dashboard capability for SharePoint 2007 and 2010, but many users determined that other vendors could provide more robust BI tools. Unfortunately, this focus on third-party products brought additional costs, which created another hurdle for business intelligence initiatives.

What Power BI delivers

With Power BI, Microsoft aims to overcome many of the common business intelligence roadblocks, such as cost and user adoption. In doing so, Microsoft has created a cloud BI service that doesn't require a large upfront investment and can meet the needs of users, from executives to line-of-business users. Here are examples of how BI tools can serve a variety of needs at different levels of the enterprise.

Executives use Power BI for high-level insights: Today's forward-thinking executives recognize the value of the data and are interested in using it for everything from performance reviews to predictive forecasting. This creates demand for meaningful dashboards that can visualize data and trends and thus help executives gain key insights and effectively lead their organization.

Power BI is designed to serve users of all different technology skill sets.

Power BI offers a number of advanced visualization capabilities, which are highly interactive with strong mobile support. More important for executives, it offers system connectors, which enable executives to build meaningful dashboards that integrate data from various business applications.

Detailed data for management: In addition to data visualization, Power BI has drill-down capabilities that allow business unit managers and team leaders to dig deeper into data. For example, charts can show any relevant view, from yearly trends to daily data summaries. Power BI tools include filtering capabilities that isolate a specific data set for a chart, a set of charts or an entire dashboard page. There's also an "alert" capability, which can notify managers when the data reaches specified thresholds.

Line-of-business user features: Power BI is designed to serve users of all different technology skill sets, and the pricing model enables experimentation without upfront investment. The free version of Power BI provides access to all of the features, with a 1 GB per user data capacity limit. This allows line-of-work users to connect to corporate data sources, as well as their own Excel spreadsheets, to help manage and track their business data.

Microsoft also provides individual users with the option to easily access personal dashboards on their devices, without complex IT configurations, via the Personal Data Gateway.

Deeper dive for data analysts: Advanced users and data scientists can also yield benefits from Power BI tools. The introduction of the R scripting capability, along with advanced data analytics and processing capabilities from the Cortana Analytics Suite, allows data experts to use Power BI to dig deeper for insights. It also facilitates use of advanced algorithms for classification, categorization and aspects of predictive analytics.

More features are added frequently, on the computing side for data and advanced algorithms, the new Microsoft R Server for data scientists, and the addition of Power BI integrated dashboards and reports for the upcoming SQL 2016 engine.

Trends also indicate more Power BI integration to come. It already has the out-of-the-box capability to build dashboards for platforms such as Microsoft Dynamics CRM, and some of the other Dynamics tools, and can connect with SharePoint lists for reporting. Microsoft plans to have Power BI integration with all workloads through Office 365, making emails, SharePoint and OneDrive content, and CRM data available for analysis. Integration with those powerful data sets can deliver unprecedented new perspectives for executives.

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