Power BI for Office 365: A collaboration tool to drive business insights

What would Microsoft do?

Karen Forster

by Karen Forster on 5/13/2014

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If you’re familiar with Microsoft Power BI for Office 365, you probably don’t think of it as a much-used implement in your collaboration toolkit. Power BI and its built-in visualization technology, Power View, are fairly well known to the SQL Server community and have captured the attention of Excel power users. However, the collaboration aspect of Power BI and Power View has remained in the background. For the SharePoint community, these data tools can add new dimensions to your collaboration toolkit.

With Power BI’s collaboration potential in mind, I recently spoke with Microsoft’s Michael Tejedor, senior product marketing manager, Data Platform. He provides insights into how Power BI contributes to collaboration and gives some real-world examples of how Microsoft uses these technologies internally.

Power BI and collaboration

Power BI is Microsoft’s self-service data analytics platform. (See Power Bi for Office 365 for details.) It lets Microsoft Excel users manipulate data to gain business insights. Adding graphical interpretation of data, is Power View. Its visualization capabilities help users present data in various graphical formats.

Collaboration using Power BI with Power View can mean working as a team to discover fresh ways to view and use business data. For teams presenting that data, Power BI and Power View can show data in formats that help decision makers absorb the implications of the information.

“Power View helps you uncover the insights,” said Tejedor. “Looking at a table of data is great; looking at a visualization of that table is easier.”

Communicating interesting patterns is a powerful way to gain support for ideas based on data insights. “As you go to collaborate with somebody,” Tejedor continued, “having a visual to back up your findings is important--especially if you have a room full of different people. You want a way of presenting that’s really going to focus in on a particular insight of the data.”

Power BI and collaboration inside Microsoft

Exploration of data with team members lets you think about not just how you visualize the data, but how you can interact with the data and how to pull different facets of the data together. Tejedor gave the example of how Microsoft uses Power BI and Power View for monthly executive business reviews (MBRs): “We’ve deployed Power BI globally around Microsoft. It’s getting used a lot for monthly business reviews. The way we’ve set up our MBRs is we’ve got a Power BI site, where we publish all our metrics. Everything we track for the business is up on the Power BI site—that’s everything across Web and digital.”

The types of data Microsoft tracks in Power BI include the kind of web traffic they get from the community, and how much traffic they get on the site. “Metrics from the web site help us continue to refine it and make the web site easier to consume based on what we learn from the data,” Tejedor explained.

Web data is not the only area where Microsoft uses Power BI for MBRs. “Everything becomes a data driven decision once you have all the metrics in front of you. Data we consider includes financials: Are we tracking to goals?”

In addition, Microsoft users Power BI to track customer interaction with its products and features. Tejedor said, “We analyze product telemetry, which is everything we see people doing in the product—what features they’re using. That data helps drives decisions that go into engineering to determine which areas we need to invest more in.”

When it’s time to prepare for a business review, the Microsoft teams start working to discover insights and present those insights in ways that help executives follow the conclusions the team has reached using Power BI and Power View.

“The broader team collaborates around all this data to reach decisions,” said Tejedor. “Microsoft’s internal BI site facilitates that because the site is where all the metrics are captured. It’s one point of contact for the whole team. The data is readily available, and it’s very interactive. I can explore, and I can ask my own questions of the data. I can drive my own insights and bring them back into the room.”

Microsoft’s internal Power BI portal

“That portal and Power BI facilitate that collaboration experience for data,” Tejedor explained. “The Power BI site is a dedicated environment for BI. It extends SharePoint Online to provide much richer BI functionality, scalability, and performance for workbooks that contain data.”

Tejedor continued: “The BI site appears as an option from within SharePoint Online. By using a Power BI workgroup, we can share and collaborate on workbooks in an environment tailored for working with data. The data can be refreshed from on-premises data sources; workbooks of up to 250MB can be viewed in the browser (current SPO limit is 30MB). A Mobile BI app is available for viewing reports on tablet devices.”

Tejedor noted, “Data is made more discoverable through a service named the Data Catalog that enables data discovery and search across the organization. These advanced capabilities are supported by Microsoft Azure behind the scenes. Azure provides the data processing performance and scale.”

Shared queries

Collaboration with Power BI is not limited to sharing insights and views of data. The Power BI portal also lets users share their queries and even update them for the whole team’s use.

“Let’s say I’m inside of Excel, and I create a query,” Tejedor said. “I’ve created a view of the data, and I can share that view through Power BI. I don’t have to create the whole report. I can just share the data query.”

This capability is extremely important for users who are not technical enough to create their own queries but need the business insights Power BI provides.

“It means other people inside my organization can just reuse that data query, which automatically connects them to the data sources—it might be 3 or 4 different data sources,” Tejedor explained. “The query formats the data correctly, and then brings it into Excel for them. They can then build their reports.”

For the people who use the shared query, the process is easy. As Tejedor said, “They don’t have to do the connections, so they can just start building the reports. That facilitates the handoffs between the business analysts to the less technical users and then the executives. The query is refreshable, so it becomes one of those data assets that everybody starts to use.”

In addition, the portal provides information about how that query is being used throughout the organization. “Part of collaboration is easily discovering what content exists so I don’t have to re do the work other people have done,” Tejedor concluded.

Where it’s at

Microsoft's Power BI web site is where you can get the details about Power BI. You’ll find collaboration enablers such as samples and embedded reports, as well.

“Some reports are actually embedded into Power BI itself,” Tejedor said. “You don’t have to go to the trouble of setting up a Power BI environment. You can just go to the web site and start to slice and dice and figure out some interesting things to get a first taste of it.”

For ideas on how you can use Power BI, you can check out the samples on the Power BI web site. “The samples are designed around the executive experience: Somebody has created a report for me. I want to go in, open it up, and play with it. Then I can experience the product and that might entice me to figure out how it works, Tejedor explained.

Data is a powerful business tool. By making it easy to collaborate on and share data, Power BI adds to an organization’s ability to understand business issues and solve them.

Topic: Power BI

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