“New” Power BI

Microsoft Power BI offering is going through another evolution. New tools and services, available only as preview, have introduced significant changes as compared to Microsoft’s current approach to providing self-service BI capabilities.

In this post,  I will briefly talk about new tools/services and see how this will impact Microsoft BI community, both users and developers.

Power BI Dashboard

Power BI Dashboard is a cloud based service to create dashboards. You can create datasets, reports and dashboards using a web interface. It has capability to connect to lot of data sources including on-premise SSAS as well as couple of SAAS based applications like Salesforces.com, Microsoft Dynamics CRM etc. This eliminates the need to install any tool on your desktop. All you need is web browser to access Power BI service.


Here is a screen shot of Power BI dashboard. It provides better experience for creating dashboard layout as compared to Excel. However it is not functionally rich at this stage.

New Power BI 01

Power BI Designer

Power BI Designer (PBID) decouples certain capabilities from Excel and offers them in a standalone tool. PBID combines the capabilities of Power Query and Power View along with some additional features for dashboards.  Again, this eliminates the need for Excel as a desktop tool to explore data and create reports. However, currently PBID lacks certain features available in Excel.

Here is screen shot of Query View.

New Power BI 02

Here is screen shot of Power View.

New Power BI 03

Consultant’s Point of View

  • Key point here is to decouple Power BI from Office so that customers who do not have latest version of Office and SharePoint can use Power BI. Of course, it offers some new features for dashboards.
  • Deciding which tool to use in a given context is becoming even more difficult. Historically, Microsoft has been integrating BI capabilities in existing products (Office, SQL Server, SharePoint), however adoption has been challenging due to complexity of end to end technology stack. Now cloud and mobile further add to this complexity.
  • Limited support to connect to on-premise data sources.
  • PBID is being introduced with some of the capabilities available in Excel. Power Pivot data models,  Power maps, some features from Power View are missing in PBID. Again, too many options creates confusion for everyone.
  • Per user cost for Power BI is too much for lot of customers.

Five Best Practices for designing a Portal

In last post, we saw how portals can be useful for retailers. Now, let’s look at the at least five areas you should focus to design a portal which is both effective as well as usable by the user community.


Five Best Pratices for Portal

Audience Analysis

Every Portal has a target user community. Understanding the needs of this community is prerequisite to design phase.  User community should be segmented based on their specific roles and needs. User Persona are a powerful tool to create profile for each type of the user. Based on that you will better understand target users of the portal. e.g. for a Store Portal, Sales associates and field management will be two different user categories having unique needs based on their specific role.  Similarly if a significant numbers of users are traveling, then portal should provide great mobile experience as well. Content contributors is another user category which have very different needs from consumers.

As a designer, you should be very close to your users and empathize with their needs.

Content Analysis

Content is like blood for any portal solution. Each type of content should be categorized according to its business purpose, update frequency, intended audience, owners, security, required metadata, and structure. Once you have profiled your content, you can create information architecture.

Each type of content should be created in the format which is best suited for its purpose. e.g. Some content may be more effective in text format while some other content may be more effective in audio or video format.

UX Design

With adoption of the mobile devices, user experience (UX) has become top priority thing. Smart phones and tablets have raised the bar for UX designers. Now enterprise application users expect consumer level UX in the enterprise systems. Finding content in portal should be super easy. Search should have easy to use filters and content previews so that users can find required information in few clicks.

Since portals are meant to aggregate capabilities/information from multiple systems, portal should use SSO and provide smooth transitions between various modules and hence should provide consistent experiences.

Social Features

Social capabilities are becoming norm in business systems. Personalized, context-sensitive social features help users to collaborate, communicate and engage. Having generic and open-ended groups or communities without a common purpose cannot engage its members. In business systems like portal, you should identify specific opportunities where social capabilities can add value. Portal provides a perfect platform for users where they can find all information they need, perform their specific jobs and engage with people who share  same purpose.

Feedback Mechanism

Portal must be rolled out to test users before releasing it for everybody in the enterprise. There should be built-in mechanism to collect feedback from users. Based on the feedback, portal design should be refined. Typically portal platforms have built-in capabilities to provide basic analytics about what users are looking for. Based on that you can find out what is working and what is not working. Key thing is not to stick with initial design, If needed, you should refine it based on what is working with user community. After all, portal is intended to make life easier for end users.

There must be other areas one must focus depending upon the unique context. Please share your experiences what else can add value in a designing a portal.

How a Store Portal can add value for a Retailer?

Retail industry is facing enormous challenges due to following factors:

  • Online Retailing
  • Evolving role of brick and mortar stores
  • Changing consumer behaviors towards malls, outlets, mega stores

Technology is helping companies to serve customers in many different ways. Role of store is also evolving rapidly in the context of above mentioned forces.  Store Employees need to be equipped with better solutions in order to provide customers superior service and perform store operations in an efficient way.

Store Portal plays a pivotal role for store employees and can serve as a one stop shop for all information needs in the store.  Following are keys objectives you can achieve by employing a portal technology like SharePoint.

Brand Loyalty

For any retailer to succeed, it is important that its customer facing employees love its brand. Without strong brand loyalty, employees won’t be able to engage customers. Store Portal helps to build brand loyalty by providing effective tools which help employees learn key value proposition for its brand. Store Portal, being primary gateway to IT systems, can play very effective role to communicate brand and build loyalty.

Employee engagement

Portal provides an effective platform to engage employees. Click here for detailed discussion of how social and collaboration capabilities in a portal can help to engage employees.

Sales Associates Training

Today’s customer is much more informed and walks into store with enough information about his needs and available options. They expect sales associates to provide them expert opinion to decide which product meets their need. Portal can serve an affective platform to provide required training to new hires, especially during peak demands.  Bite-sized training content (e.g. short videos) can be embedded in daily communication in order to keep sales associates updated about latest product information.

Store Portal Value

Effective Corporate Communication

Corporate communication is primary mechanism to communicate company vision and strategy to the store employees.  All communication to store staff must be aligned with other messaging (like ads, pamphlets etc) that company is sending to its customers and employees. Here, Portal becomes very effective tool to send such daily messaging to stores and other geographically distributed locations.  Portal home page provides primary space where they can see most important information for a given day.

Efficient Store Operations

Time is a scare commodity, especially for Store staff; they have to serve multiple customers as well as perform various operational activities. It becomes very inefficient for a sales person to login multiple business applications while customer is waiting for a quick service. Portal can provide platform to integrate required features from different IT systems. These features can be implemented as “apps” which are readily available in portal.  Store staff can use these apps without leaving portal and use features like SSO to access different IT systems. Such an experience saves time as well as results a better customer service.

UX Design: Role of Experience Maps

While scanning the UX design space, I came across “experience maps”, a technique for modeling business processes in order to better understand it and then,  based on that understanding ,  design a UX which takes into account the functional as well as psychological needs of the users. Let’s take a scenario to explain this idea.

When you go to a site to perform something e.g. register for a utility service. There are certain things which occupy your mind at different stages of the whole process. e.g. in this case, different stages might be:

  • When you are registering for a service
  • When you have registered for service and are using it
  • When you want to terminate service

At each stage, as a user, you might be engaged in multiple mental activities e.g.

  • Doing something (e.g. registering, terminating etc.)
  • Thinking  (about various aspects of the service)
  • Feeling  (whether this is right or wrong decision)
  • Experiencing (overall experience of the process)

Now at the time of registering service, you might be thinking whether this service provider is offering you fair price?, should I re-consider other options?, how costly it would be to switch service provider later on?, are there any hidden fees?  etc. Similarly when you have registered for the service, you may be interested in things like analyzing your service usage, viewing your billing history, upgrading or degrading service etc.

All of the above thoughts represent the psychological needs of the users. For a registered user, you should provide easily accessible tools to analyze usage and billing history. I remember how hard it was for me to unsubscribe from a credit score web site.  Finally I found the option, but that bad experience prohibits me to refer anyone else to this site.

As a designer, whatever system you design, you should always consider user needs (functional as well as psychological) during the whole process and design each aspect of the system, especially UX,  so that system meets these needs in best possible way.

Here is an example of an experience map which captures the rail booking process and explains different thoughts that occupy user’s mind during whole process.

Self Service BI in Microsoft Ecosystem – Part 02

This is second blog about Self Service BI and it focuses on delivering self-service BI using Microsoft technologies.

Microsoft BI capabilities are embedded in three different products: SQL Server, SharePoint and Office. In this article, we will focus on Self Service BI capabilities in Office (Excel) and SharePoint.

Excel has always been primary choice for number crunching.  Previously, almost every major BI vendor had extensions available for Excel.  Microsoft finally realized to use Excel as a primary tool for delivering BI as well as enabling power users to perform ad-hoc data analysis.  Following diagram shows various components in Excel which enable self Service BI.

Power BI Excel

Here is brief description of each tool.

Power Query

Power Query is a mini ETL tool. It enables to discover public as well as enterprise data sources, and then connect, extract, and transform data from these sources.  You can perform certain data cleansing operations as well as define new calculated columns.   You can also augment enterprise data with public data sources e.g. an insurance company can use car crash data available publically along with their own statistics to see patterns or identify an anomaly. Following screenshot shows options available in Power Query tab.

Power Query

Power Pivot

Once data has been sourced and transformed by Power query, it can be added in Power Pivot data model. Power Pivot enables to combine data from various sources and build data model within Excel. You can define relationships in tables, define new columns, calculate measures using data analysis expressions (DAX).   This becomes very handy when you have to combine enterprise data sources with public data sources like data from Azure Data Marketplace.  Following screen shot shows Power Pivot designer.

Power Pivot

Power View

Once data model has been designed, you can create visualizations using Power View. Power View is built into Excel to create dashboards, containing multiple charts, graphs, tables and filters. User can interact with views to sort, filter and slice and dice information. It eliminates the need to talk to IT to design basic ad-hoc reports for business. Power user can create powerful visualization themselves and share it on the web. Below screen shot shows a power view screen.

Power View

Power Map

Power Map provides geospatial and 3D mapping capabilities in Excel. Users can plot data on the map as well as create convincing story boards for presentations.

Power Map

Power BI

All of the components discussed earlier are built into Excel. Once you have design reports in workbooks, you can use Power BI to share these reports on the web. Power BI also enables to generate natural language queries.  Excel Services in SharePoint Online can automatically refresh data by connecting to enterprise data sources. Power BI also provision of My Power BI sites to aggregate reports from various sites as favorites so that you have all the information available at one place.

Power BI

Windows Power BI App delivers same BI capabilities on mobile devices. Here is how Power BI app delivers BI on mobile devices.

Power BI App


In next part, we can talk about a real life business scenario in retail and see how it can be solved by using self-service BI components.

Note: Few images are taken from publicly available sample workbooks from Microsoft.

For discussion about Self Service BI, click Self Service BI in Microsoft Ecosystem – Part 01.

Self Service BI in Microsoft Ecosystem – Part 01

This post,  about Self-Service BI, is three parts post.  In first part, we will discuss what Self Service BI is,  and then in subsequent parts,  we will talk about capabilities in Microsoft technology stack as well as  a specific business scenario where self-service BI capabilities were deployed .

Among various definitions of the term, I find following one by Gartner, most relevant.

Self-service business intelligence is defined as end users designing and deploying their own reports and analysis within an approved and supported architecture and tools portfolio.

Key words here are “end users” and “approved architecture and tools portfolio”.

Historically, BI/Data related investments have been on the top in CIO’s agenda. These investments may be in traditional data management technologies like DBMS, ETLs, data quality, data warehousing, data marts, MDDBs, OLAP,  reporting or in latest capabilities like  predictive analytics, data discovery, self-service BI and big data.  However, even with so much technology available, when you look on business side, there is not much excitement about data/insights coming out of these investments. Putting aside large companies,  small to medium companies still rely on basic static reports being delivered from monolithic reporting systems without much flexibility. Such reports provide minimal value to business users.

If you ask business about how their information needs are being met, they would typically raise following issues:

  • Long cycle time to build new report
  • Limited to non-existent data analysis capability
  • Non-standard definitions/Inconsistent KPIs

A traditional BI environment is centrally managed by IT. IT takes care of everything from data capture to final report delivery.  Overall architecture and tools require significant effort to fulfill new data and analysis requirements.  Additionally, tools have significant learning curve and make it heavily dependent on developers.

Typically, reports have static content and structure with limited capabilities of searching and sorting. Another issue is non-standard definition of KPIs. Usually, there is lot of inconsistency in terms of how KPIs are defined across various departments and their reports. This makes reports-reusability very difficult.

So how Self Service BI promises to counter these problems? Self Service promises more power for end users to design ad-hoc data views and analyze data with minimal day to day support from IT.  This power comes through various sources namely:

  • Easy to use and familiar tools like Excel. Almost any computer literate person can use Excel for data manipulation. These tools have been enhanced with advanced capabilities to facilitate data analysis. Barriers to learning become very low once you have such tools available.
  • Well defined and governed infrastructure to provide enterprise data sources as well as ability to integrate external data sources. These data sources (data warehouse, data marts, cubes, ) are still centrally managed and have consistent definitions across departments.
  • Web based access to such tools makes it very easy to access and analysis information without creating siloes in Excel or other systems.

So Self Service BI focus more on the business users to deliver value out of data related investments. IT is still responsible for overall architecture, governance, performance, and  security. It is delivery part that moves towards power users.

In next post, we will discuss how self-service capabilities are available in Microsoft ecosystem

Evolving role of SharePoint Admins

During a conference, a Microsoft representative commented on the role of SharePoint admins when organizations gradually make a transition from SharePoint on-premise to SharePoint online (Office 365). When asked about future of thousands of SharePoint administrators, his advice was to get involved on the business side and see how SharePoint delivers value to the organization, instead of managing infrastructure. 

Message seems to be very clear that need for SharePoint administration is going to decline drastically. More organizations move to SharePoint online, less demand for administration skills. We experienced it first hand when we got involved in SharePoint online, virtually there was very little to do from infrastructure and farm administration perspective. 

 However, on other side, there would be same (or even more) demand for SharePoint solutions. Since SharePoint has a very broad feature set combining lot of different application categories,  having such platform available on cloud offers new opportunities to design business solutions.  Following are couple of areas where aspiring SharePoint professionals can focus their efforts to keep themselves relevant in the cloud era.  

  • Better User Experience Design (Sites, Portals) to drive adoption
  • Context based solutions combining social and collaboration capabilities and integrating it with CRM, ERP, PLM etc.
  • Next generation portals (employees portal, customers portal, partners) combining cloud and mobile devices support
  • SharePoint App Development
    • SharePoint App Development Model
    • HTML 5 & Responsive design
    • Web Development Skills (.NET or third party platforms)
    • Cloud Based Apps (Auto-hosted, Provider hosted)

The Psychology of Collaboration

Are you looking for another  technology solution to enable collaboration? If yes, please hold on. I would suggest to read below lines before going ahead with your search.   

A quick survey of a consulting company (100+ consultants) shows how many technologies are available at the disposal of its employees. 

  • 2+ collaboration solutions e.g. SharePoint
  • 3+ EFSS solutions e.g. Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive
  • 3+ IM Tools e.g. Hangout, Lync, Skype
  • 2+ Online Meeting Tools e.g. GTM, Fuze, WebEx etc.
  • Specialized Collaboration platforms e.g. Basecamp, Trello.
  • Video Conferencing Solutions e.g. Polycom
  • IP Telephony e.g. Cisco 

So many technologies being available does not mean that people are collaborating in best possible way. If technology is not a constraint then what else holds back people to collaborate? Let’s look at the non-technical or psychological aspects of building a collaborative environment. 

Collaboration, at its most fundamental level, means that two or more people work together to achieve a common objective. Objective may be  working on project, solving a specific business problem, or simply organizing a family event. You need something more than technology to enable everyone to work together to achieve such objectives.   Let’s look at the few key non-technical factors involved here. 

  • Openness to Learning:

Openness to learn is key to work with other people in a meaningful way. In order to learn, one should have courage to admit his challenges, weaknesses and limitations. No one knows everything in this world.  Once you have this mindset, you will start seeing learning opportunities, that can eventually lead to collaborative environment where people’s skills complement each other and they achieve something greater, beyond capacity of any individual. 

  • Openness to Share

Collaboration is not a one way process. You need,  at least, two people to work together. Along with learning, you must be open to share your knowledge and information. Sharing will motivate other people once they see value of sharing.  Eventually,  they will start sharing whatever they know.  

  • Belief in Common Cause

All participants in collaboration effort must believe in the common cause. Only then they will put their energy and efforts to achieve this objective. Without this belief, you only see problems, not opportunities. 

  • Mutual Trust

Trust is key to create an environment where all participants have mutual respect and they believe in whatever they are saying and doing. Without trust, you will be skeptic about other participants’ motives and will not put your full energy in the task at hand. 

  • Safe Environment

When you share your knowledge and opinion in a group setting, basically you are exposing yourself in front of other people and are becoming vulnerable to their criticism (and potentially sarcasm)). You should strive to create an environment where sharing and learning is encouraged and reinforced while negative behaviors are discouraged. Basically, people should feel safe to share their input. 

People used to collaborate even when there was no SharePoint or Facebook. Technology can definitely help once you have above mentioned values in place. Technology can definitely accelerate the collaboration process and make it efficient. It can also create new possibilities by eliminating the time and space barriers.  However, technology will make no difference if people don’t share and learn, don’t believe in cause, and don’t trust each other. 

What I believe is that collaboration is not a technology problem anymore. Please share your thoughts and experiences regarding building an environment conducive for collaboration. Once you share, only then I can learn…:)

Enterprise File Synchronization and Sharing – Market Overview

Enterprise File Synchronization and Sharing (EFSS) has emerged as an alternative for document based collaboration.  Primary benefit of EFSS has been its ease of use and light footprint, both in terms of feature set and IT cost. In fact, individual users started using it without involving corporate IT.  All of us have multiple cloud storage apps like OneDrive, Google Drive, or DropBox. EFSS is one of those trends which are spearheaded by individuals users and eventually they are forcing IT to offer it as enterprise IT service.  If you are considering EFSS as a standalone collaboration platform, remember that big vendors like Microsoft are already  incorporating these capabilities in broader collaboration products like SharePoint. Using EFSS as part of broader collaboration solution may give lot of other benefits like security, control and better integration with other collaboration and Office products.

Gartner published first Magic Quadrant for Enterprise File Synchronization and Sharing market. As per Gartner, by 2017, most of the EFSS products will be absorbed into adjacent collaboration and ECM products.

You can view complete report by registering here:

Magic Quadrant for Enterprise File Synchronization and Sharing