Ian Littlejohn

Data analysis is a powerful tool when it comes to gaining actionable insights from your business data. As you may already know from raw experience, the amount of big data available for companies to draw from is plentiful. Values from Google Analytics, surveys, accounting and financial systems, and HR software can create a veritable data tsunami. In short, your business is probably overwhelmed with data. How do you make sense of it all?

Person holding tablet, graphs and diagrams

On its own, this data is not useful. The logical step is to aggregate and assimilate these raw numbers so that you can represent them in a meaningful way. We refer to data that has been processed as information because it allows the human mind to understand what the data is saying. But this is not enough.

Dashboards and reports with graphs may look impressive, but they are a means to an end. What businesses ultimately want is to answer the question, “How can I use this information to meet my business goals?”

This information is big data – within this big data are actionable insights. These insights tell businesses what they can do this week, month, year, or decade to achieve their business goals. Oftentimes, business leaders need to find these hidden nuggets of information to evaluate their key performances.

The blunt reality is that most businesses are failing in achieving the aspirational goal of becoming a “data-driven organization.”

Complete Introduction to Excel Power Query

Last Updated June 2021

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Quickly & effectively learn to transform and prepare data for Microsoft Excel using Power Query | By Ian Littlejohn

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A data-driven business uses data to inform its strategy. It is rare for an individual to get by on “gut instinct.” Most offices are stumbling around without digital analytics and hoping for the best. You may ask, “How does a business ensure that they are getting actionable insights from their data?”

Store data in a secure, accessible location

Businesses need to store critical data somewhere that is secure, accessible, and easy to use. Today, there are many options available for companies to consider. The right solutions for your business will depend on budget, data volumes coming in, data frequency, and data formats.

On the low end, it’s possible to store data in a Microsoft Excel workbook. While this solution can get out of control for many people, it’s often a practical solution for small businesses with limited resources. Furthermore, Excel has advanced in leaps and bounds with regard to the handling of data. You can now save the resultant file to OneDrive, which ensures your data is both backed up and shareable with your coworkers.

Some businesses may elect to use their own database solution, which can either run on their own server or a hosted server. However, opting for solutions like Microsoft SQL, MySQL or PostgreSQL may require expensive hardware and/or software. If they choose to host the database locally, it is vital that they implement a suitable backup strategy.

Another option to consider is using a cloud-based storage solution. Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure are worth considering because they allow businesses to outsource hardware and software management. Outsourced, cloud-based solutions are a benefit in that they free the workplace up to focus on what they specialize in.

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Automate the processing of your data

When businesses produce data on a regular basis, it’s important that they automate any system to ingest this data into a database or data storage solution. With so many ways to import data today, it would be foolhardy for a business not to do this. Automation has several benefits, including:

You can use Excel’s Power Query to create automated tasks to import data files from third-party products into a data model. It’s possible to set Excel to pull any data files in a folder and append it to existing data. This is ideal when you have a monthly expenses report or production report that exports data from a financial or production system. You can Power Query to export various file formats, including CSV, HTML, XLS, and JSON.

Alternatively, you can use database systems to schedule stored procedures automatically, import data files from specific folders, and append your data either to existing or new tables.

With cloud-based systems, you can create jobs that automate data importing to the appropriate tables.

Automating these processes is key to making the end-to-end data flow work both efficiently and as actionable insights.

Hire staff who can build reports and dashboards

Once you add the data to a database, the next step is building reports and dashboards. Hiring business intelligence specialists to build routine reports will make this process a lot easier. Alternatively, there are a great number of courses offered by platforms, such as Udemy, that make it possible for you to learn these skills. Using staff to build reports and dashboards also gives them an opportunity to expand their knowledge and branch into new career opportunities.

This step requires careful consideration and collaboration within your business. You should consider, for example:

Also, you should encourage report builders to engage with decision-makers and various departments so that they can strategically build useful business information.

Use the right software to visualize the data

There are many analytics tools that can help you visualize the data. Excel is a ubiquitous tool with user-friendly features that allow you to create pivot tables, slicers, filters, and charts. In other words, building an effective dashboard with Excel is within anyone’s grasp when they have a willingness to learn the tool well.

However, you can also learn to use a number of dedicated business intelligence tools, including Microsoft Power BI, Tableau, Qlik Sense, Oracle BI, and Cognos. You can master many of these tools without a degree in database administration. This is a key benefit when considering that resource constraints in the IT department are a common bugbear. If you have someone freed up to build their own reports, it is a major business advantage that truly empowers actionable insights. Once again, Udemy has a range of courses where staff can learn these skills.

Interpret the data

Having gone to the effort of making data available and building reports, business leaders must take the time and effort to look at the reports.

Many reports have interactive features that allow you to slice and dice the data to get different views of your information. This is a key step for you to help the business derive value from its data. It’s also a commonly-neglected element of the actionable insights journey. Decision-makers need to dedicate time to this task and have regular sessions to interrogate the data.

This workflow furthers questions about actionable insights and ultimately provides a fact-based view of what is happening in the business.

Take actions based on the insights

With this information in hand, leaders in the business can make educated decisions about what to do next. Managers can identify and address weak divisions or probe successful ones for lessons that apply to the rest of the business.

With actionable insights for the data at hand, you can assess changes to the business for their true benefit. Your iterative adjustments to the company will result in continuous, measurable improvements. This allows leadership teams to confirm how their actions impact the business. 

Data-driven businesses can find themselves in a dominant position within their industry. While it seems obvious, it is not easy to achieve. Being a data-driven organization requires full commitment from business managers and a commitment to the cultural value of actionable insights.

Page Last Updated: September 2021