Who is PowerPivot for?

Ann All recently posted an interesting article at IT Business Edge: Microsoft’s Schizophrenic Approach to Business Intelligence. I’m not too insulted: I tend to agree with Janet Long that, “Part of being sane, is being a little bit crazy.”


Ann’s argument is straightforward enough. We have said that we hope to win fans in IT with PowerPivot, but Howard Dresner (and others) see PowerPivot as putting power in the hands of end users. Howard, and Ann’s, question is: “Who is your primary customer?”


Now I should say here, that I rarely see a dichotomy without wanting to prove it false, and this one is no exception. There, are to my mind, at least three fatal flaws in this argument:

·         I think the term “end user” is too inexact for the scenario in question;

·         I doubt the distinction between business and IT is as clear as the question implies;

·         I don’t agree that a “primary” customer is necessary or desirable.


Let’s take them in turn.


Who is the end user of PowerPivot? The Excel jockey? That is hardly a complete picture. In fact, the majority of users will see the end result of PowerPivot in the form of interactive apps, dashboards and reports served up with SharePoint, and with SQL Server on the back end. These end users are consumers of analyses and they typically outnumber producers – the Excel users – by perhaps ten to one. These end users do not serve themselves: they may explore, and interact with the analysis, but others have built the solution, and others manage the infrastructure that serves them. So, “end users” form a complex ecosystem, which PowerPivot serves in carefully differentiated ways, with a powerful Excel add-in for producers, and a manageable, easy-to-use server-side story for the consumers.


So, if end-users are a complex bunch, what of this distinction between IT and business? Well that’s not so clear either. Many a department in many an enterprise – small or large – has a business user who, in effect, provides IT services for her peers. The SQL Server WorldWide User Group runs a splendid course for the Accidental DBA. Many small SharePoint installs, or Reporting servers, even departmental OLAP boxes are cared for by these untitled, and unsung, practitioners. They provision infrastructure for their peers, but their day job is in the business side. These are not the sole IT audience of PowerPivot, but they will be an important segment of the market.


Even with more “traditional” IT roles – with job titles to match – I find the artificial distinction between business and IT rankles somewhat. The implication is that IT has a set of concerns that are of little or no interest to business users, and possibly vice versa. Well, I must say that I rarely see the vice versa in action: even barely functional IT departments take great interest in the success of the business that pays their wages. Increasingly, business users, especially at higher levels, are aware of the business drivers of IT decisions. After all, companies can be fined, and company officers can even be imprisoned, for breaches of data and security. The integrity of a server may have as much bottom-line impact as the business transacted upon it.


Alors, revenons à nos moutons. The third flaw is the most serious. I simply doubt that a “primary” customer is needed – and indeed I reject the idea of either IT or business being “primary” in a decision to adopt software which affects both of them. To think that one must be primary is to assume that there cannot be an common interest between business and IT. It should not be so.


I expect at least two patterns of adoption for PowerPivot, no doubt there will be a greater variety than I can cover in this blog.


On the one hand, I see Excel power users discovering PowerPivot as a tool they can use to build more powerful analyses. They will adopt on the desktop but will soon need to share their work with consumers. As Ann said in another blog post: Happy Employees Are Collaborative Employees. At that time, they will push for server adoption from IT: either “real” IT or “accidental” departmental IT.


On the other hand, I can see IT taking a proactive role. Recognizing that PowerPivot provides a solution to the continuing demands of business users for ad-hoc analyses, IT can provision the infrastructure and advise business users to go forth and serve themselves.


Both scenarios are equally valid and I see no harm in us pursuing both of them. And of course, there is a third one. Business and IT together  (they do talk, you know) decide PowerPivot is an appropriate solution and agree (it does happen, you know) to implement managed self-service BI.


Maybe I’m crazy after all, but I think it might just work.

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