Are you riding the wave of Power BI?

This is a new post of the Bad Practices in Power BI series – This time we discuss the momentum of Power BI and what you can do about it (or fail to).

In Power BI’s 4th birthday celebration, Arun Ulag, the general manager of the Power BI product team shared a stunning visual.

On the left, you can see the “Explosive Usage” line chart which illustrates the trend of monthly active users of Power BI over a period of 4 years.

Arun didn’t disclose the actual numbers, so we couldn’t have Y-axis labels in the line chart. Nevertheless, we were impressed by the apparent exponential growth of active users. As a side-note, it was reassuring to see the four bumps in the graph, that was probably made by decreasing usage during the end-of-year seasons – Fortunately, maintaining a career-life balance is very important – even for obsessive Power BI users like us.

In the last Ignite conference (November 2019), Microsoft shared an updated trend-line to celebrate the 5th year of triple-digit growth of Power BI users. You can see from the graph below (behind Arun) a consistent exponential growth. The last tiny bump in the graph suggested that you didn’t open Power BI Desktop during your summer vacation of 2019. It’s a nice achievement in maintaining a career-life balance.

Source: @martin_sql on Twitter

In today’s Bad-Practices post, we will not focus on missing labels in line-charts and their misleading effect. We will also not talk about the career-life balance of Power BI developers. Instead, we will focus on the exponential growth of Power BI usage and how this momentum affects organizations that fail to ride on it.

Here are five questions you can ask in your organization:

  1. Are BI practitioners, data analysts, and Excel power-users on your team aware of the momentum of Power BI outside your organization, but never see it inside?
  2. Did you see the momentum start in your organization but then fade away?
  3. Are you riding on the momentum?
  4. Are you concerned about any negative impact of the momentum on your organization? Do you see how it all ends?

Let’s explore each one of the questions above and see how organizations deal with the momentum of Power BI. I will use the analogy of waves to explain the different behavioral patterns and classify them into four stages in the maturity of enterprise analytics.

Organizations – especially large ones – are likely to go through four stages of maturity in the journey to adopt Power BI and ride on its momentum of growth:

  1. Hiding behind the wave barrier
  2. Throwing pebbles in the pond
  3. Riding the tidal wave
  4. Reaching the other side of the whirlpool

Whether you are an IT manager, BI developer, data scientist or analyst, the data culture in your organization can fall under one of the four stages above. While a typical journey starts at Stage 1 and gradually moves throughout the stages as your organization learns from the bad practices that were typical at each stage, some organizations may induce controls that will keep them in a certain stage, or revert back to an earlier stage.

The four stages to handle Power BI momentum

Stage 0: Keeping the head in the sand

Before we start exploring the four stages, I would like to mention an edge-case that can be considered as Stage 0. This stage is so strange, that I decided to avoid using a wave metaphor for it. There are no waves in this stage because there is only sand – A lot of sand and a stubborn ostrich that is ignoring reality.

You can find organizations that keep their head in the sand when their data analysts never heard of Power BI. While there are many reasons that can explain the lack of awareness to Power BI’s existence (For example, “Power BI is a young product”; “We don’t use Excel”, “I thought Excel didn’t change in the last 20 years”, “Microsoft hid these features”), I think that organizations should do a better job to proactively invest in training and awareness of Power BI (and not just as a visualization tool).

If you read my blog, you are probably not the person in a Stage 0’s organization, but if you know such a person, you can tell him that they don’t have any more excuses. Power BI lives inside Excel as Power Pivot and Power Query for a long time now. If you work in a company where an entire team of data scientists or analysts are not aware of Power Query, Power Pivot or Power BI, it’s time to take an action. It is sad to see very brilliant people using Excel but ignoring the Power BI engines in it. You can be very strong at SAS, or R or Python or VBA or VLOOKUP, or INDEX/MATCH or SUMIFS in Excel. If you don’t use the Power Query, or Power Pivot in Excel and/or Power BI, then it’s time to get your head out of the sand.

It is also time to insist that Power BI is part of any training curriculum. If you are studying right now in a Data Science program somewhere in a modern college or university, and have no class about Power BI, it’s time to take a stand.

Stage 1: Hiding behind the wave barrier

Your organization is hiding behind the wave barrier when it follows one of these bad practices:

  • End-users cannot install Power BI Desktop.
  • Few users in your organization were approved to install Power BI Desktop, but their reports are only shared as screenshots in PowerPoint slides or PDFs.
  • Your organization blocks access to Power BI Service, even when it’s free.
  • Mission-critical reporting is manual, repetitive and error-prone.
  • IT and Business have low trust.

In the balance between productivity and control, IT leaders in many organizations side with extreme control, as they are unaware of Power BI and its enterprise-scale capabilities. Worried that they would lose control, IT teams hurry to build a wave barrier to protect the organization from the raging Tsunami. For a while, they prevent the wave of momentum to reach their shores.

When does it make sense to be in this stage? If your company didn’t start its digital transformation journey, and cannot use any cloud platform to host your reports and dashboards, it makes sense to willingly stay in this stage. By barricading themselves from the momentum that is breaking wild outside, IT can gain short-term control of a very chaotic situation that will break out in later stages. Without proper planning and preparations, they don’t stand a chance, so prohibiting the use of Power BI is the immediate first-aid they can apply. However, this period will not last long. The sense of control is misleading, and these organizations might lose crucial time and money if they stagnantly remain behind the wave barrier.

Here are some of the negative impacts you are likely to observe if your organization stay too long behind the wave barrier:

  • Employees will leave for other companies that encourage the use of Power BI to conduct self-service analytics.
  • Talented employees who are not aware of Power BI will keep owning the BI workloads but will become bottlenecks as they will fail to meet new demand.
  • Your business will keep running on Excel spreadsheets. Thousands of Excel spreadsheets. Your organization will keep wasting money on centralized solutions that will eventually (as always) fail to keep with the demand. The “Export to Excel” button will remain the most popular button in those systems (check out this great post by Rob Collie, which is still very relevant). You will keep running in cycles.
  • Eventually, IT will fail to keep the barrier high enough. Entering the second stage unprepared will lead to a new type of troubles.

Stage 2: Throwing pebbles in the pond

Your organization is throwing pebbles in the pond when it follows one of these bad practices:

  • End-users are not allowed to install Power BI Desktop, but everyone with the right connection or stubbornness can install it upon request.
  • Several influential users in your organization are making waves with their Power BI reports. Their artifacts are shared as PowerPoint or PDF files by many, but their work is not sponsored by IT.
  • Power BI report files (.pbix) are shared by email or SharePoint sites. The refresh of these reports is done manually and too many users have outdated versions of the reports. Revision control is constant pain.
  • Your organization blocks access to Power BI Service, even when it’s free. Still, few privileged business users have access to the Power BI service, but their work is not sponsored or controlled by IT even though the key consumer for their reports is an executive in the organization.

In this phase, IT leaders are aware of the momentum of Power BI as a visualization tool outside the organization, but they haven’t decided yet what is their best strategy to balance productivity and control with this tool. To support ad-hoc business demand they agree to allow specific business teams to use Power BI but without any warranty from IT (“Dear business sponsor, As long as you follow our data protection policy, and acknowledge that we will not support you in any way, you are welcome to use Power BI. It’s your problem, not ours. Please sign here”).

Due to a lack of awareness (learn more here) IT may think, at this stage, that Power BI is a cheaper version of Tableau or an Excel-on-steroids. As a result, they tend to focus only on two relatively simple challenges – The costs of Power BI and its deployment efforts. For these reasons, IT can be susceptible to enabling a low usage of the tool in an uncontrolled manner. After all, what can go wrong with having Excel-on-steroids for free?

Let’s think about the negative impact you are likely to observe in such organizations. Imagine that each use of Power BI at this stage is like a pebble in the pond. While the pebble creates small short-lived waves that seem safe and calm, over time negative outcomes can happen when the waves will wean off, a when they suddenly reach unexpected shores. Here is a typical scenario that you may find common in companies that throw pebbles in the pond:

  • Over time, without IT sponsorship and significant collaboration between business teams, many of the Power BI projects fail to get traction by decision-makers. After the initial honeymoon effect with Power BI, and without proper training, users are stumbled upon new challenges that cannot be easily addressed. Without proper support, some users will revert back to Excel or will fail in-dispair. When they will hear about the success of Power BI in other organizations, they will likely abandon the ship to find new opportunities in companies that are successfully riding on the waves of momentum.
  • Nevertheless, there are few teams don’t give up. The adoption of Power BI increases without the “warranty from IT”. But as success starts to shape, the challenges increase. At this stage, users start to consume duplicate versions of the truth and report authors spend too much time defending the reliability of their reports.
  • But few influential Power BI users with the talent to tell a story, manage to produce impressive visualizations that gain unexpected traction. Quickly and surely, their reports become viral and reach the attention of the highest ranks in the organization. A new kind of honeymoon starts as these individuals become the heroes of this modern tragedy.
  • Eventually, the Power BI heroes enter into an impossible situation. Lacking the knowledge in modeling that could help them reach sustainable BI solutions, they fail to meet the demand to deliver incremental new features in the original cool visualizations that they had built. The solution becomes error-prone and too complex to maintain. If these heroes are lucky, they will successfully transfer ownership. The maintenance of their reports will move to an unlucky IT team or a vendor, saving themselves from taking the blame.
  • As badly-informed decisions are likely to be made due to incorrect data, the unlucky owners of these reports become scapegoats, as the organization realizes that Power BI’s interactive visualizations and its charismatic storytellers can lead to dangerous decisions. This is when IT decides to step in.
  • It can be a crucial point for the future of the data culture. Without the awareness of Power BI’s end-to-end capabilities and governance controls, IT may refuse to sponsor the reports.
  • As IT decides to deprecate unreliable Power BI projects, tense relationships might rise between Business and IT. To reduce the tensions and support the business, IT may decide to invest in a new solution that will replace the deprecated Power BI reports. But now, we are back to square one, undoing self-service analytics and reverting to a centralized solution that may be doomed to fail.

The story above may be a bit too-dramatic. Most of the organizations in this phase are unware of the negative effect of the pebbles in the pond. Reinforced by the short-term success of the few Power BI projects, IT may finally remove the wave barrier, letting the tidal wave in with no preparations.

Stage 3: Riding the tidal wave

In this stage, the wave barrier broke-loose. The adoption of Power BI in the organization is an unstoppable reality. Riding the wave can take your organization to a blue ocean of opportunities. But without collaboration between Business and IT and proper planning and controls, the momentum of Power BI can turn into a tidal wave that is difficult to control for some organizations.

Your organization is riding the tidal wave when it follows one of these bad practices:

  • Everyone can install Power BI Desktop and build reports but there are no certified datasets available, so most of the reports are built on Excel spreadsheets as the data source and Power BI is still perceived as a visualization tool.
  • Everybody has a Power BI Pro license and there are dozens of workspaces you have access to. But there are so many different yet similar Power BI implementations that you are not sure which one you should use.
  • Many business teams have built impactful dashboards that are shared by hundreds of users and sponsored by executives. While these reports are very impressible, it is difficult to keep up with the changes, and sometimes these reports are too slow or inaccurate.
  • IT provides a Power BI Premium instance that is used by many users and hosts many workspaces. Performance is challenging and IT is in constant fire drills.
  • There are no standards. No common look & feel in the reports. You feel that you are in a swamp of evolving analytic creatures where only the strongest and the fittest will survive.
  • The organization is relying on external (and sometimes very cheap) vendors to deliver reports, but it is challenging to maintain these reports and their shelf-life is very short.
  • A successful Power BI delivery is only measured by the quality of visualizations and colorful Pie Charts (More on Pie Charts here). There are no KPIs to measure the success of the projects. Engagement levels and usage are not measured.
  • There are constant political tensions between business and IT on the ownership of BI. But in some organizations, IT refuses to confront business and become too reactive. As a result, with constant fire drills, IT lacks the time and resources to lead the way.

The risks at this stage are high, but so is the reward. In reality, most of the organizations are moving between Stage 3 and Stage 2 as they learn what is their best fit to balance productivity and control. Over-time, they realize the full potential of Power BI, allocate the right budget, hire the right talent and successfully move to the next stage.

Stage 4: Reaching the other side of the whirlpool

When organizations start taking careful measures to build a modern data culture that supports self-service analytics, but at the same time, increases the agility and effectiveness of the centralized BI team, they reach the final stage.

This stage starts when your organization accepts the failures at the earlier stages and shared the lessons learned. Riding on the wave is challenging and requires significant skills and balance for any organization. For many, this can be a tiresome process. You started to ride the waves and thought that the sky is the limit, but oftentimes it might have felt as if you were drowning inside a whirlpool, swimming against the whirling stream to stay on the surface.

The change happens when you realize that the way out of the whirlpool is by swimming with the stream. While we can have a very long discussion about the best practices that will help your organization to reach the other side, I would like to highlight the main principles before we conclude this post.

  1. Collaboration is key. IT and Business should be partners with an equal share of the gains and accountability.
  2. Self-service analytics is not about letting the Business do the work, and IT to control the boundaries – It is a bi-directional process in which self-service analytics acts as the evolution playground for innovation of streamlined insights. The most impactful self-service reports that were developed by the business can be promoted and scaled up into centralized solutions (and with minimal costs thanks).
  3. Power BI is not a visualization tool (read more here if you missed it). The fastest you dispel this misconception in your organization, the sooner you’ll start capitalizing its potential.
  4. As a full-stack platform for both self-service and enterprise analytics, Power BI has the strongest and most integrative ecosystems (Azure, Office 365, Power Platform, AI & Cognitive Service, On-prem and other cloud data sources). Take advantage of these ecosystems when you roll-out Power BI in your organization.
  5. Training is not enough. Your organization will only succeed if you establish a community of Power BI champions to help users to go through the four stages. If your company is small, you can rely on external communities (local and global). If your company is large enough, you can establish a center of excellence and hire a strong consulting firm to support you and ramp up the capabilities of your own team.
  6. Take advantage of the governance capabilities of Power BI to effectively control the mass adoption and momentum of this platform.
  7. Use certified datasets and centralized dataflows to support common scenarios. Train and support your users with Power Query, Modeling and DAX. Introduce gamification concepts to motivate users to build sustainable reports and follow best-practices.
  8. Keep it simple. Don’t let biased storytelling or fancy visualizations to dictate the objectives of your project. Power BI was designed to serve agile and sustainable analytics solutions that can be constantly improved using simple drag and drop capabilities. But to go there you would need strong modelers in your team.

Following the principles above you can help your organization to ride on the waves of momentum. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Please share with us your observations or the best practices that helped your company or clients to reach the other side of the whirlpool.

4 comments

  1. Mark Walter Reply

    As a business side BI developer, we have gone through some of each stage described here… Doubt/resistance at times from both IT and the business. We’ve even pondered supplementing a canned solution for our core financial dashboards.

    We’ve held on, and here is why PBI will persist in our company:

    1. Leadership recognizes that our ability to develop adhoc data models is a competitive advantage… falling back on canned solutions is giving this weapon up. This support trumps any access/approval issue we could have from IT. Admittedly we have not reached that ideal collaboration, however we don’t have resistance from IT.

    2. There is really no going back once you are fluent in DAX to analyze for the company… if you do go back, I fully agree that your spreadsheet people (now DAX/M) move on.

    3. We’ve taken PBI out as a consulting tool to our external customers. Adoption by our sales team to add value with PBI is an uphill climb… Some have tried to kill it… Spread doubt etc. However, when we prospect a new lead, it is an amazing hook. Love it or hate it… that is not going away. Find the right story, and it will go viral.

    I’ve heard (in disbelief) some say that they tried PBI at their company, and gave up… My real concern is not if PBI is going to fade out of our company… Rather how to better train and encourage the next BI developer… Not everyone is aware.. DAX comes with a learning curve… or from the stakeholder side, how to help them put paper reports down and engage data in a dialogue. There are so many roles and angles… but for right now, this is our real opportunity. Great article Gil!!

    • Gil Raviv Post authorReply

      Thank you Mark for sharing. I am glad to hear about your company’s journey. Would you like to share it in more details for the readers in your own article on DataChant?

  2. Mark Walter Reply

    Gil, I’d be honored to share more about our journey with your readers. Feel free to email me or message me on LinkedIn. Thanks!

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