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In the world of spreadsheets and data, Microsoft Excel is certainly one of the most popular. Sure, there are other great platforms, but few can match Excel’s longevity or the astounding amount of built-in functions it provides users. From finance gurus to inventory management experts to managers and executives everywhere, we’ve all used Excel to dive into the information needed to keep companies running successfully.
But whether you’re an advanced Excel user or you’re still learning the ins and outs of the platform, you’re bound to have questions from time to time. It’s a complex program. And, you might even be wondering if there are products or tools out there that can ease some of your pain points. After all, we’ve all dealt with errors from updated data, frozen screens, and the myriad issues that come from any attempt to drill up and down on a large data set. And that’s not necessarily the fault of Excel (or the user!). It’s simply that other kinds of tools are needed to take Excel reporting to the next level.
In our ultimate guide to Excel reporting, we’re exploring the basics of Excel, including the various use cases, how to generate basic reports, and what tools exist to work alongside Excel and truly provide the functionality you didn’t even know you were missing.
Excel is a powerful tool used by teams throughout small, mid-sized, and enterprise businesses in almost every industry imaginable. Released in 1985 as a spreadsheet program using cells, columns, and numbers, the original version of Excel included the ability for end-users to program macros to automate certain tasks and to use defined functions from Excel’s built-in library. In other words, Excel was first designed to help us free up our time from mind-numbing tasks—something it’s still doing today. Anyone who has ever tried manually doing some of the things Excel can automate can attest to how grateful we are that it exists!
With that said, it’s important to note that Excel has its limitations. On its own, it was never designed to store huge amounts of data or do some of the advanced, collaborative, real-time reporting and data slicing that some try to force it to do. At the end of the day, it’s a spreadsheet tool—a handy one at that—but trying to make it more than that can result in a lot of headaches.
And that’s where dedicated reporting tools and add-ons like FluenceXL by Fluence shine. From data dashboards to highly-formatted reports with the option to drill up and down on your data, FluenceXL works with Excel and various data sources to create better, more actionable reports. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves on reporting tools and our own awesome platform (more on that toward the bottom of the article), let’s dive into what Excel is designed for. What are the formulas and functions of Excel? What applications is it designed for? Is it a replacement for a database?
Excel has become much more powerful in the past 35+ years, and the formulas and functions it provides remain one of the most popular features.
Excel formulas are mathematical expressions that can be used to perform both simple and complex calculations on the cells, rows, and columns in a spreadsheet. A hallmark feature of Excel’s formulas is that they can be used to define the value of a cell automatically, calculating the value of that cell based on the value of other cells.
Excel supports more than 480 formulas as functions, or pre-built formulas. According to Microsoft, some of the most popular include the SUM function, the IF function, the LOOKUP function, the VLOOKUP function, and the MATCH function. Getting into the details, functions are classified into 14 different categories, including:
For anyone looking for usability outside of the pre-built functions, you also have the ability to create your own custom formulas and functions using VBA (or Visual Basic for Applications). Similar to how macros provide added automation capabilities, these custom formulas expand options for data manipulation and calculations.
Let’s preface this by saying that almost every industry imaginable uses, or could benefit from using, Excel. There are countless applications in countless industries—certainly too many for us to list here. Here are just a few of the most popular use cases for Excel.
In a word, no. Excel isn’t a database and it shouldn’t be used as one. For those of us who aren’t IT professionals or programmers, Excel can look a lot like a database—but those looks are deceiving, and here’s why:
So what’s the alternative? Use dedicated databases like Essbase, Microsoft Analysis Services, Oracle, SAP HANA, Snowflake, SQL, Power BI Datasets, and TM1SQL that can work with Excel to provide you with the proper database features and the capabilities you need from Excel.
So we’ve discussed how you might use Excel. But what about the nuts and bolts of actually working in Excel? What are the different types of reports you can produce? How do you create a report in Excel? How do you create a data dashboard—and what exactly is it? We’re diving into the basics below.
When it comes to the number of reports available in Excel, the sky is truly the limit. The fact is, there isn’t a set amount of reports available. It all comes down to what you want to build in Excel. There are, of course, some common types of reports in Excel that businesses turn to time and time again. Here are just a few.
When it comes to Excel report design, you’ll typically make use of charts and PivotTables, alongside the standard tables. Charts and graphs are designed to visualize data—which can be especially helpful when making presentations or reports for leaders. PivotTables, on the other hand, are interactive tables that make quick work of aggregating and summarizing large amounts of data so you can better explore trends. Below you’ll find the basic steps for generating charts and PivotTables.
Dashboards are similar to reports—and in fact, some reports are dashboards! So what’s the difference? A dashboard is a place to track business data, like key performance indicators (KPIs), metrics, and other high-level data points that need an at-a-glance view. They’re typically very high level, providing a lot of summarized information in one window. All of this allows executives and leaders the ability to review one panel to make quick decisions.
To build out a dashboard in Excel, you’ll be looking at combining charts, graphs, and tables—as described above—and making all of that fit nicely into a single worksheet. Anyone who has ever tried to do this in Excel can attest to the fact that it’s exceedingly difficult. Working with that much data—in addition to likely having to build out custom functions and macros—leaves plenty of room for errors, broken formulas, and more. So while you can technically create a dashboard in Excel, a lot of companies have shifted to using dedicated reporting tools to develop very high-level dashboards for their teams.
And with that said, let’s jump into what reporting tools are and if there’s a reporting tool that’s actually aimed at non-programmers. (Spoilers: there is!)
So we’ve discussed some of the things that Excel…well, excels at: data manipulation, basic reporting and data visualization, and tracking business information. But what about when you need more advanced options for reporting? That’s where reporting tools come into play.
Simply put, a reporting tool is a software program or system that can take data from various sources (like the databases we talked about earlier) and make it into dashboards, truly interactive reports, or other visual representations to make it easier to digest, understand, and slice and dice.
You’ve probably heard of some of the big reporting tool players, like Power BI, Tableau, Qlik, Looker, Thoughtspot, SiSense, Cognos, BusinessObjects, Spotfire, and more. These systems shine when it comes to creating high-level dashboards and aggregating a whole lot of data. The downside? Most reporting tools like this require pretty advanced knowledge of data modeling, mathematical equations, building queries, and even coding in some instances. Now don’t get us wrong, there’s certainly a time and a place for these tools—in fact, our own FluenceXL works with each of these reporting tools! But the selection and use of these tools are best left to programmers, coders, and other IT team members who have the skills to make dashboards in these platforms shine.
Instead, we’re here to talk about something else: how to find an easy-to-use platform that offers the ability to create advanced reports in Excel. And that’s exactly what our platform, FluenceXL does. While our platform isn’t designed to create custom reports from Excel data (because as we discussed above, storing data in a dedicated database is much more secure), we can empower you to use Excel to create customized, highly-detailed reports with non-Excel data.
What exactly does that look like? Imagine being able to have complete and total control over your report formatting and layout, while still being able to slice and dice your data in whatever way you need to. Imagine pixel-perfect reporting that’s visually pleasing and drillable, giving you the power to analyze and display your data however you choose. If that sounds like what you’re looking for, let’s talk through some must-have features you should be looking for, no matter what reporting tool you decide on.
So how do you go about finding a tool that you can actually use in your day-to-day work? Keep an eye out for these kinds of features.
Built-in Libraries: Sometimes, it’s easier to work with built-in calculations and templates. Look for a tool that offers a library of calculations, views, and layouts for the types of reports and dashboards you use most often. For example, many find Excel’s waterfall reports to leave something to be desired. Make these reports that much better with a product like FluenceXL.
Ultimately, the best reporting tool on the market is the one that works for your team. If you’re in finance or management and you’re looking for a platform that’ll let you really drill down on your data to truly see the finer details, look no further than FluenceXL.
We know we’re biased, but time and time again our customers have found value in the self-service, ad-hoc reporting capabilities that FluenceXL provides. The data-connected Microsoft Excel add-in lets users from any business or department create and distribute interactive reports automatically to any audience, on any device. No more waiting on busy IT teams. You can do it yourself in a platform you’re already comfortable with.
We’re not here to replace your BI platforms, nor are we here to replace Excel. We’re here to help your finance team work with the kind of live, dynamic data they need. Ready to learn more? Read more about FluenceXL, head over to our YouTube page to see it in action, or request a demo today.