Excel: Your entry into the world of data analytics

It’s not for big data, but you can use Microsoft Excel to learn a lot more about analytics than you may realize.

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For many office workers, Microsoft Excel is simply the go-to spreadsheet application. But since the late 1990s, Microsoft has been adding analytics functionality, and it’s accelerating the process with its monthly updates to Office 365. Excel now has some fairly potent tools for doing much greater data analysis than calculating a few rows.

And a lot of people are using those tools. A study released earlier this year by SourceMedia Research and commissioned by data-prep tool vendor Paxata found that 68% of organizations use Microsoft Excel as their main means of doing data preparation. The study surveyed 290 executives and IT professionals at organizations with $100 million or more in annual revenue — not exactly small businesses.

Nor were they just companies merely experimenting with big data. The survey found that even in organizations with mature data quality, Excel, custom coding, and SQL are used quite significantly. In other words, even companies with a mature analytics initiative are sticking with Excel rather than abandoning it for something more heavy-duty.

“There are [more than] 750 million Excel users, so you have a lot of people who know how to sort and filter and do pivot tables,” says Bill Jelen, a.k.a. MrExcel, who specializes in Excel training. “You already have this massive base of people who already know how to use the product, so there’s not the learning curve [that you would have], if you bought some other third-party tool, to get everybody trained on that product.”

“We see Excel is almost always the starting point for any analytics or business process,” says Brian Jones, group program manager for Excel at Microsoft. “People start in Excel, and then for certain projects that become really large they might graduate to using something like Microsoft Project. The power of Excel is it allows you to do all those grass-roots business processes and, given [that] business processes change all the time, people can adapt.”

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