Upgrade your skills and use Excel’s visualisation capabilities to add bling to your presentations and make them more effective.
By Lachlan Colquhoun
Marcus Small’s passion for photography and accounting all come together in his current venture, creating data visualisation using Microsoft Excel.
After a Masters of Finance degree and an early career with a Big Four accounting firm and an investment bank, Small’s fascination with Excel gradually took over to the point that it is now his main business, training people on Excel with a special focus on visual dashboarding.
“One of my main hobbies is photography,” he says. “I think it gives me a unique background because when I combine the creative with the financial it has helped me create what I think are beautiful visualisations.
“If you can make data more visual then it is more effective, and people in the organisation anticipate it and respond to it. People like to see a bit of bling.”
Going beyond the basics with Excel
Small’s work is showcased on his website www.TheSmallman.com. The dashboard section of the site has a range of Excel dashboard templates which can be downloaded for users to populate with their own data. Users can go the link and follow the instructions and are welcome to use the graphics Small has created.
Small says the goal of the site is to create a visual hub for Excel dashboard design with a range of different dashboards, from financial to organisational and, in one case, sporting.
“I consider myself very lucky to be able to teach people on how Excel can make their life easier,” he says.
“I think the error people often make is that they get Excel to do only what it needs to do, so they use only 5 to 10 per cent of its capability. They don’t really think about the process; they just want to get to a place and, once they do, they stop.
“When I get to an end point I ask myself, how can I do what I have just done better and easier?”
Use Excel to transform complex data into graphics
Small’s message is that Excel has developed significantly since its early days in the late 1990s, and now has a range of capabilities that can be easily linked to programs, such as dashboards, which express complex data in easily digested one-page graphics.
“Dashboards provide a valuable corporate tool, because a succinct summary can provide valuable information in one place,” he says.
“This data tells management how a particular area is tracking against key criteria, and its value rests in the information being gleaned and absorbed quickly.”
Small is passionate about his teaching role, and uses the opportunity to spread the word at CPA Australia webinars, workshops and events. He will be running masterclasses, alongside a number of other Excel experts, at CPA Congress 2017 in various locations next month.
Use Excel’s Power BI suite for high-level analysis
Like Small, Bastick is unashamedly passionate about Excel and the capabilities that it can give to business.
His speciality is the Power Tools in the Power BI suite, such as Power Query and Power Pivot.
These functions allow users to aggregate data and then publish it to Microsoft’s secure webservers, which then deliver high levels of analysis.
“This means that companies can analyse data they have collected for years and years, and find inferences and correlations which they couldn’t see before because they didn’t have the processing power,” says Bastick.
“This allows you to link data together and ‘turn the handle’ and find new relationships between data. This is mind-blowing to me and it helps companies see very quickly what the drivers of their business can be.”
Upgrade your Excel skills at a CPA Congress 2017 Excel masterclass. Learn more.
How Excel provides answers in graphic form
Another developing capability which has Bastick excited is the ability to ask questions of the data in Excel and receive an answer in graphic form, in real time.
“Analysts in the past have always gone to meetings well prepared, but if someone asks them a question, often they have to say they don’t have the answer at their fingertips and will have to come back later with an answer,” says Bastick.
“That is not ideal. People make decisions in real time, so with this capability you’ll be able to type in a question and have it up on the screen. This is real self-service business intelligence.”
The evolution and development of Excel will enable analysts to do more analysing and less data collection, he says.
“Most analysts spend about 90 per cent of their time cleaning up data and linking it, and spend very little time analysing it,” says Bastick.
“What I am excited about is that with the evolution in Excel, they will spend less time on preparing data and do what they are paid for, which is analysing it and making recommendations to the business.”
Use Excel to influence others in your organisation