You may be too young to remember the days of dot-matrix printouts. Without modern graphical software, analysts were stuck pouring through dull lists of numbers to determine why profits were down.

Microsoft Power BI wasn’t a thing then – or even Windows. DOS was the first major operating system that launched the computing revolution in the 1980s. With a basic black screen and a blinking green cursor, the PC interface was rudimentary. Memory was at a premium, and artificial intelligence wasn’t available.

The First Generation of Business Intelligence Software

Lotus 1-2-3 was the premium office software in the 1980s, but it was nothing like what we have today. At best, data might be visualized in a rudimentary two-dimensional bar graph. Analysts might take a week or two to compile disparate data into something that made sense.

The Windows Revolution: A Leap Forward in BI

When the original Windows operating system, Windows 3.1, was released in 1992, it transformed computing. Sure, Apple had come out with the graphical Macintosh almost a decade earlier in 1984, but it was low on power and buggy.

Windows worked on top of DOS and were business friendly. Soon, old DOS workhorses like WordPerfect and Lotus Notes struggled with Microsoft’s new business suite, Office, built to work with Windows from the ground up.

With the addition of Microsoft Excel, charts and data soon went beyond glowing bar graphs on a black screen. Charts could be updated automatically when the underlying data was updated. Additional interactive elements evolved, such as pivot tables and charts.

Sharing this data was not built in, however. If you wanted to present the numbers to your stakeholders, you needed a screenshot of the chart to embed in a PowerPoint slide deck. Trend analysis to inform decision making was becoming easier, but the workflows were not integrated.

Today’s Advanced Business Intelligence Landscape

It’s now almost 20 years after Windows first disrupted the PC landscape. With the ubiquitous Internet, data analysis must be at the forefront of all business decisions. We don’t have the “luxury” of taking a week to aggregate and present data – it needs to be done in real-time.

Daily changes in the digital landscape require current, accurate business intelligence to inform savvy decision-making. Fortunately, today’s BI software is light years ahead of the original data analysis software of the 1980s. Microsoft Power BI is one such program.

Getting Started with Microsoft Power BI

If you are new to Business Intelligence software, Microsoft Power BI provides an accessible entry point. A desktop version of their report writer, Power BI Desktop, is available as a free download. This data analysis software allows you to compile data from various sources and model that information into helpful data visualizations.

Microsoft Power BI Visualizations: A Step Above Charts and Graphs

Technically, a “data visualization” would include any chart or graphic used to communicate data. However, when we speak about visualizations in Microsoft Power BI, we are talking about advanced graphics that can go beyond simple charts.

These data visualizations may look like graphs built-in Excel, but they can do much more. Rather than just working with mainly two-dimensional column and bar charts, you can create an axis system based on hierarchy.

What does this mean? Instead of just having two options for your X and Y axes, such as month for X and revenue for Y, you can set up your advanced data visualization to drill down hierarchically. Your time axis, for example, may start at “year” and provide an option to drill down to each quarter, then down to the month or even day.

Using Data Visualizations to Tell a Story

One of the problems with older, flat graphs and analytical tools is that they present data. They don’t help much with telling the story behind the data. With advanced data visualizations such as the ribbon chart, communicating the underlying “story” becomes much more straightforward.

Here is an example, using two charts based on the same data:

The standard chart on the left is a column cluster chart, with colors representing targeted segments. While it certainly tells part of the story, it is not easy to determine what is going on with the individual segments.

The ribbon chart on the right makes it much easier to grasp the big picture quickly. We see the revenue growth or decline by year, with the segment generating the highest revenue placed at the top of the graph. This makes it painfully apparent that the Convenience segment crashed around 2010, really hurting overall revenue.

Microsoft Power BI and the Future of Business Intelligence

Data analysis has come a long way since the days of Lotus Notes. With free – yet powerful – BI software such as Power BI Desktop, you can bring real-time data to life. With this information easily accessible, your business can quickly react to changes in the market landscape. It may even help you avoid or recover from massive market downturns. While Microsoft Power BI isn’t the only Business Intelligence software available, it is one of the best.