The data table is perhaps the most basic building block of business intelligence. In its simplest form, it consists of a series of columns and rows that intersect in cells, plus a header row in which the names of the columns are stated, to make the content of the table understandable to the end user. This type of table is known in BI as a tabular report. A tabular report is used primarily–but not exclusively–to record information.
Data tables are the most basic component of BI, and still one of the most useful.
For example, if you are the sales manager of a company, you may have a tabular report in which five columns represent order dollar amount, order quantity, salesman and territory.
Another common type of data table in BI is the cross-tab report. With a cross-tab report, data starts to be grouped and organized in a more summarized way, making it more intelligible and therefore more useful for BI.
A cross-tab report is a data table in which there is not only a header row, but also a column (typically the left-most) that groups data in an intelligent way. Using our example of the sales manager’s report, a cross-tab version would group data by salesman (column on the left), and display the others as total dollar amount, total order quantity and territory.
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Data Tables
A data table is in many senses the lowest common denominator of reporting in BI. Although its role is more skewed towards reporting than analysis, it still holds a vital role in business intelligence, provided its limitations are correctly understood.
Ability to store large numbers of records in an easy, intuitive format – This is one of the reasons why Excel spreadsheets are still popular–and will likely remain popular for a long time to come. Records–including historical records–can exist on a spreadsheet for as long as the spreadsheet is saved, and are therefore always accessible to the user whenever required.
Ability to construct data summaries to make analysis easier – A spreadsheet or data table can form the basis for a summary cross-tab report (as in the example we gave above), moving the table closer to being an analysis tool rather than a mere means of reporting.
Ability to add a number of analysis capabilities, such as sort, drill-down and drill-through – When these features are added to a data table, its role to not just present data but to make data understandable in the form of information is greatly enhanced.
Limited capability to make key information jump out – The main drawback of a data table–especially a tabular report–is that it tends to present a vast amount of data in a neutral way, and it leaves it up to the end-user to sift through it or analyze it to make business sense of it.