Technical professionals around the world have been predicting the demise of Microsoft Excel for years now. In 2015, a survey conducted at a journal asked whether there is a software which could replace Microsoft Excel in the years to come. People chose Tableau Desktop as being the replacement.

Now in 2021, Excel is still going strong. That is despite realizing Tableau is very cool piece of software. At this moment, finance and accounts professionals needs to differentiate between Excel and Tableau and they need to realize in which circumstances and situations either of the software is suitable to get the job done.

A Distinct Form of Tool

The first thing to realize is that Tableau is a Data Analysis and Visualization tool. It means that it helps the user to understand the data presented in front of him by creating several types of useful charts to identify patterns and trends from it.

The second thing is that Tableau is not a spreadsheet software, like Excel is. Excel can handle and perform numerous types of calculations and have great functions which Tableau does not have. The same goes for Tableau as well.

To help you understand the capabilities, limitations, and best use cases for Tableau, this article explores its differences from (and similarities with) Excel and walks you through a simple use case with live data to demonstrate the power of its data visualization capabilities.

Before we jump into details, please note that Tableau is one of the different Data Visualization tools available in the market today and all of them have the same features built right into their core.

Comparison of Tableau and Excel

As mentioned earlier, both Excel and Tableau boasts plethora of features which are not available in other software in the market.

Let us look at some of the key features which Tableau and Excel possesses

TableauMicrosoft Excel
Analysis of large amounts of complex data through a visual interface.

Fast and robust presentation of results in beautiful, intuitive charts.

Ability to join and merge data from different sources.

Manipulation of large datasets for conversion of easy visualization.

Interactive dashboards for business intelligence.
Generating computational solutions using built-in functions.

Tables and charts for reporting.

Ad hoc data management system.

Small-scale, user-developed programming for scenario analysis.

For decades, Excel has been the go-to software preferred by every task which revolves around analysis of data. Tableau also handles these tasks well. For a pro user of Excel, handling data in Excel may seems to be easier, however, Tableau performs these tasks much easier. Since this article’s main purpose is to compare Excel and Tableau and note the differences, we elaborate more on differences than on similarities, but the many tasks the applications do equally well include:

  • Importing of small datasets.
  • Simple data manipulation, such as sorting the data.
  • Basic aggregation of data, such as Min, Max, average, etc.
  • Pivoting data.
  • Simple charting.
  • Basic calculations.

While Excel and Tableau can perform these tasks equally well, we need to remember that any Financial and accounting data is increasing day by day. So, it will be adventurous for the finance and accounts professionals for learning Tableau and performing these tasks on that platform as well.

Excel’s Excelling Features

Before we jump to Tableau’s advantages over Excel, we need to first list down the applicability of some distinct functions that Excel excels (pun intended) than in Tableau.

Creating and Managing Small Dataset

Excel offers a great flexibility in creating a small and managing a dataset. There are many instances when we need to import / scrap the data from the internet, which is otherwise hard to create in other software and platform.

Excel also offers power tools like power query to not only import dataset from various sources but can also be programmed to auto update the data in a pre-defined time as well. Unfortunately, Tableau does not provide a similar feature like creating a dataset from scratch.

Calculations, Calculations & more Calculations

Excel’s strongest capability is that users can create complex calculations which refers to different cells which worksheets very easily. This trait enables the users to develop small “programs” to help analyze critical data and mold it in a way that they want.

Take, for example, a loan amortization table. To develop a simple, flexible amortization table, a user allows for a small number of input cells where users can enter the desired interest rate, loan term, and loan amount, and then can determine the payment due using the PMT function. Once the payment is determined, users can create formulas in a schedule that calculates the interest paid each period, the repayment amount, and the loan’s new carrying value each period for the duration of the loan. The entire process is simple, quick, and flexible, and results in valuable information. Excel’s ability to accommodate ad hoc analyses of business needs by allowing customized calculations with preprogrammed functions and cell references is indispensable, and this simply cannot be done in Tableau.

What Tableau Does Well

Overall, Tableau is much more superior to Excel in dynamic exploration of data and interactive analysis of data via reports and Dashboards.

Data Filtering

Tableau has the ability of filtering not only a single worksheet, like Excel, but also it can further filter data in different worksheets at the same time.  It is almost effortless to do this since Tableau has a visual interface that makes it simple to set, change, or delete filters.

Data Visualization

Both Tableau and Excel and known software when it comes to visualizing data. Both Excel and Tableau allow users to create nice-looking, basic charts and graphs, but the process is simpler in Tableau.

Tableau allows the user to drag quantitative and qualitative data dimensions on the view to create visualization instantly. Additionally, the UI offers many other options to further customize the Viz according to their needs.

Handling substantial amounts of data

Tableau can handle any amount of structured data, depending upon the hardware capabilities of the machine. On a computer that has only 8 GB of RAM, we were able to load and analyze a dataset with more than 25 million records in Tableau. Excel, on the other hand, is limited to 1,048,576 rows.

The data can be in various file formats that follow the same field-record structure, including Excel files, text files such as CSV (comma-separated values) files and tab-delimited files, and PDF files. The data can also come from direct connections to database servers such as SQL. An advantage of live data connections is that the analytics automatically update with the data.

Creating Interactive Dashboards

While filters can morph the data as per user’s assumptions, interactive Dashboard takes it a step further. Interactive visualizations combine the set of related reports into a single worksheet, enabling the user to view the data and interact with it to obtain and learn about the trends hidden in the data. For example, if you wanted to analyze accountants’ salaries by geographical location, you could create a dashboard showing a geographic map of salary by city and a sorted bar chart showing the highest to lowest salaries. Excel can build dashboards, but it is not as straightforward or as powerful as the dashboard feature in Tableau. 

Combining the Forces

In the never-ending quest for better ways to work with data analysis, accountants are likely to find Tableau as the go-to tool to go along with Microsoft Excel as they are devised ways through which they can complement each other. Excel is suitable for customized sequential calculations; Tableau is a powerful tool for analyzing large, complex datasets through a user-friendly interface. As a result, accountants would be well advised to have strong working knowledge of both Excel and Tableau (or another data visualization program) to continue to serve their clients and employers effectively.



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