Tableau vs IBM Cognos: Compare Key Features and Functionality

IBM Cognos and Tableau are both well-known in the business intelligence (BI) software market.

When comparing them, though, their differences are clear as they target two distinct markets.

BetterBuys BI Review: Tableau vs IBM Cognos

Tableau is a champion visualization tool with a very modern interface and easy drag-and-drop abilities. Many different users can use Tableau to create insightful dashboards and reports.

Cognos incorporates visualizations, but these features aren’t the solution’s core focus. Cognos is a complete BI platform, with a vast number of tools for an enterprise’s data experts.

Compare Tableau vs IBM Cognos: Download our BI Vendor Comparison Guide with side-by-side comparisons of more than 50 popular BI tools. Download Here

Comparing Products

For a look at the basics, we’ve provided highlights from our own reviews of Tableau and Cognos.

Tableau At A GlanceTableau: Tableau provides intuitive BI tools to enhance data discovery and understanding for all types of companies and business users.

With simple drag-and-drop features, a user is able to easily access and analyze key data, create innovative reports and visualizations, and share critical insights across the company.

Cognos at a glance

Cognos: IBM Cognos Analytics software is an online-based BI platform that offers a complete array of BI software to address company goals.

Considered one of the leaders in the field of business intelligence, Cognos Analytics offers over 30 products. Cognos’ abilities include dashboarding, reporting, analytics, scorecarding, and, notably, data integration.

Two Core Feature Differences

There are two key differences between Cognos and Tableau regarding their main objectives.

1. Visualizations

When other BI products are compared to Tableau, visualizations are always a significant consideration because Tableau is known as the best in this regard.

Tableau: This solution is able to import and visualize large data sets that other solutions can’t handle. It allows the users who know their data best to drill down into their data and make queries. The ease of use allows many users who are not explicitly data experts to explore data.

Cognos: Cognos helps transform data into metadata for users to dynamically explore data relations.  When users turn their data into visualizations they need to fully understand the context they’re working in since they are a step removed from the data’s original format. In other words, Cognos is a complete platform for data experts and visualization tools are not simple enough for average users to understand.

Bottom Line: If your sole purpose for a BI solution is to quickly create and share data visually, Tableau is a top contender. If visualizations are only a portion of what you’re looking for, a full BI platform such as Cognos could be a better fit.

2. The Business Environment

Each tool serves a very different group of users from two kinds of business environments.

Tableau: As an intuitive solution, Tableau can be used without assistance from a company’s IT team. For example, if there’s an expert in sales who has access to Tableau and wants insight on sales performance, they could generate visuals for the whole sales team without asking IT for help. They may still require certain help understanding Tableau, but they would not need to be specialized in data analyses.

Cognos: Because it’s an extensive BI platform, Cognos users must specialize in managing data. Various tools supplement back-end tasks such as the ETL process, data warehousing, data integration and SQL queries. Tableau does not provide tools for these tasks and it’s assumed the user would cleanse their data before visualizing through Tableau. Cognos allows users to ensure their data has high integrity and meets enterprise standards.

Bottom Line: Tableau best fits users across an organization who want a simple enough tool that can help offer daily insight. The downside is that this can lead to data integrity issues. The source data can be incorrect and the average user wouldn’t notice in Tableau. In Cognos, where all users must be data experts, data has much higher integrity and has been analyzed through a series of tools before being distributed for business use. Depending on your business, it may not be possible to have a data science team, so Tableau is a clear choice. Or, you may already have the team in place, and Cognos is best for your enterprise needs.

Comparing Services and Offerings

The following is a comparison of other key details about both Cognos and Tableau including implementation, customer service and shortcomings.


Here’s a detailed view of how each vendor handles implementation.

Tableau: Tableau provides a variety of implementation and consulting services. For enterprise-level deployment, there’s a four-step process:

  • Phase 1 – This phase involves IT planning, architecture consulting, pre-install checkup, server installation and verification, and validation of security configuration.
  • Phase 2 – Phase 2 involves working with data and data migration, including data modeling, data mining, data extraction, data sources and business workflow.
  • Phase 3 – In Phase 3, there’s a two-day classroom training covering Tableau Fundamentals, hands-on advanced coaching, and building and formatting visualizations.
  • Phase 4 – This final phase helps companies expand Tableau usage across their business. It includes implementation workshops where topics such as evaluating action plans and defining measurable outcomes are discussed.

Regardless of your company’s size and deployment method, Tableau offers a Quick Start Service for your needs. Examples include:

  • Server Rapid Start – For small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), Tableau plans, installs and implements its server in a four-day timeframe.
  • Server Kick Start – In two days, Tableau helps companies plan, install and implement out-of-the-box deployments of its server.
  • Desktop Kick Start – In two-hour increments, companies can use Tableau’s phone sessions to help them implement its Desktop version.

Cognos: The implementation process for IBM Cognos Analytics is as follows (based on company needs/requirements):

  • Discuss requirements and goals of the company using the solution
  • Install server and client components for Cognos Analytics
  • Install database and ETL configuration
  • Load master data and configure historical data loads
  • Deploy other pre-built applications, such as the Framework Manager models, reports and dashboards
  • Perform end-to-end testing of the solution
  • Deliver installation documentation to users
  • Transfer information to users
  • Provide remote support up to two days after implementation is done

Customer Service

Customer service is offered through product packages, and each vendor has different options.

Tableau: Tableau provides four levels of support services to its customers: complimentary, technical support, Elite program and OEM program. Complimentary covers non-critical issues such as defects with the software; installation, activation and downloading assistance; basic questions about configuration, and access to major and minor releases. Technical support is automatically included with a one-year license purchase for handling critical issues. The Elite program assigns a technical account manager to ensure your support cases will be prioritized appropriately. The OEM  program is for customers who have integrated Tableau into their current software suites. They’re assigned a Partner Support Engineer to help with critical issues related to integration.

Cognos: IBM has a comprehensive customer support system that includes training and certification courses, and customer service available for users of their business intelligence programs, such as Cognos. It offers training that can be individualized based on specific roles within a company, and training can be implemented both online and in-person. IBM also offers private courses and specialized certifications to reflect expertise that aid in career advancement. Online tech support gives customers with access to IBM specialists who can address questions or potential problems with software.


No product is perfect. These are the areas buyers should look out for:

Tableau: Although the solution can connect to many different data sources, Tableau’s ability to integrate combinations of these sources for analysis is still weak. As a workaround, some customers have used other solutions with self-service data preparation and the option to output to Tableau’s native TDE (Tableau data extract) format.

Cognos: Critics of the product cite its difficulty to use, especially for those new to advanced software. Of particular note are the error messages that continually pop up, which are difficult to decipher and even more difficult to resolve. Also, data reports take almost twice as long to compile with Cognos Analytics as compared to most competitors. A few users have mentioned that there are too many components that must be installed.

What Are The Alternatives?

Cognos and Tableau each serve very different purposes. Here are some alternatives that fit the middle ground between each product: Power BI, IBM Watson and Qlik.

Power BI: Compared to Tableau, Power BI serves a similar user, but doesn’t have the same depth with visualizations. It’s best described as an Excel upgrade. When data outgrows Excel, Power BI is a good choice. Compared to Cognos, Power BI doesn’t have a similar array of tools for data experts to use.

Pros: Familiar to those already using Excel and offers a free version.

Cons: Visualizations sometimes exclude important data points, such as outliers, which can mislead users.

IBM Watson Analytics: Watson is closer to Tableau than Cognos as an IBM product. Watson allows for rapid visualizations, and it even generates its own questions about your data so you can easily review Watson’s contextual suggestions. When compared to Cognos, it’s clear Watson Analytics is the IBM product that’s designed to fit Tableau’s user base.

Pros: Highly automated and very simple to use. Similar to Power BI, it also offers a free version.

Cons: Like the cons of Tableau, it’s easy for the average user to overlook the integrity of their data and base business decisions on false analysis. Watson has a feature for auto-checking the data’s integrity, but it doesn’t compare to the knowledge of a human expert.

QlikView: QlikView is similar to Cognos as an enterprise solution. It distinguishes itself from other BI tools through its unique inference engine, which maintains data associations automatically. Most traditional BI tools rely on query-based tools that divorce data from its context. For end users seeking actionable, in-depth insights from their data to use to make business decisions, query-based tools don’t provide enough information. Self-service options aren’t as available as they are with other BI solutions, so QlikView is regarded as a data expert’s tool.

Pros: QlikView has Google-like search protocol for finding data and the ability to combine data sources.

Cons: Self-service is difficult for non-expert users, and there are some filtering issues at the end-user and developer levels.

Bottom Line

Luckily, because Tableau and Cognos are such different products, it’s easy to choose one over the other based on your business’s requirements. However, these aren’t the only two BI solutions available to meet your needs.

If you’re new to business intelligence solutions and are looking for a place to start, check out BI Definitive Guide. It features over 50 experts and offers an impartial overview of all the need-to-know details of buying this software.

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