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In our benchmark research at least half of participants that use spreadsheets to support a business process routinely say that these tools make it difficult for them to do their job. Yet spreadsheets continue to dominate in a range of business functions and processes. For example, our recent next-generation business planning research finds that this is the most common software used for performing 11 of the most common types of planning. At the heart of the problem is a disconnect between what spreadsheets were originally designed to do and how they are actually used today in corporations. Desktop spreadsheets were intended to be a personal productivity tool used, for example, for prototyping models, creating ad hoc reports and performing one-off analyses using simple models and storing small amounts of data. They were not built for collaborative, repetitive enterprise-wide tasks, and this is the root cause of most of the issues that organizations encounter when they use them in such business processes. Software vendors and IT departments have been trying – mainly in vain – to get users to switch from spreadsheets to a variety of dedicated applications. They’ve failed to make much of a dent because, although these applications have substantial advantages over spreadsheets when used in repetitive collaborative enterprise tasks, these advantages are mainly realized after the model, process or report is put to use in the “production” phase (to borrow an IT term). To date most dedicated applications have been far more difficult than spreadsheets for the average business user to use in the design and test phases. To convince people to switch to their dedicated application, a vendor must offer an alternative that lets users model, create reports, collect data and create dedicated data stores as easily as they can do it in a desktop spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are seductive for most business users because, even with a minimum amount of training and experience, it’s possible to create a useful model, do analysis and create reports. Individuals can immediately translate what they know about their business or how to present their ideas into a form and format that makes sense to them. They can update and modify it whenever they wish, and the change will occur instantly. For these business users ease of use and control trump putting up with the issues that routinely occur when spreadsheets are used in collaborative enterprise processes. Moreover, it’s hard to persuade “spreadsheet jockeys” who have strong command of spreadsheet features and functions that they should start over and learn how to use a new application. Those who have spent their careers working with spreadsheets often find it difficult to work with formal applications because those applications work in ways that aren’t intuitive. Personally these diehards may resist because not having control over analyses and data would diminish their standing in the organization. Nevertheless, there are compelling reasons for vendors to keep trying to devise dedicated software that an average business user would find as easy and intuitive as a desktop spreadsheet in the design, test and update phases. Such an application would eliminate the single most important obstacle that keeps organizations from switching. The disadvantages of using spreadsheets are clear and measurable. One of the most significant is that spreadsheets can waste large amounts of time when used inappropriately. After more than a few people become involved and a file is used and reused, issues begin to mount such as errors in data or formulas, broken links and inconsistencies. Changes to even moderately complex models are time-consuming. Soon, much of the time spent with the file is devoted to finding the sources of errors and discrepancies and fixing the mistakes. Our research confirms this. When it comes to important spreadsheets that people use over and over again to collaborate with colleagues, on average people spend about 12 hours per month consolidating, modifying and correcting the spreadsheets. That’s about a day and a half per month – or five to 10 percent of their time – just maintaining these spreadsheets. Business applications vendors started to address business users’ reluctance to use their software more than a decade ago when they began to use Microsoft Excel as the user interface (UI). This provides a familiar environment for those who mainly need to enter data or want to do some “sandbox” modeling and analysis. Since the software behind the UI is a program that uses some sort of database, companies avoid the issues that almost arise when spreadsheets are used in enterprise applications. There also are products that address some of the inherent issues with such as the difficulty of consolidating data from multiple individual spreadsheets as well as keeping data consistent. Visualization software, a relatively new category, greatly simplifies the process of collecting data from one or more enterprise data sources and creating reports and dashboards. As the enterprise software applications business evolves to meet the needs of a new generation of users, as I mentioned recently, it’s imperative that vendors find a way to provide users with software that is a real alternative to desktop spreadsheets. By this I mean enterprise software that provides business users with the same ability to model, create reports and work with data the way they do in a desktop spreadsheet as well as update and modify these by themselves without any IT resources. At the same time, this software has to eliminate all of the problems that are inevitable when spreadsheets are used. Only at that point will a dedicated application become a real alternative to using a spreadsheet for a key business process. Regards, Robert Kugel – SVP Research
One of the charitable causes to which I devote time puts on an annual vintage car show. The Concours d’Élegance dates back to 17th century France, when wealthy aristocrats gathered with judges on a field to determine who had the best carriages and the most beautiful horsepower. Our event serves as the centerpiece of a broader mission to raise money for several charitable organizations. One of my roles is to keep track of the cars entered in the show, and in that capacity I designed an online registration system. I’ve been struck by how my experiences with a simple IT system have been a microcosm of the issues that people encounter in designing, administering and using far more sophisticated ones. My most important take-away from this year’s event is the importance of self-service reporting. I suspect that most senior corporate executives – especially those in Finance – fail to appreciate the value of self-service reporting. It frees up the considerable resources organizations collectively waste on unproductive work, and it increases responsiveness and agility of the company as a whole.
Electronic reporting began as a solution to paper print-outs, reducing the resources required to transmit information needed by individuals and making it easier for them to find information. Over the past couple of decades, these enterprise reports also have become much easier for IT professionals to create and maintain, but they are still time-consuming and aren’t particularly flexible. Rather than have their IT department create another version of a report, people often copy an electronic report, paste it into a spreadsheet, reconfigure the information to suit their needs and distribute the modified spreadsheet to a group of people. For this and other reasons IT departments have found it difficult to get business people to stop using spreadsheets. Our benchmark research on spreadsheets finds this is the number-one impediment to change. Spreadsheet users value control and flexibility. This is precisely what self-service reporting delivers without the time-consuming hassle of manually creating and distributing spreadsheet reports.
It’s useful to think of self-service reporting as an attitude and approach to using information technology than as a specific software product or category. It starts with the basic assumption that individuals in organizations must be able to retrieve information they need from the systems they use. This does not replace periodic enterprise reporting, dashboards, scorecards and other such “push” communication methods. This is not the once-voguish concept of “democratizing business intelligence” either; that was still too complicated for the vast majority of users. It’s more like replacing telephone operators with a direct dial system. (Note to readers under 40 years old: Once upon a time it required human intervention to connect your phone to someone else’s.) The goal of self-service reporting is to make broad sets of data readily available and give people the ability to access it (subject to permissions) as well as easily organize and display it in the form and format that works best for them.
In the early days of business computing, simply collecting and having access to company data was a breakthrough. Over the past decades, corporations automated and instrumented a broad range of functions, and the challenge lay in collecting and managing the data. Although companies still face many issues in data management, devolving reporting to the individual is now a critical issue companies must address. Well-designed self-service reporting improves the productivity of individuals in both IT and the rest of the organization. The controller of a midsize company recently told me people had been spending one-and-a-half days per month creating reports for senior executives and operating managers after the monthly and quarterly accounting close. Talk about unproductive use of resources! This is an extreme example but emblematic of time routinely wasted on something individuals ought be able to do on their own. From the IT side, far too much time is devoted to creating and maintaining reports – it’s akin to still having switchboard operators on staff to route calls.
Self-service reporting exists both as a feature of enterprise applications and in stand-alone products designed to work with applications that lack this capability. In deciding whether to replace existing software and in any vendor selection process, it’s important to assess benefits of self-service reporting capabilities. This is especially true as mobility increasingly is built into enterprise business applications. Anytime, anywhere access to information is one of the most important reasons why companies invest in mobility and demand this capability in the software they buy. Being able to drill down and around in the data contained in such reports provides a powerful incentive to replace spreadsheets. But there are also stand-alone products that can provide self-service reporting capabilities within legacy systems.
For our service organization this past year I still created a limited number of spreadsheets for individuals and groups that are not on our system. The only data issues we had were created when someone copied and pasted information from our reports into another spreadsheet. Errors are inevitable, and even in our local event there are unfortunate consequences when they occur. For example, telling someone who has just spent hundreds of hours preparing his or her car that the vehicle is not eligible for an award because it was not on the list of judged cars (even though our system showed that it was supposed to be judged) provokes the same level of irate response one might expect when a CFO is informed that there’s a material error in the published financial statements.
Self-service reporting is fast becoming a standard capability within businesses. It’s part of a generational change that is redefining corporate computing. People beyond a certain age still expect information to be given to them. Younger people want to get the information they need themselves and expect to have the ability to do so. IT departments must identify opportunities to offer self-service reporting and implement it wherever possible. Business users – especially those in finance roles – should familiarize themselves with self-service reporting – especially stand-alone tools that they can use and administer – and implement it wherever it is feasible.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research