You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘enterprise spreadsheet’ tag.
Our benchmark research on enterprise spreadsheets explores the pitfalls that await companies that use desktop spreadsheets such as Microsoft Excel in repetitive, collaborative enterprise-wide processes. Because people are so familiar with Excel and therefore are able to quickly transform their finance or business expertise into a workable spreadsheet for modeling, analysis and reporting, desktop spreadsheets became the default choice. Individuals and organizations resist giving up their spreadsheets, so software vendors have come up with adaptations that embrace and extend their use. I’ve long advocated finding user-friendly spreadsheet alternatives.
One of the first adaptations was for application vendors to use a spreadsheet (either a grid format or Excel itself) as a user interface. In these products users seem to be working in a familiar spreadsheet environment, but the interface is tied to an application that has controlled business logic, formulas and workflows, and the data is held in a relational or multidimensional database. This approach can give organizations the best of both worlds: the familiarity of a spreadsheet but in a structure that addresses most of the technological flaws inherent in desktop spreadsheets. Yet this approach isn’t always enough. It is fine for business processes in which a third-party application is the appropriate choice, but in many other situations where people collaborate using the same model, analytical methods and data, a spreadsheet – not an application – is the better choice. Moreover, our research finds multiple reasons why companies continue to rely on spreadsheets. More than half (56%) of participants pointed to user resistance to change, and many others cited a business case that wasn’t strong enough (that is, the benefits of switching did not merit the costs) and a related issue: that alternatives are too expensive.
In collaborative processes where a spreadsheet is the most practical tool, another alternative is a technology developed by Boardwalktech. The company’s Collaboration Platform (BCP) products support a secure, two-way exchange of data between multiple users.
Instead of having to collect multiple spreadsheets through the email system and then combine them, BCP users can automatically share information at the individual cell level when they want. For instance, working offline in a spreadsheet model individuals can enter actual results and evaluate changes to a forecast or plan, playing with whatever what-if scenarios they see fit. When finished, they can connect to the Boardwalktech server and click to share the updated information with others in the organization. Those people will have immediate access to the changed data.
This approach offers advantages to the way most organizations collaborate with spreadsheets. For example, the exchange of data between spreadsheet users is immediate and takes place at the cell level rather than replacing the entire spreadsheet. Thus, unlike when spreadsheets are exchanged through email, updates can be automatic and far more secure. When spreadsheets are connected through a server, contention (that is, two people trying to change the same data at roughly the same time) is an issue. Most server-based spreadsheets (such as applications built on an Excel server) deal with contention by controlling changes at the file or record-object level, employing a check-in and check-out methodology or record locking to control concurrency. This means that an entire spreadsheet or large portions of it cannot be altered until one person has finished making changes. This process can cause substantial delays. In contrast, BCP enables concurrent, multiuser collaboration at the cell level. Especially in larger spreadsheets shared among multiple users, that can cut down on delays in updates and changes because multiple people can be making updates to different parts of the spreadsheet at the same time.
Another attractive feature of Boardwalktech’s approach – especially when compared with collaborating on spreadsheets over email – is that individuals can share only a portion of their spreadsheet (even just the contents of a single cell) with other individuals. Adam, for example, may want to share only a few lines of summarized information from his forecast with Betsy, who needs it to drive some – but not all – of her projections in her part of the business. Adam and Betsy have different spreadsheets with different row and column structures, yet the shared data remains synchronized regardless of the changes they make to their individual spreadsheets. Colleen, a business analyst, may have a complex formula that every other analyst must use, and this formula will evolve over time because of changing business conditions. David and Ed will always be using the same, correct and up-to-date formula in their own, individual spreadsheets that used by others in the organization without having to check for updates.
Boardwalktech offers several prebuilt templates that support inter- and intra-business collaborative processes. For the latter, one area in which a third-party application often is not a viable solution is where analytical models of data and reports must be shared between companies. Cost, implementation times, existing software environments and licensing issues often make that impractical. Browser-based solutions may be more difficult for people to navigate through compared with a spreadsheet, especially if substantial amounts of data must be updated and people need to enter data across multiple dimensions. As well, people in different organizations may use incompatible approaches to modeling that reflect the different needs of their organizations. The ability to share only essential elements of spreadsheets without having to homogenize models and data structures eliminates serious barriers to collaboration. In addition, even within companies these issues can come into play, especially for cross-functional processes or among different business units.
Boardwalktech’s products include configurations for processes where spreadsheets are heavily used today. These include sales and operations planning (S&OP), trading partner collaboration, supply and demand planning and sales and revenue forecasting. For finance organizations the company offers treasury and cash management and tax planning as well as budgeting and planning. There is also a project and portfolio management offering, which can be used by IT organizations, facilities management, R&D and others to plan, assess and forecast projects and project-like efforts. These can be deployed singly or in combination. One of the advantages of implementing, say, a sales and revenue forecasting application along with budgeting and planning is that the sales forecasting can easily tie in with the budgeting, meaning that these top-line numbers, which are managed by the sales organization, can be updated instantly in the budget and at whatever level of granularity is necessary. As well, Boardwalktech’s IT Process Platform allows companies to take any spreadsheet-driven collaborative process and eliminate many of the inherent defects.
In 2013 Boardwalktech had couple of key steps forward with new integration framework using its ‘SuperMerge’ technology and advancements to configuring templates that are used for access and input. Both of which help further embrace and extend use of spreadsheets. For most organizations, spreadsheets are an indispensable tool but they are not always the appropriate technology, especially when used in repetitive, collaborative enterprise-wide processes. It’s important to understand their limitations and not abuse them. In some cases, third-party or internally developed dedicated applications are the right choice. In others, embracing and extending existing spreadsheet-driven processes is the most practical approach. If your organization is currently using desktop spreadsheets for some collaborative business process, it probably is putting up with a host of issues that are the inevitable result of the spreadsheet’s inherent shortcomings. If so, I recommend evaluating Boardwalktech’s collaboration platform.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
The spreadsheet is one of the five most important advances in business management over the last 50 years. It has changed all aspects of running an organization. It was the original “killer app” that made people go out and buy personal computers. So you see I’m enthusiastic about spreadsheets, but I realize they have limits that must be respected to work efficiently. One of the more important findings from our benchmark research Spreadsheets for Today’s Enterprise was about the time spent in maintaining spreadsheets. We asked participants how much time they spend per month in updating, revising, consolidating, modifying and correcting the spreadsheet used in the most important process associated with their job. The answers varied depending on the intensity with which people work with spreadsheets. On average, the heaviest users – those whose work requires them to spend all or almost all of their time using them – spend 18.1 hours per month on maintenance – the equivalent of more than two days per month! Even those who spend more than half their time in this fashion use up nearly two days (15.7 hours). For a tool designed to enhance personal productivity, these results should be sobering to executives and managers.
The heart of the problem is the comfort factor. People are so familiar with and in many cases so adept at using spreadsheets that they overlook or minimize their inherent problems. Spreadsheets make it easy for individuals with no IT skills to translate their ideas into analytic business models, capture data and create reports with that information. For experienced users, they are easy to design and set up. Many find them preferable to more formal methods used by the IT department or another third party. Spreadsheets give users autonomy. Indeed, a majority (56%) of our research participants said it takes too long or far too long for their IT department to create or modify a report.
That’s the upside. Problems arise when spreadsheets are used in collaborative, repetitive processes. Desktop spreadsheets are error-prone and have cost companies billions of dollars. One problem is that they bog down quickly. Our finding about time spent in maintaining spreadsheets illustrates another major defect with spreadsheets: The time saved in setting them up is more than offset by the time spent using and taking care of them.
Our research and experience have identified several factors that cause people to underestimate the negative impacts of spreadsheets on productivity. Generally, while the consequences of problems with spreadsheets can be various and persistent, they are rarely catastrophic and infrequently serious. Thus, while people may be aware that they are losing time, each loss is a small one and may be forgotten soon. Moreover, people (especially heavy and/or long-experienced users of spreadsheets) who have adapted their work styles to deal with these issues may not view this chore as interrupting productive work. People used to dealing with spreadsheet hassles also may think that their job includes fixing such problems. As well, senior executives and decision-makers are not likely to be concerned by the increments of time in which spreadsheets occupy people, especially since those whose careers go back to the beginning of spreadsheets still perceive them as productivity enhancers relative to paper-based systems. In other words, people are in denial about the issues they face daily when they misuse desktop spreadsheets.
Today, companies have more options than ever before to embrace and extend spreadsheets – to have the best of both worlds. There is a variety of new, affordable software to complement spreadsheets and address their shortcomings. Many applications use Excel as their interface – giving users the same familiar look and feel – while addressing key technological shortcomings of desktop spreadsheets that make them error-prone and difficult to consolidate or roll up. In short, there are many ways to make a core business process function better by replacing desktop spreadsheets with tools better suited to the task. Not all of these products are provided by large vendors, so you may have to find them yourself.
The next time you find yourself debugging a spreadsheet, dealing with maintenance issues or trying to find the source of some error in one, consider that there is a better way that doesn’t necessarily mean migrating to software that requires ongoing IT involvement. Take a look at the large assortment of spreadsheet replacements on the market; you should be able to find one that solves your problem.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research