Spreadsheets are the technological equivalent of cockroaches: They’ve been in existence for decades, they can spread like wildfire, and no one has quite figured out how to stop their proliferation—even if they really, really want to.
For years, software vendors of all stripes (excluding Microsoft, of course) have offered their own high-tech versions of “integrated pest management” solutions to rid their customers’ environments of spreadsheets—to cease the flow of human-introduced errors into corporate information and achieve that desired “one version of the truth” view. One spreadsheet investigation, for instance, found that 80 percent of spreadsheets contain significant errors.
Myriad, mistake-filled spreadsheets can lead to discrepancies in key financial reporting data that can put companies in legal jeopardy. (Just ask any CFO.) Several CIOs have told me about executive-level strategic sessions that have been derailed by the game of “Who’s Excel Numbers Are Right?” It’s not a fun game.
The thing is, though, many business users don’t view Excel as an accomplice in committing crimes against the company; they consider it one of their most trusted technological friends. That user affinity has made mitigating spreadsheet use similar to using a cheap “bug spray” to wipe out cockroach infestations: The roaches always return.
In turn, vendors—especially those with business intelligence plays—have finally shifted to a “Live and Let Live” strategy for spreadsheets. New technologies aim to integrate spreadsheet data into sanctioned corporate information streams and depositories. The transition hasn’t been easy, but it’s finally catching on.
At the enterprise end of the vendor spectrum, there is SAP‘s partnership with Microsoft on Duet, which is a notable effort: Duet allows “information workers to easily and quickly participate in SAP business processes and share SAP business data via the familiar Office environment,” according to SAP and Microsoft.
Smaller vendors, such as Cambridge Semantics, offer products that attempt to unlock and aggregate the data trapped in spreadsheets. “It’s no secret that despite the proliferation of BI applications, the use of Excel spreadsheets for most information and reporting needs still dominates,” stated Sean Martin, co-founder and CTO of Cambridge Semantics, on its website. “If anything, usage of Excel has become even more prevalent over the last decade.” (There are many other vendors out there attacking this problem, so please go easy on me, PR friends.)
That sentiment is backed up in a recent blog post by Forrester Research principal analyst Boris Evelson. He offers several insightful practices for “controlling and managing (not getting rid of!) spreadsheets as a BI tool.” For instance, Evelson’s first suggestion is this: “Create a spreadsheet governance policy. Make it flexible—if it’s not, people will fight it.”
It’s a worthy thought to consider: Before BI was a multibillion-dollar apps, development and database market with analytic packages and fancy dashboards, the spreadsheet was the de facto BI app. People know and love their spreadsheets.
As I wrote in BI’s Dirty Secret: Better Tools Are No Match for Bad Strategy, now is not the time for companies to blindly throw BI tools to the masses. What’s most needed is a smart business strategy that: determines what are the business processes that will be made more efficient by the BI tools; ensures that the right data will get to the right people using the BI application; and provides the software tools that will ultimately help users make more informed and intelligent decisions.
Both the cockroach’s and Excel’s histories tell us that ignoring the immortal spreadsheet is just not a smart thing to do. It’s here to stay.
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