Monday, February 15, 2016

Is it even remotely possible to wean off users from spreadsheets ?

The CFO loves it, so does the CEO; CMO is neutral, while HR, Supply Chain, Manufacturing, and Delivery Head/Project Manager in services companies are dependent on it for their functioning. Mid-level managers and junior executives need to be adept in managing it; creators, reviewers, and approvers are happy with it. It’s probably the best and most widely used single technology solution across industries, geographies, level of hierarchy, beginner or expert, the spreadsheet has created a permanent place in our lives.

Business and technology has been enamored by the need to sift through ever increasing volumes of data to find trends to help them understand the past which may create markers for the future. From statistical to complex models and tools, the evolution has been rapid; technology evolution rose to the challenge and offered solutions to manage the volume, complexity, diversity and multiple sources of disparate data. As a result today enterprises can potentially create models that help them scale up and scale out.

Though Business Intelligence had been around for a while, since turn of the millennium BI gained popularity with significant investment by enterprises in a quest to find and sustain competitive edge. Initial euphoria died down with struggles around quality and inadequacy of available data. Enterprise users thus used their expensive tools to create better reports in comparison to transactional systems. BI became Better (Presented) Information for the intelligentsia to present in management meetings.

The intent to leverage external data sources and streams of unstructured data led to technological innovation and models that attempted to make correlations. Consultants and vendors hyped use cases fueling additional spending hoping to catch the invisible wave. Big Data, machine learning, predictive analytics, data visualization, and in-memory kept the confusion alive resulting in users finally gravitating towards the old and comfortable: download the data into spreadsheets and leave the techies alone with their toys.

With the inability of large monolithic enterprise solution providers to provide credible alternatives to mine data, everyone who used any kind of data embraced the spreadsheet as a life saver. Across layers of management, consultants, and even the basic user, rows and columns became the default way to leverage data; addition of graphs, functionality and add-ons ensured that no amount of coaxing and cajoling could separate consumers from their beloved spreadsheets. They were here to stay for good.

Spreadsheets became the poor and rich man’s BI tool as it could connect to all kinds of data sources, it allowed changes, offered flexibility, had a low learning curve, could be adapted to any kind of data. Unable to dislodge the humble tool, vendors big and small provided the ability to extract reports and output into a spreadsheet for final consumption. Ineffective implementations, lack of skills, and failure of IT and vendors to offer simplicity, and resistance to change has unanimously made the spreadsheet the de-facto standard.

Wannabe heroes attempted to change this universal reality only to be politely or brazenly told to back off since alternatives were short on functionality or feature. Idealists who persisted joined the ranks of martyrs or were sent on wild goose chase. Management consultants will point out in their diagnostic reports that enterprises should desist from using spreadsheets since they allow data manipulation and lacks controls; the same consultants shamelessly build models on spreadsheets for critical work functions.

So when a CEO told me he hated spreadsheets, I was taken aback; without waiting for a response, he wistfully hoped that leaders and managers would start using BI tools for consumption of data, trends, analytics, and reviews. His company had invested heavily in a big name much discussed BI/DW technology solution and still continued to get his daily dashboard on a spreadsheet. He sought help to alleviate this situation and become a benchmark like much named global competitor who had case studies from almost every vendor.

He is not alone in this lament, many enterprises have invested and not been able to wean executives off. Is it futile to even attempt this ? What would it take to achieve this presumably utopian goal ? I believe that if people will not get off spreadsheets, BI will have to come to spreadsheets. It has been happening with some of the vendors, others are following; it will remain the primary tool for consuming data, dashboards, and analytics due to its entrenched nature. That is how I consoled the CEO that this is probably a good compromise today.

After all a wise man said “If you can’t beat them, join them”.

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