‘Even if history holds spreadsheeting entirely blameless for the present mayhem, the fact that spreadsheeting is so widely used while at the same time so error prone is a strong indication that if a way could be found to improve reliability, global GNP would step noticeably upwards.’
Angus Dunn, European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group
Businesses like spreadsheets. With over 750 million users worldwide, Microsoft Excel™ is the traditional tool of choice for presenting and analysing data and calculations performed using the solution, count for £38 billion of private sector investment decisions per year.
Spreadsheets continue to be the only real, flexible tool that can deliver answers fast and that is one of the reasons why they continue to be so popular. No matter how many systems a company has, how big they are, or how many millions of pounds have been spent on them, the reality is that the majority of data is exported to Excel before decisions of serious consequence are made. There are only a handful of finance departments in the world that don’t run their critical decision making analysis through Excel. And the reason for this is simple – those waiting for an answer, do not have to get the IT team involved and wait weeks for an answer that Excel can deliver in minutes.
So, while Excel continues to be the number one platform when it comes to analysing data, finding information, preparing charts and presenting them to decision makers, there are some issues that are frustrating for users. One very common challenge affects those using spreadsheets in a small – it may only be 5 or so – collaborative team where everyone needs to access and share the same data as they work towards a complex set of business reports. This can be really hard and fraught with massive inefficiency, as any changes made on one spreadsheet cannot be seen by the other members of group. The result is endless hours of copying and pasting to arrive at a ‘single version of the truth’.
In this scenario, the risk of errors increases and as we all know, a slip of a key can result in a high profile disaster. Take for instance the spreadsheet error that left the London Olympics 2012 organising committee highly embarrassed when it was left to confirm that four swimming sessions had been oversold by 10,000 tickets. Entering 20,000 rather than the correct figure of 10,000 caused this mistake and research shows that half of all spreadsheet models used operationally in large businesses have material defects.
Emerging technology paves the way for re-engineering
So, can spreadsheets be re-engineered to deliver a tool that is built for the demands of modern day business? The answer is yes and it’s time for a new way with the help of one of the most dominant technologies in 2018 – the Cloud.
The consensus amongst IT specialists is that the Cloud is set to be the biggest driver of change and certainly, the Cloud has the potential to transform efficiency within organisations that need to work collaboratively and currently, rely on unconnected spreadsheets to formulate management reports.
By employing a radically different approach to an age-old problem, users can now enjoy the simplicity and comfort of using a spreadsheet as the ‘front end’ with a connection to a robust (but well-hidden and transparent to the user) Cloud ‘back end’ that does all the difficult work.
Existing spreadsheets and other disparate data sources (such as MS Access and core ERP) can now be integrated into one solution with none of the large scale data migration issues once experienced and with minimal disruption. Everyone works right inside Excel, everyone enjoys direct benefit and everyone retains Excel's legendary flexibility.
By leveraging the power of an industrial database and combining it with the simplicity of a spreadsheet interface, Business UK can be confident that it is has at its fingertips fundamentally, reliable data, backed by full audit trails that help make more strategic decisions, more quickly, with more accuracy.
‘Speed of adoption, ease of use and power is greater than anything I have previously seen or used’
At first glance, the technology looks and feels exactly like working with a set of normal spreadsheets: there are no changes in business processes and no additional training is required. The difference lies in the fact that every spreadsheet is enhanced by a connection to a secure Cloud server so that as each member of the team changes any value in any cell of data in their local spreadsheet, updates are synchronised in the Cloud and one version of the truth is sent back to everyone.
With regulators likely to take an increasing interest in their use over the next two years, this marks an important step forward in finding a way to improve collaboration and efficiency, data quality and validity and eliminate one of the biggest risks associated with spreadsheet use; the lack of an audit trail.
High Street bank cuts FCA and MI reporting time from 15 days to 5 days
A leading high street Bank has been using the technology for some time and has found that connecting its’ spreadsheets to the Cloud has enabled it to streamline its practices without losing time or having to retrain members of the team. Faced with serious financial and time critical pressures from the FCA, the scale of the challenge facing the Bank was daunting as one shared spreadsheet held 80,000 active cases of customers under review and 250 advisors were forced to read and write to it concurrently. Because of the severe performance and system outage problems, the Bank had to find a solution that was innovative and that would not take months to implement.
Advisers now just handle their own cases instead of manipulating 80,000 records at a time. This has reduced the network traffic by a factor of x10 to x100. Each user sees one version of consistent, current data and only what is relevant to them.
This new infrastructure has enabled the programme to meet its commitment to the FCA and reduce the time taken to produce FCA and Executive MI Reporting from 15 days to 5 days and significantly reduce risk of incorrect data in reports.
Difficulties in ad hoc group wide reporting overcome
In the finance operation, the use of spreadsheets, particularly for management accounts and consolidation is still common place but stats show that 75% of effort is wasted rekeying and manually rolling up data, 90% of spreadsheets contain data and formula errors and 90% of users are convinced they are error free.
Dealing with a large number of Excel spreadsheets means that there is neither the time or agility to spend analysing performance. It's also difficult to quickly adjust models to reflect changing assumptions and conditions. One "small" change requires a waterfall of updates consuming hours, days, or even weeks.Things that should be simple take a long time.
Cobbling together spreadsheets can be a shaky foundation for making strategic decisions. Errors happen along the way due to lack of version control or last-minute updates. Often, no one trusts the numbers and decisions take longer than they should. Using this new technology combined with a finance solution is allowing finance teams to move beyond spreadsheets and aggregate data, track close processes, provide a clear audit trail, and speed up overall internal and external financial disclosure.
Automate pre and post contract multi-project reporting and forecasting
One of the most frustrating aspects has always been the lack of tools and systems available to support project and portfolio leaders. There was little more available than stand-alone Excel™ worksheets emailed between people or systems that are expensive, cumbersome, universally disliked and require an inordinate level of effort to extract real value from. Using the combination of Excel and a flexible PPM application, it is now possible to automate report production, reduce operational costs and eradicate manual copying and pasting processes. Data quality is improved by as much as 80% with comprehensive audit trails that provide the management team with a real-time holistic view of KPIs, dependencies, costs, revenues, risks and issues across the global project portfolio.
Users benefit from an evolution of Excel and no longer have to work with constantly out of date data and collaboration and versioning issues. Everyone sees the same live, up-to-date and clean data on their desktops.
The demand for combining the best of the old with the advanced technology of the new is a trend, which is set to resonate in 2018. Businesses are tired of investing and embracing new, tech that fails to live up to the hype. Why reinvent the wheel when you can simply improve it?
This use of smart technology to deliver next generation Enterprise spreadsheets has the potential to put an end to a problem that has resulted in almost one in five large businesses suffering financial losses and ultimately will put power back in the hands of business users. Businesses have grown tired of inflexible, expensive software packages or accounting software that never completely does what they need. Reverting to spreadsheets, that have been transformed to fit the needs of today’s world, gives them back the control they need.
Brian Donnelly, CEO of Synapse Information
Image Credit: Pexels / Pixabay