Why Microsoft Excel just won’t get it done anymore

Janis O’Bryan views traditional spreadsheet applications in the same light as floppy drives, dial-up modems and other dusty IT relics. “In many respects, it’s simply time to move on,” says the CIO for Hudson Advisors, a global commercial mortgage brokerage and real estate asset management firm headquartered in Dallas.

By shifting her company’s IT and global corporate accounting departments to a business intelligence (BI) application, O’Bryan is like many other CIOs who have transitioned employees away from traditional spreadsheets and toward sophisticated tools produced by vendors such as Oracle, Applix, Business Objects, Cognos, SAS and iDashboards. CIOs who have made the switch frequently cite benefits such as faster and more detailed analysis, better planning capabilities, consistent views between users, automated data inputs from multiple sources and increased data source accuracy.

Of course, no organization wants to get rid of its spreadsheet application just because it’s an old technology. Most adopters turn to BI for help with solving strategic business problems, like digging out the hidden meanings buried inside sales statistics or spotting production bottlenecks. But there are other advantages to BI tools, such as how they help users make sense of data.

“BI has a nice way of standardizing how people perform calculations,” says David O’Connell, a senior analyst at Nucleus Research. “It allows you to get to work, not to work the data.”

The analysis problem
For O’Bryan, the decision to jump from Microsoft Excel to Oracle’s Hyperion Planning was motivated mostly by a desire to bring consistency to her unit’s budgeting and planning operations. “There was no workflow and we were juggling disparate spreadsheet information,” she says. That’s a big problem when you have a staff that’s highly mobile and distributed across several countries.

The software’s spreadsheetlike, Web-based interface was another important factor leading to its adoption, O’Bryan says.

“The familiar Excel format meant we didn’t have to waste time and resources on end-user training,” she notes. “We have centralized budgeting and forecasting, and the fact that it’s Web-based means that users in all of the regions can access it remotely in exactly the same way.”

O’Bryan feels that Hyperion Planning provides a wider and deeper array of analysis tools than Excel, such as a module that automates the planning of capital assets and capital asset-related expenses. This capability allows the IT group to analyze spending down to much finer levels of detail than would be possible with a spreadsheet. “We can now, for instance, determine whether we need to consolidate hardware purchases by region,” she says.

Hyperion Planning has enabled O’Bryan to recast her IT group’s role within the company from that of a mere service provider to a strategic player. The application links to multiple reporting applications, giving Hudson executives a better view of IT investments, the department’s cash flow and tax reporting issues. “Internally, it has helped us to understand the expenses contained in monthly forecasts while making us more sensitive to what’s being spent,” she says.

Smarter reporting
Jim Burger, director of information systems at AET Films, based in New Castle, Del., one of the nation’s largest suppliers of plastic packaging films, moved to a business intelligence dashboard by Troy, Mich.-based iDashboards about a year ago. Five executives and 50 manufacturing and sales managers are now using iDashboards, along with an internally developed dashboard application. Burger notes that the dashboard, with its visually oriented interface, gives managers the ability to spot critical data at a glance, rather than forcing them to pore through pages of spreadsheet data. “It’s much more convenient and far less time-consuming,” he says.

The iDashboards application pulls in data from AET’s enterprise data warehouse, which is integrated with the company’s Infor enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite. The continuous information flow means that AET’s manufacturing executives no longer have to wait for spreadsheets, prepared by subordinates, containing already outdated information. Burger notes that one reporting process, which used to require up to 15 employees each morning to create spreadsheets manually, has been replaced by a manufacturing performance dashboard that’s instantly available and up to date.

“We took a lot of the underlying energy that was being consumed each day by key people in the organization just to put data together for senior managers,” Burger says. “Now these folks are off doing their normal functions of selling, planning and so on.”

Helping ease the transition was iDashboard’s ability to lift programming out of existing Excel spreadsheets. “We literally copied queries out of the Excel spreadsheets and pasted them into iDashboard,” says Burger.

Burger says the changeover has allowed manufacturing executives to act much faster on issues such as halting a production trial run. Spreadsheets are still used in finance for daily output performance analyses, Burger notes.

Answer may be inside ERP
Eric Piersol, global business applications unit manager for Alltech Biotechnology, a feed additive supplier located in Lexington, Ky., is in the process of waving goodbye to spreadsheets, having found faster and better planning software in his ERP suite. In an effort that just passed its one-year mark, Piersol has adopted the business analytics module contained in his Exact Software ERP suite for the company’s sales, marketing, finance, production, operations and executive staff.

For Alltech, delays in planning can throw off precisely synchronized production and delivery schedules, resulting in manufacturing backlogs, shipping confusion and dissatisfied customers. The Exact Business Analytics software allows Alltech managers to track trends in real time, rather than using statistics arriving monthly.

Piersol notes that the BI software enables company managers to evaluate exactly when and where products are produced and then compare that data to actual shipping dates. The information allows managers to throttle production schedules to match customer demands as closely as possible. By coordinating production schedules and delivery dates, the application helps Alltech deliver products just in time, further slashing inventory costs and improving operating efficiency. The company also uses the software to track the shelf life of products and adjust resources, when necessary, to avoid expiration deadlines.

Before you swap
Dumping spreadsheets and switching to BI, with its powerful analysis capabilities, can breathe new life into stagnant employees, says Greg Todd, senior executive of information management services at Accenture. “You would be amazed at how many companies have dozens of people who do nothing but collect and aggregate information,” he says. “BI can redirect those people into leveraging information rather than collecting it.”

One caution: Although business intelligence tools generally provide more powerful analysis and planning capabilities than spreadsheets, they also require more preparation and fine-tuning. O’Bryan says she needed to deploy Hyperion Planning twice to get it to meet her expectations. “We set it up once, but we really didn’t think it through properly,” she notes. “We went back and redid the initial setup, and we got what we wanted the second time because by that point we really understood how the tool worked and its full potential.”

“This isn’t the sort of deployment you can hurry along,” she says.

Piersol notes that BI helped Alltech break its managers’ reliance on printed spreadsheets and reports. “Getting people to think digitally was a cultural shift for them, but once they got used to it they were fine,” he says.

Interestingly, neither Piersol nor the other IT execs interviewed for this article reported any significant user pushback about switching from Excel to BI, though all advise serious prep work. “You have to ask yourself how users are going to adopt the solution,” Piersol says.

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