Friday, October 23, 2015

Here is why IS executives love to hate Excel Spreadsheet applications

Wrapping up an Application Portfolio Management (APM) initiative for a high-growth region for my employer, I was reflecting on the role user-developed “Applications” - including excel spreadsheets and access databases - play in supporting business processes; and what it means to IS executives and portfolio managers.

Office productivity tools like Excel spreadsheets and Access databases are enormously popular in the corporate world. Many, if not most white-collar jobs require analysis of large amounts of data and to take decisions based on ever changing parameters. Such data and information may come from corporate Applications, intranets, websites and other sources. Most reporting systems and many IS Applications also allow authorized users  to download such data or reports being reviewed. After downloading the data, tools like Excel may be used to merge it with other datasets , perform ‘what if’ analysis by varying parameters, or ‘visualize’ the results by creating charts and graphs.

It is not just corporate users who love this ability to download and analyze data on the fly. Most banks, financial institutions and brokerages enable customers to login and download their data and transactions in .cvs and other standard formats.

There is little debate over how much these tools empower ‘employee self-service’ and increase productivity. Such ESS is attractive to IS manages since there is no incremental cost or licensing involved: organizations generally license office productivity suites for the enterprise. And empowered users require lesser handholding or support.

Widespread use of local spreadsheets and user-developed scripts, and local databases may shift significant parts of the business processes to such ‘unmanaged’ tools, which by itself isn’t the challenge. However, the proliferation of data download, as the old adage goes, can be a case of too much of a good thing.  A large transformation of  a portfolio of Application systems may impact the downloaded data formats.  Here is an abstract of an observation from an APM exercise:
“Massive use of Excel Spreadsheet and Access databases to consolidate information, build report, perform calculation, simulations, process monitoring, workflow control, repository and other functional needs.”
Those of us who have worked in large enterprises will recognize that the observation is not atypical or isolated. During an APM review, those evaluating a new system or process may not be aware of all the people or processes ‘downstream’ using the data in existing/older formats. This is just one of the obvious challenges to be addressed during a larger transformation. 

The other bigger challenge with unmanaged data is the security and regulatory risk to an enterprise. Corporate users are no longer content to just download data to their corporate laptops and desktops for analysis using Excel and Access databases. Many are increasingly uploading such data to web based analytical and data visualization tools, or storing them on their personal cloud--data-drives for access from “home.” This leaves a big open door for those with malicious intent looking to access corporate data without breaking into a firewall.

Preventing download of data from corporate Application systems is not the answer; it can be counterproductive and stifle individual creativity and productivity. And so would be a policy preventing individuals or groups from developing their own Excel based ‘Applications,’ scripts or tools for data analysis.

It comes down to pragmatic policies and governance that encourages productive use of downloaded data while making users aware of the risks.

Towards the end of our APM reviews, I was walking by the offices of the consultants who had emphasized the pitfalls of Excel Spreadsheet proliferation. I was amused to see a coffee mug that read “I love spreadsheets.”

Note: I am trying to illustrate my points with Microsoft’s Office suite - Excel and Access  - but the arguments should be equally applicable to other popular Office productivity suites.

(cross post from LinkedIn Pulse)