Every finance professional loves Excel but the term ‘Excel-hell’ exists for a reason. One technologist argues the case for a cloud and cube-based solution that allows users to keep the best bits and lose the bad. What does he mean?
“There is a certain group-think prevalent in our industry,” says Rob Lautt, CEO and Founder of technology vendor, A3 Solutions. “It reinforces the view that Excel spreadsheets are a relic of the past and are to be avoided in the future of business planning. It’s an assumption that bears costly and inefficient fruit for many corporate finance teams.”
Lautt is not blindly defending the finance professional’s favourite tool and is quick to acknowledge the “painful shortcomings” of Excel. Indeed, he cites a recent survey report published in the Harvard Business Review showing that although 90% of respondents still use spreadsheets as a primary planning tool, fewer than 25% said they are satisfied with their spreadsheets.
The report concludes properly that “siloed spreadsheet-based planning, complete with system crashes and version-control issues, can no longer support today’s scale or pace of business”. Instead, they suggest, “flexible and agile planning can happen only when companies have a more connected view of data that springs from a common source and then flows across the organisation”.
“On this, I think we can all agree,” comments Lautt. However, he notes, the report offers up only one solution. It paints the picture of an either/or choice between traditional Excel and corporate performance management (CPM) platforms such as those being sold by Anaplan and Workday, IBM and Oracle.
“The industry narrative would have corporate finance teams believe their affinity for Excel is foolish, backwards, and misplaced and that those who fail to wean themselves from Excel quickly face a bleak future indeed,” he says. Indeed, according to the report, “they will likely be left behind, and fast”.
But there is another choice, Lautt argues. Referred to as ‘Enterprise Excel’, it is an option that allows users to keep Excel “and continue to enjoy the control, self-sufficiency, and creative license you’ve come to rely on” but with the claimed benefits of CPM, including a single version of the truth, secure multi-user workflow, intuitive analysis, and reporting.
“Enterprise Excel is a relatively new business concept that builds on the time and money companies and individual financial professionals have invested in becoming proficient in Excel,” explains Lautt. “It’s essentially Excel augmented with cloud consolidation database technology.”
The solution, so far adopted by the likes of American Airlines, Avon, McDonald’s and Toyota, enables users to continue working in a familiar Excel environment but “eliminate the fragility and capacity limits of Excel”. The scalable solution can link directly to the ERP, GL and other source systems, with automated data flows, allowing multi-entity consolidations in real-time.
In practice, Excel power-users create cloud-based ‘cubes’ that they design and manage themselves. They can build templates that other users request live ‘off the cube’ for entering their budgets and forecasts, for example.
This allows multiple users to conduct a range of activities, such as interactive what-if analysis, across the entire corporate hierarchy. Within different functions, it becomes possible to integrate and reconcile diverse business views from the unique perspective of each.
If, as Lautt claims, Enterprise Excel is a system that supports “even the most complex internal business rules”, including partial ownership and proportionate reporting, and which protects original data with strict version controls and revisions, it may just allow die-hard users to “keep everything they love about Excel and lose everything they don’t”.