Why some companies are ditching their spreadsheets

Enterprises find ways to avoid or enhance siloed, static spreadsheets

Occhipinti and his team decided to port that task to SAS's Enterprise Business Intelligence Server. The Horizon team now gives employer clients access to a secure Web page with a drop-down menu that lets them automatically run a customized report on demand -- rather than just monthly -- and incorporates real-time data. Occhipinti says that in addition to making customers happier, the new system enabled him to assign other tasks to the employee who used to compile the reports.

Make no mistake, though; spreadsheet use is not yet dead at Horizon. Of the insurer's 5,000 employees, there are still approximately 500 who use Excel for budgeting and other tasks, Occhipinti says. But because the siloed nature of the spreadsheet is counter to Occhipinti's drive toward standardization, governance, version control and deduplication, he is on a mission to do away with spreadsheets as much as possible. For now, though, he is careful to reassure spreadsheet diehards that Excel add-ons and alternatives such as SAS EBI are interoperable with Excel.

Linda Imonti, lead consultant for KPMG's U.S. business intelligence group in Chicago, advises companies on how to handle BI. She says that IT and business leaders who want to banish Excel from their organizations will encounter resistance, just as Occhipinti did. "They have to understand that in most cases the use of spreadsheets is not going to go away, but that other technology can come in and be more effective for specific tasks," she says. For instance, companies that require audit trails and the ability to drill down into data on multiple levels will be challenged by Excel.

She also advises IT and business leaders to educate their users that tools such as business intelligence, CRM and project management systems are not the expensive, complex behemoths they were 10 years ago. Instead, many are SaaS-based, rapidly deployable and easy to use and administer.

Using a SaaS-based spreadsheet

At BrightRoll, a 100-person online video advertising firm, Vice President of Marketing Daryl McNutt was well aware of his users' fondness for Excel. But rather than getting "trapped" with a product that would limit them, he decided to try SaaS-based Smartsheet, which, he says, looks and feels like Excel but is more suited to his needs.

With Smartsheet, users can track projects from conception to completion, attaching relevant documents, media and notes throughout. Role-based access ensures that only authorized users can make changes, while others can view the status of the project or pertinent information in real time from a browser. McNutt also has an instant audit trail for various parts of projects, including budget and delivery, and an alert system that notifies users when deadlines are nearing or have passed.

To collaborate on Smartsheet projects internally and externally with non-Smartsheet users, he exports documents into Google Docs so they are easily accessible. He also can export data from Smartsheet into an Excel format to share with BrightRoll executives who rely on Excel. Their changes are automatically integrated back into the Smartsheet when the file is re-imported.

These interactive and collaborative features are appealing to McNutt, whose company has five offices scattered across the U.S. "Because we're all so remote, shipping a spreadsheet around wouldn't work. This way everyone is kept on the same page," he says.

He has already used Smartsheet to do the company's 2010 marketing plan, budget and creative design schedules with great success. The Smartsheet tool is "less costly" than Excel, McNutt says; enterprise licensing starts at $149 per month for 25 sheet creators and unlimited editors and viewers, the vendor says. But it "works the same for us as Excel would," McNutt says. "There is no real training time to get users up to speed. Many begin using the tool within minutes of introduction."

Microsoft responds

User frustration with Excel has not gone unnoticed at Microsoft, according to Albert Chew, the company's senior product manager for Excel. Chew says some of the issues described in this article have been addressed in Microsoft Office 2010.

"We've focused in on three key areas with this new version of Excel: business intelligence, high-performance computing and collaboration," he says. He believes customers will be happy with the faster calculations for complex models, the features that help analyze data for business intelligence and, perhaps most important, the ability to co-author spreadsheets and share them in real time.

Microsoft offers several alternatives for users to gain the centralization, collaboration, real-time viewing and version control they crave. One of their options is to use SharePoint. With SharePoint, multiple users can take a file offline from a central repository, and when they load it back to SharePoint, authorized users are notified of changes and have the opportunity to resolve and approve conflicts.

This helps ensure version control and accuracy, Chew says. He adds that users can employ Microsoft OneNote to consolidate supporting documents, e-mail messages, images and other media and manage and store them as a unified whole.

Another option is for users to post Excel spreadsheets to the Microsoft Windows Live Sky Drive, an online storage service that is accessible to all authorized internal and external users. Though this option allows for light editing, there is no version control available, Chew acknowledges.

Finally, companies can subscribe to Office 365, Microsoft's new cloud-based service, to get the feel of Office as an online service. Office 365 costs between $2 and $27 per user per month based on application usage, storage needs and other factors. Companies can create teams to view, share and perform minor edits on files via the browser. There are also integrated instant messaging and videoconferencing features to aid collaboration.

Chew admits that Microsoft still has some work to do in making the public aware that these much-wanted features are actually available today. In fact, the company is offering free Office 2010 training for users and IT teams to help people get familiar with the product, which was released last June, he says.

"We know there are companies that never upgraded to Office 2007 and are still using Office 2003. We want to make them aware of the innovations we've made in collaboration and real-time authoring," he says. He adds that Microsoft is also working closely with partners such as Reuters to provide smoother access to real-time data feeds and other critical add-ons.

No huge migration -- yet

Melissa Webster, an analyst at research firm IDC, has studied the potential for erosion in Microsoft's market share as upstarts hit the market, and she says that for the immediate future, Microsoft will remain the leader.

"I would agree that Excel has been used by many companies as a basic tool... where a purpose-built tool would have been better," she says. But there is an upside for Microsoft: Because Excel is already on a large majority of enterprise desktops and laptops, many companies don't need new licenses for it and, therefore, Excel may cost less than its counterparts, Webster says. "Microsoft Office continues to be widely used by 97% or so of companies we survey each year, and survey respondents indicate they are continuing to upgrade to new versions," she says.

In other words, there are no additional fees to continue using Excel because it's part of Office and users are upgrading to new versions of Office anyway, Webster explains. Turning to alternative products would likely involve paying new fees.

But don't count out the growing list of upstarts offering tools that can handle various spreadsheet tasks. "We are not at the generation that would be ready to abandon spreadsheets yet," Ventana Research's Kugel says. But he adds it may not be too long before that happens -- and forward-thinking IT shops might want to start exploring their options.

Sandra Gittlen is a freelance technology writer in the Boston area. Contact her at sgittlen@verizon.net.

This story, "Why some companies are ditching their spreadsheets" was originally published by Computerworld.

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