Actuate held its annual customer day in San Francisco amid the happy chaos of the World Series champion Giants’ ticker-tape celebration, and on that day the company’s ticker symbol changed from ACTU to BIRT (a shift, incidentally, botched by NASDAQ). There was a great deal of focus on its ActuateOne platform (which my colleague reviewed here) and the advancements in using open source software like BIRT with now over ten million downloads, but the aspect I want to highlight is the BIRT spreadsheet (originally Actuate’s e.Spreadsheet).
Speaking of spreadsheets, there are half a billion users of Microsoft Excel worldwide, many with years (even decades) of experience, and it has become the tool of choice for working with data. People reflexively use it to view, manipulate, chart and drill down into their numbers – especially those generated by enterprise business intelligence systems and applications. But we all know that desktop spreadsheets are an often-unrecognized impediment to doing work efficiently. Indeed, our research finds that skilled spreadsheet users think that the clever work-arounds they develop to circumvent inherent defects of spreadsheets are actually a measure of their productivity rather than recognizing that it could be more productive, more accurate and more secure not to use a desktop spreadsheet at all. One alternative is the BIRT spreadsheet, which provides users with consistent, accurate, timely information in a familiar form that enables them to review, analyze and employ enterprise data in business processes.
Alternatives to the desktop spreadsheet are not new. Arbor Software’s Essbase (now part of the Oracle portfolio), for example, has been around for decades. However, it is a specialist tool that requires more training than most people want to incur. More recently, Microsoft’s SharePoint and Excel servers have offered a more controlled enterprise spreadsheet. Software vendors, notably those offering budgeting software, bowed to the need to “embrace and extend” the spreadsheet by making Excel their user interface. Those using the Excel interface get the best of both worlds: all the ease and familiarity of the spreadsheet without the difficulties of consolidating multiple spreadsheets or the lack of control.
BIRT spreadsheets excel in an important an area where spreadsheets are used frequently but chew up valuable time. They enable organizations to create analysis-ready spreadsheet reports that take advantage of Excel’s broad range of capabilities. For example, users have full command of live formulas and macros so they are able to do sophisticated analyses and automate decision-making processes. They can create pivot tables and filter data so people can sort and summarize data the way they are used to. BIRT spreadsheet designers can use form controls to drive their own Visual Basic code that enables them to automate write-backs to databases. BIRT spreadsheets also dynamically create new rows and columns in a spreadsheet to accommodate the specific data they are incorporating. Moreover, users can be provided with hyperlinks to enable them to navigate to other documents, spreadsheets or Web pages (such as instructions or contextual information). Even more important, the free BIRT spreadsheet designer tool is pretty easy to use, so most business analysts can create more useful reports with minimal training and true spreadsheet jockeys will be able to build powerful reports. The BIRT spreadsheet iServer automates spreadsheet production, which means that companies can produce periodic spreadsheet-based reports more efficiently. Because production is centralized and controlled, the spreadsheets are more accurate, reliable and consistent.
In many instances, such as individual or one-off analyses or prototyping, there is no substitute for a desktop spreadsheet. For others, such as managing and supporting company-wide processes, desktop spreadsheets should be avoided. In between there are many tasks where using spreadsheet alternatives such as the BIRT spreadsheet gives users the best of both worlds – the familiarity, power and ease of use of Excel without the headaches and wasted time that are unavoidable when you use a desktop spreadsheet in repetitive and collaborative company processes.
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Robert D. Kugel CFA – SVP Research