I’ve been advocating more intelligent use of spreadsheets for the better part of a decade. Ventana Research coined the term “enterprise spreadsheet” in 2004 to describe software applications that marry a Microsoft Excel user interface with a business rules server and a relational or multidimensional data store. This approach offers the best of both worlds in the sense of taking advantage of widespread familiarity and training with Excel while substantially reducing issues stemming from the desktop spreadsheet’s lack of data integrity, referential integrity and limited dimensionality as well as limited auditability and control. One example of the enterprise spreadsheet is data consolidation and data reporting software offered by BizNet Software. It enables business users to work within an Excel environment to assemble, manage and deliver periodic reports from enterprise data sources. It offers greater efficiency than stand-alone spreadsheets while effectively addressing the above-mentioned core issues.
The PC-based electronic spreadsheet pioneered by VisiCalc in 1979 has been an indispensible tool for hundreds of millions of users in every function of a corporation. Stand-alone desktop spreadsheets are a good tool for individual, ad-hoc tasks involving modeling, planning, analysis, reporting or application prototyping. Their almost infinite flexibility and the ease with which users (particularly experienced ones) can create and prototype makes them an attractive tool for almost any business task involving numbers.
Yet our benchmark research on spreadsheets exposes many problems in using stand-alone spreadsheets, particularly in repetitive, collaborative business tasks. People often take data available in standard reports created by a BI system, drop it into a spreadsheet and then perform additional analyses and/or create charts. Data frequently comes from multiple systems, data stores or application modules, and it requires multiple manual operations to assemble the analyses, tables and charts. In such cases, care must be exercised to ensure that the data sets are comparable (for example, that “sales” means net, not gross, sales) and that they are synchronous. Despite these issues and a litany of other problems cited by our research participants, only 12 percent said spreadsheets as a drag on their productivity. This is the paradox of spreadsheets. People are so familiar, so comfortable and – in many cases – so adept at using them that they overlook or minimize spreadsheet problems. Spreadsheets are seductive because they are easy to design and set up. It’s when they are applied to collaborative, repetitive processes that they quickly bog down. Nontechnical users have been putting up with their shortcomings because they haven’t seen usable alternatives.
BizNet addresses the main issues that business users – especially those who work in finance departments – face when creating reports from enterprise systems. It allows people to work in a familiar environment and readily create analyses, tables and charts from enterprise data. BizNet provides a collection of tools to help you with using its enterprise spreadsheet based technologies. The BizNetCloud Engine assembles data through a live connection to a company’s databases (such as Oracle or Microsoft SQL Server), data warehouses and enterprise software such as its ERP systems. BizNetContent includes pre-built reports, Excel functions and business intelligence. BizNetWorkstation enables users to quickly create reports that are connected to live data. BizNetBroadcast automatically distributes reports to recipients in Excel, Acrobat or HTML formats. BizNet allows business users to assemble reports from multiple ERP modules, operational systems or other data stores. And because unlike in desktop systems these reports are connected to the data stores, executives and other consumers of the reports can refresh the data themselves. Reports can be pushed immediately to sets of recipients if alert thresholds are reached or other designated events occur and provide the fresh information they need. Setting up and maintaining reports is facilitated by a drag-and-drop approach.
Part of BizNet’s basic value is to enable individuals in business roles to create and maintain reports that otherwise might have had to be done by IT departments. Moreover, since these individuals know what they want – down to the formatting – and don’t have to try explaining this to someone else to implement, it’s faster, easier and less costly to create reports and to update them as business requirements change. Another source of value is increased efficiency in generating the reports. Extracting data from business intelligence systems and copying it into a spreadsheet often is a highly manual process, even for experienced users. Using BizNet business users can take responsibility for some reports that are currently managed by IT departments, making more efficient use of IT department resources and enabling staff to spend less time on maintenance efforts. Also BizNet is a cloud-based offering, which requires little ongoing IT department effort. The software offers in-memory computing, which substantially increases the speed of calculations. Finally, BizNet can cut the potential for reporting errors because there are fewer manual steps and a direct, controlled link between the reports and the source data.
BizNet is not designed to replace a corporation’s core BI systems. But it does address a significant need in enabling most midsize and larger companies to manage their self-service reporting requirements more efficiently and with greater accuracy and security. I recommend that finance and IT departments investigate the degree to which they could benefit from using BizNet to replace their current desktop spreadsheet-based reporting.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research