A main reason why desktop spreadsheets are pervasive in midsize companies (which we define as those with 100 to 1,000 employees) is that these organizations do not have the financial and manpower resources to implement and maintain traditional enterprise business intelligence and performance management systems. To address this gap in the market, several years ago IBM Cognos launched Express, a business intelligence and planning software package designed specifically for midsize companies as well as independent workgroups within larger corporations. It’s a package designed for easy (and relatively inexpensive) implementation and maintenance, often by channel partners.
Midsize companies usually begin deploying IBM Cognos Express with a single, focused initiative. Typically this might be a straightforward analysis and reporting effort, combining data from, say, an on-premises ERP system, a cloud-based CRM system and individual spreadsheets to produce a set of periodic reports. Express is designed to make end users self-sufficient in setting up and modifying analyses, reports and dashboards, without much assistance from IT professionals. This is important because midsize businesses typically have limited IT resources, and in larger companies, business units may be looking to avoid having to rely on and be charged by their corporate IT department. I reviewed the potential of Express to support integrated business planning two years ago.
Business divisions or other autonomous workgroups within a larger organization may find Express a useful option. Even in large corporations that already have IBM Cognos software, some potential users prefer to employ spreadsheets for analysis, reporting, business modeling and planning rather than more capable tools because they are frustrated by the mediocre abilities and subpar responsiveness of their IT departments to deliver quickly what users need.
In the new release of Express it offers several built-in capabilities that I expect many midsize companies and stand-alone business units will find especially useful, such as mobile analytics, enterprise spreadsheet capabilities, the ability for users to create interactive analytic dashboards and advanced planning, budgeting and forecasting. Also included are “Analytics on the Go” capabilities – built-in mobility support that enables individuals to use a native iPad application to access and interact with reports and data. This is an attractive option for executives in midsize companies who want to be able to “manage by walking around” while using up-to-the-minute reports as the basis for discussions with managers. So-called active reports enable disconnected users to run business intelligence applications interactively – another handy capability for executives and others who routinely are on the go.
Express provides an enterprise spreadsheet option that enables users to work natively with Microsoft Excel while addressing all of the major defects that spreadsheets pose when used in repetitive, collaborative business processes. Having centrally managed data, managed hierarchies, business rules and (where applicable) formulas and calculations can ameliorate familiar issues with desktop spreadsheets such as referential integrity, data integrity, errors and inconsistencies, as well as supply more useful dimensionality. In other words, it’s easy to roll up data from multiple sources, make overarching changes to assumptions about, say, exchange rates or health benefit costs across the company, as well as slice and dice data or store multiple scenarios for side-by-side comparison. In short, users can have the convenience of a spreadsheet without the usual hassles.
Visual presentation of data is another common issue doe spreadsheet users. Highly proficient spreadsheet jockeys can, in theory, assemble multiple graphical elements to present a rich set of data visualizations. Yet few people can do that well, and even for those who are, the data displayed is static. Express gives even casual users the ability to assemble multiple graphs, indicators and tabular data into a single, comprehensive view that users can drill down into to explore underlying detail.
Express is also a good tool for business planning, forecasting and budgeting. It supports driver-based modeling, rolling forecasts and planning. Managers in functional groups can build their operating plans in a familiar environment and immediately roll up this data into an overall corporate plan. (You can read a more detailed assessment of Express’s planning and budgeting capabilities in the blog entry mentioned above.) Moreover, these and other processes can be supported by workflow, which enables process administrators to manage handoffs and approvals more effectively, speeding their completion. Our research shows that a majority of companies face delays when they manage processes using spreadsheets.
IBM Cognos has designed and priced Express to conform to the way most midsize companies or business units adopt software. Buyers can start with a small, single-purpose initiative and build from there. The pricing structure accommodates this but also encourages broader deployment for multiple purposes.
To midsize companies and business units in larger organizations that want to make a graceful transition from spreadsheets to more capable software, I recommend that they look at IBM Cognos Express to determine whether it fits their requirements.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research