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Clinton Jones

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You Can Have My Excel When You Pry It from My Cold Dead Hands

Stop articulating about IT and the enterprise technology architect

It's frustrating that business users will often articulate about IT and the enterprise technology architect, but more frequently in an environment where one of the major ERP vendor products like SAP or Oracle Business Suite have been invested in. I am talking about the general disregard and dismissal of the electronic spreadsheet. Even in this era of mobile devices and electronic forms, tweeting, ecommerce and in-memory analytics engines spreadsheets are one of those seemingly Jurassic technologies that IT still appears to have a hard time getting its head around.

I thought I'd drop a few thoughts on the subject simply because lately I have seen a resurgence of solutions where using a spreadsheet was more pivotal to solving the problem than looking exclusively at one of the newer technologies. The Enterprise Architect (for technologies) has a tough job, there's no doubt about that. Blending the right combination of technologies to keep business operations contemporary and agile enough to match or beat competitors is a challenge. There are many choices of vendors, still many platforms and very few clear leaders. The more cautious architect will perhaps have learned from past mistakes or those of predecessors. Examples might be those who bet on technologies like Adobe Flash, Google Wave or WebOS. We always think of those that go with outlier or fringe technology as a strategic direction, as risk takers. Sometimes they are innovators, pioneers or on the bleeding edge. On other occasions they have a significant investment already pinned to the technology choice and there is inevitability to the technology choice. Sometimes the choice is made because many other attempts have been made to solve a particular problem and they have failed.

Spreadsheets have the advantage in that they cover a broad swathe of capabilities that have been difficult to replicate with enterprise software. Your arsenal may include a database, a datamart, your Online Transaction Processing (OLTP) system and a Business Intelligence or Business Warehouse system for slicing and dicing data and performing analytics, but almost certainly you also have a back office automation suite like Microsoft Office, Google Docs or one of the open source suites like Open Office. In the past, Microsoft would report on direct revenues that flowed from Microsoft Office, but these days they aggregate that number with the sales of Microsoft Exchange and SharePoint (this represents a significant portion of their revenue) roughly equating to a third of all revenue. Google has its eye on this space with a twist. Google's objective is to progress business transition from on-premise applications to applications on the cloud. Companies like Winshuttle have of course embraced this direction with support for Google spreadsheets in flagship product Transaction.

In fact electronic spreadsheets are so ubiquitous in business that the mere suggestion that they should be done away with is considered by all but the naïve, as ludicrous. The very flexibility of the spreadsheet is a double edged sword however. The flexibility of being able to insert hundreds of thousands of rows of data into a desktop application to perform some sort of analysis is cause for concern for auditors and information security personnel especially if this tool becomes the preferred environment for maintaining data over the centralized system. Concerns flow from fears that the data will be lost, incorrectly manipulated or inappropriately shared externally. These are all valid concerns and of course measures can be put in place to help to mitigate the risks. Completely disallowing or attempting to block these capabilities are almost never successful.

Offering flexible and adaptable ways to maintain the key systems of record and still address the ad hoc scenarios that the business needs, have to become focal to making everyone a winner without compromising on the fundamental strengths that each technology brings.

I've previously talked about how forms shouldn't be considered the solution to all multi participant or incremental data gathering requirements, and again I'd like to emphasize that spreadsheets shouldn't be considered the best environment for gathering, aggregating and then performing mass actions against certain kinds of data. Spreadsheets by their very nature, are a fluid technology. You can shore up their capability, validation and control with formulae, data validation rules, macros and protected data but eventually you will get to a point where the spreadsheet is so complex that it becomes difficult to debug, tricky to enhance or hard to work with. Spreadsheets are a great place to manipulate presentation, stage data, perform simple what-if analysis or transformations. Be careful about using them when working with hundreds of thousands of records though as small transcription or formatting errors can result in disastrous results like it did for Barclays bank back in 2008 over the Lehman brothers debacle.

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Clinton Jones is a Product Manager at Winshuttle. He is experienced in international technology and business process with a focus on integrated business technologies. Clinton also services a technical consultant on technology and quality management as it relates to data and process management and governance. Before coming to Winshuttle, Clinton served as a Technical Quality Manager at SAP. Twitter @winshuttle