We all know horror stories regarding the proliferation of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and rampant maverick use of Access databases that lead to shadow IT and, eventually, information meltdowns in businesses. For years, the leading performance management vendors have been telling us to dump spreadsheets in favor of their own budgeting and planning applications. Well, an analyst at Forrester Research is now telling us that the war on spreadsheets has already been fought, and guess what: Microsoft won. "There have been countless projects that promised to replace spreadsheets and it just won't work," says Boris Evelson, principal analyst, business intelligence at Forrester. "Spreadsheets are here to stay so what we need to do now is embrace that fact and find ways to work with it - and there are ways." Hmmm. Okay, we have seen attempts to control Excel in the past and they haven't turned out so great. It turns out that Evelson (who took over the primary BI role at Forrester from Keith Gile several months ago) is well acquainted with these projects. A former practice manager at Price Waterhouse, the analyst has used his first paper at Forrester to document some of these efforts and form the basis for some vendor guidance he plans for the future. In his mind, though incremental steps to better spreadsheet use have been taken, there's a lot of work yet to be done by vendors - and enterprises will have to cover their own backside in the meantime.

Among past failures: the enterprise content management (ECM) system as repository, where vendors (Interwoven, FileNet (IBM), several others) offer check in/check out of spreadsheets, among other forms of content. While these systems help control access and versioning, there's not much other value add in this "manage, monitor and control" approach. "What I want is my Excel on my desktop doing pivots, slicing and dicing, and I want to work in real time with somebody else," says Evelson. "That's what a lot of users are asking for and it's not really available today."

What Evelson hopes vendors are working on are ways to control spreadsheets outside of repositories and integrate with other components of processes and architecture. A couple of existing approaches are cited in Evelson's paper as a small start. One comes from Actuate's e.Spreadsheet, by which any report output is delivered in Excel, but in a browser rather than on a desktop. It comes with full Excel functionality; the problem is that it only works with spreadsheets created as outputs from Actuate reports, not the usual panoply of sources. That limits choice to an unacceptable point, Evelson says. The other approach comes from Microsoft's own SharePoint server, which allows collaboration, but with its own roadblocks. "You can only manipulate the existing cells, you can resort and refilter but you can't author or insert a column or row or change the content of a cell."

The most obvious failing to me was that neither solution operates offline. Imagine boarding business class on a coast-to-coast flight and seeing a bunch of executives playing spider solitaire on their laptops. I'm pretty sure nobody's smiling. Evelson does envision and has worked with a startup that did build an portable solution. "They created a peer-to-peer product so that on my desktop I am free to do anything I want in Excel and if I am connected it is synchronized in real time to the people I choose but if I am offline it accumulates my changes and when reconnected it will resynchronize." That's the basic approach of Microsoft Groove and other peer networks, though again, this works only at the file level and not the cell level. I can say I have personally seen this semi-synchronous floating spreadsheet approach applied among small groups of traders working with esoteric goods.

But there's always tension between the control conscious client/server format and the goal of spreading control to the ends of the organization. Evelson's nirvana would be the ability to take any spreadsheet, connect it seamlessly to a BI back end but make it available in some kind of server or browser-based mode where parties could collaborate in real time without any limitations. "What I'm really advocating is dealing with the fact that there is really no off-the-shelf solution today." The analyst is planning a second paper destined for vendors where he'll recommend improvement to off-the-shelf solutions. In the absence of that Evelson recommends the creation of manual controls. While this sounds suspiciously familiar, the Forrester paper suggests practices including the creation of a governance organization, controls and creating an inventory of spreadsheets whereby at least those that are mission critical are left on a server with appropriate controls. Less critical spreadsheets can be left on a desktop but should include separate controls for auditing so the business can at least monitor what's going on and create exception conditions. "Today it's really about architecting your own solution because you won't find what you need in the marketplace."

I momentarily thought I had an answer and an entry point for a software-as-a-service provider, maybe something hosted like a Salesforce.com. While Evelson thought this was a pretty good question, as usual, I was too early to the game. The analyst tends to equate SaaS with commoditization, something that can be handled offshore or via open source. "I don't see BI as a commodity, it's still too much of an art that takes an army of consultants to come in, find the right data, cleanse and transform and model it before you can reap the full benefits," Evelson says. "Nobody's invented a way to push a button and get a great dashboard."

He also takes a lot of calls from clients looking to supplant expensive platforms with specialty or open source solutions. His answer is always that it's a choice to be made, but warns that the business will, in the end, spend as much as last year discovering, cleansing and modeling the data. Small companies can get away with this approach where the data model is straightforward, say, one ERP and one CRM system. But Evelson's world is more made of megabanks with 300 ledgers and 20 CRM systems. "If you grow, as you grow, you'll wind up back where you started."

Service-oriented architecture is equally unlikely as a solution anytime soon just because of the number of moving parts and the human nuances at play. What Evelson does believe is that BI will mover closer to what you'd describe as a 'stack.' "If I'm a Microsoft shop or an Oracle shop, there's nothing wrong today using Microsoft or Oracle BI, I think that's the simplification that's going to come rather than trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Somebody might throw up their hands and says they've chosen to standardize, even if it does only 80 percent of what they want to do, it might be good enough for the sake of simplicity, cost and accuracy."

In the meantime, embrace the spreadsheet and give your vendors a piece of your mind.

You can download a copy of Forrester's paper here at no cost (registration required).

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