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Reality IT:
Excel of a Mess!

online columnist Gabriel Fuchs     Column published in DMReview.com
November 3, 2005
  By Gabriel Fuchs

At my job, we experience things that just won't go away. We have, for example, bad coffee in cups made of thin white plastic. We also have business users that just won't leave our overburdened IT department alone. We have IT developers who just refuse to develop business intelligence (BI) systems that please the majority of our users. Project charts that are so overly detailed that one sneeze will upset and set back the whole planning is also something we just do not seem to be able to avoid. And then we have Excel.

Ah yes, the beauty of Excel; everyone uses it and everyone complains about it - at least in the BI world. It is just like watching hotel TV in a foreign country; even though one may not understand a word of the broadcast, one often still watches it, trying to understand what the show is actually about. With some luck, one may find a James Bond movie, except James now speaks French, Thai or whatever. No matter what language it's in, one still zaps between the channels though, annoyed but still doing it for some obscure reason.

With Excel it is very much the same. Excel is here to stay. Period. It just does not seem to matter what other BI tools the organization tries to implement; Excel just won't go away. In the best case scenario, the new BI tool may be a successful addition to Excel; however, it rarely replaces Excel.

Why is this? Well, for starters, most BI tools will not allow the creation of new data. Not letting the users create their own data can be a very good thing as it allows for consistency of the shared information. Unfortunately, not all business users think about consistency; they think about their own very personal needs. If the data is not there, it may be quicker and easier to add it by themselves. Enter Excel hell where no BI administrator is able to keep track of all the different Excel sheets containing different supplemental data - lots of different additional data.

Excel also has the overwhelming advantage of being a known commodity. After all, it is widely accepted and has so been for quite some time. Most business users feel that it is easier to work with what they know than to have to learn new programs. Any new program shall have to be very convincing in order to succeed. Even if many BI tools - actually, one would hope most of them - are better for analyses and reporting than Excel, the BI project can still fail. Poor change management in the BI project is one major reason. Couple this with too much bad coffee in white plastic cups and there are indeed very few chances to replace Excel.

Even though many would strongly disagree that Excel is a BI tool and should therefore not be mentioned in the same breath as BI, Excel is nevertheless the world's most used BI tools. Hundreds of millions of business users use Excel in order to do analyses, reports and even databases. The nice thing with all this is that Excel has indirectly set a benchmark on user expectations for BI tools. During user education on newly implemented BI tools, there will almost always be questions such as: Can I get a specific look like I do it in Excel or Are the printing capabilities of my reports like I have in Excel? Even more common is the question: Why can I not do this like I do it in Excel? Trying to explain that the new way with the new and shiny BI tool is better than Excel, can indeed be a daunting task. If the business user thinks that the old Excel way is better simply because it has been used for the last 15 years, why change to something else?

It is very much veni, vidi, vici, for Excel. And had it not been Excel, it would have been another spreadsheet solution. Spreadsheets are here to stay, and all BI reporting uses spreadsheet format in one way or another (except that adding data is often neither possible nor wanted by the BI administrator).

One may of course wonder if Excel is so widespread simply because it might be cheaper than other solutions? Who cares! No one will be fired for using Excel.

Is Excel more efficient than other BI solution? Unimportant question! Everyone else uses it so it cannot be that bad, right? Is Excel going to be around tomorrow, looking very much as it has for the last few years? You bet.

I suppose that it is necessary to be pragmatic and realize that most successful BI solutions (i.e., solutions that are actually used efficiently by the intended business users) will be so because they know how to position themselves with Excel. If not, any BI project planning will go overboard. If it really goes overboard and sinks, Excel will certainly sail on. Any failed project manager - yet another of those things that just won't go away - can warily swear "To Excel with everything!"

For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence (BI).

Gabriel Fuchs is a senior consultant with IBM. His column Reality IT takes an ironic look at what real-world IT solutions often look like - for better or for worse. The ideas and thoughts expressed in this column are based on Fuchs' own personal experience and imagination, and do not reflect the situation at IBM. He can be reached at gabriel.fuchs@ch.ibm.com.

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