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Case Study: The End of Excel

In my recent discussion with the product head of a cloud-based analytics tool, the topic of Microsoft Excel came up. We contemplated whether millennials, especially those in Finance, would ever leave the spreadsheet as their key interface for business. After all, the millennials and generations thereafter are becoming so accustomed to apps and app interfaces, that surely a desktop interface would be seen as a passé.

For context, I had recently heard a factoid about the percentage of user interfacing that millennials did with their devices and the results amazed me. In a nutshell, the internet and browser-based activity have become less vital for this population than are apps. I was stunned by that. As someone who watched with excitement and was an early adopter of internet capabilities (but apparently missed my chance at making and losing paper millions), the idea that browser-based interfaces were starting to slip past their time already was stunning me.

Back to my conversation. Mr. Product Head of the Cloud BI system avowed in our discussion of his product roadmap, “I will never deliver a direct interface between my app and Excel. Our grid object will be so powerful that that Excel will be an afterthought.”

“Be careful,” I enjoined. “Those words may reach all the way to Redmond.”

“Let them!” my brash subject proclaimed. “They should know what is coming.”

Intrigued, I had subsequent conversations with my colleagues on the same subject. They argued that Excel would never go away. Today, Finance students in college are still taught Microsoft Excel as a key tool for business. Employers expect it. And while my colleagues are mostly old-school, Finance-trained folks, several are young enough to be borderline millennials and certainly tech-savvy enough to be down with the latest apps and gadgets.

So how does this conundrum resolve itself?

Is my product lead friend half-baked, or is he visionary? Are my colleagues who see Excel in perpetuity realists, or short-sighted and stuck in dying methods?

Wrestling in my mind, I can see both sides. Excel is a fantastic tool. I use it daily. And so do most business organizations. But, it has its limitations. And there is where I am connecting to my Cloud Product friend’s vision.

You see, having worked in BI and EPM for some 20 years, we often pitch clients on the opportunity of getting out of “Excel Hell”. We use that phrase and everyone chuckles a bit. When I ask during one of my speaking events for a show of hands-on how many people perform mission-critical activities on their Excel spreadsheets, most hands go up. And the holdouts are usually too shy to voice their assent, or contrarians who never raise hands when asked, or worse, asleep thanks to another of my scintillating presentations.

So, we sell on Excel Hell, but we don’t really expect folks to completely move away from it. We provide amazing EPM tools to wean them off the dependency on Excel, but only for a specific business function like closing the books or creating the annual budget. Worse, we embed connectivity for those amazing EPM tools directly to Excel, allowing them and push EPM-produced results into Excel where users can manipulate them into whatever form they like.

And that’s when it hit me. That’s when I grasped the span of my Product Head friend’s vision.

The issue is, that people can make Excel say whatever they want. Trust me, I started out my post-graduate school work some 25 years ago building models (quasi-applications really) in MS Excel to capture data and tell a story. And the story that it told was based on the numbers and logic and framing that I myself created. These apps were used by the entire sales team of a billion-dollar healthcare company to assess the profitability of their deals and allowed executives to quickly review and give thumbs up / thumbs down to the deal.

But therein lies the problem.

The results were only as trustworthy as I and my messaging or my logic. Instead, in theory, all reporting should come from a common data platform with common definitions and common rules. Then, telling a story with data is simply graphical orientation and not free-form manipulation.

It’s almost like the driverless car quandary. Time magazine’s recent cover proclaimed. “No Traffic. No accidents. No deaths. All you have to do is give up your right to drive.” The same is true of the app vs. spreadsheet quandary; is the organization willing to give up the freedom and flexibility of Excel for app-based solutions that eliminate bottlenecks and inaccuracies. They would have to give up the freedom to go anywhere at any time and produce any type of reporting result, with the trade-off of consistent and reliable results, rendered easily and in visually appealing format.

But here’s where the driverless car comparison breaks down. The app approach to analytics supersedes the capability of the spreadsheet. After all, the spreadsheet is static, with limited ability to dynamically incorporate data, make master data changes, or react to changing conditions. An app, on the other hand, should be directly linked to source systems for dynamic updates. That linkage also crushes static spreadsheets in the ability to drill back to detailed information far beyond the results in the initial grid. Not so much in Excel.

So, the answer to my quandary on app vs. Excel is this, apps will indeed fully supersede Excel, eliminating the need for apps to create connectors for Excel output or direct connection only when the business considers the cost of a static spreadsheet, in terms that I described above. In my expectation, the 3 V’s of big data preface the coming end of Excel as the interface of business. A manually managed spreadsheet cannot handle the expectations for volumes, velocity, or a variety of data that is being driven by big data and technological advances. Millions of records are accessed in real-time with granular varieties to be sourced from multiple systems.

So Mr. Cloud Analytics Product Head, the ball is in your court. Prove it. Prove your app and grid object can provide many Excel equivalent and exceeding functions, running on-app / in-browser against a back-end, in-memory database with the ease of use capabilities allowing the Finance / Operations / Line of Business teams to administer. Then, I will sell the full “7 layers of Excel Hell” concept against the need for an Excel interface. We will change the minds of business leaders to where an Excel report simply isn’t trusted because no one really knows where the data came from or how it got constructed.

Whatever happens, I think we are in for a fun ride. Driver or Driverless.


Author: Paul Davis


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