The arrival of the corporate PC desktop in the 90s and associated productivity tools delivered enormous power and productivity end users. Today there are an estimated 600m Microsoft Excel users world-wide, with approx 10m of these thought to be ‘power users’.

What’s a power user? Typically those who are able to readily link to external data sources, handle multi-dimensionality, and build complex macros and pivots. These power users are able to answer business questions through manipulating reasonably large amounts of data, right on the on the desktop.  At ClearPoint, we describe Excel as the most successful business intelligence tool of modern time.  Since becoming dominant in the early nineties with Excel 5,  this toolset has enabled a sea change in business analytics.

So. Whats the problem?
1) Isolation. Stating the obvious, desktop productivity tools were designed as personal productivity tools for the desktop, not to run critical cross-functional processes. Siloed, standalone file based technology mixing data and business rules tend to be inherently risky and “Key Person” dependant.
2) Unpredictable. In complex spreadsheets “cut&paste” errors can be nearly impossible to find and often rely on human judgement (again “Key Person”) to assess if results “look ok”.
3) Unsupportable. Ideas become prototypes, prototypes become production, time passes and the creators move on.
4) Complexity begets inertia. Solutions that are critical, complicated and fragile generate a nervousness which can grind business change to a halt.

It seems nearly every enterprise has one or more complex and critical business processes supported by a feat of Excel model engineering. Tactically, the models deliver – but they don’t make any sense from an IT perspective. Clustered laptops running multiple xls’s linked to desktop mdb’s? A global retailer emailing individual XLSs to each of its 3000+ retail stores once a month and manually aggregating forecast results? A finance organization with 300,000 XLS documents on shared storage? It’s nuts from an information perspective.

Also think about productivity for a moment. How many people globally are cutting/pasting/filling/editing (“heavy lifting”) formulas and data day to day? It’s not uncommon to find teams dedicated full-time to aggregating XLS data for Executive teams on a daily/weekly basis. It is like the Digital Blue Collar Labour of our time.

Today, Microsoft continues to innovate through building out powerful server-side support. But, for businesses without an information strategy, adding more power to desktop users may not solve the problem.

So. What to do? At a high level, ClearPoint advocates some key strategies;

1) Take a Management Information approach.  Strategically assess data flows and information in the organization.  This means understanding what data you have, structured versus unstructured, what should be in core enterprise systems, versus desktop tools and so on.

2) Think solutions, not products. BI Dashboards and graphs look great, but generally only work well on high quality data.  Think beyond buying a product toward how the solution will benefit business.

3) Apply structure to mature business processes. Repeatable, mission-critical business processes and calcuations should not be inside desktop tools.  Find them, split/migrate processes and data with a view to managing information assets commensurate with their importance to the organisation.

4) Let people play.  Notwithstanding 3) , enable users access to the data through their tools of choice – most likely Excel.

Finally – for complex and/or challenging data problems think outside the square and look for pioneers. Huge amounts of data? Think BigData toolsets such as Hadoop. Complex multidinesionality? Think Anaplan.