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Business intelligence users can't wean themselves off Microsoft Excel

Spreadsheets, like Microsoft Excel, are error-prone and unwieldy, yet business intelligence users just can't seem to break the habit, according to a new report.

Spreadsheets are error-prone, unwieldy, and often contain out-of-date data. They are difficult to manage and time-consuming to correct. One bad formula can ruin hours' worth of work. Still, business intelligence (BI) users just can't seem to break the spreadsheet habit.

Despite spreadsheets' well-known drawbacks, many workers continue to use them for a multitude of reporting and analytical tasks, even as better alternatives beckon, according to a new report from San Mateo, Calif.-based Ventana Research. Users are simply too comfortable with Microsoft Excel and other spreadsheet programs to make a switch, the report said, choosing instead to live with the consequences.

Half of the 297 spreadsheet users surveyed for the report said they spend "noticeable" amounts of time dealing with spreadsheet errors and other problems. Two-thirds of that group contend, however, that correcting out-of-date or inaccurate spreadsheets had only minimal impact on their productivity. Why the seeming contradiction?

"We suspect they feel this way because they think their job description includes 'debugging spreadsheets' as a regular duty," the report stated. "Indeed, we believe one of the biggest barriers to addressing spreadsheet shortcomings is people's acceptance of them as an inevitable cost of doing business."

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That's not to say that spreadsheets aren't good at some jobs. Indeed, spreadsheets are ideal for ad hoc data analysis and prototyping, according to the report's author, Robert Kugel, Ventana's senior vice president and research director. It's when you get into a collaborative environment that the trouble starts.

Kugel said his research revealed that many companies are using spreadsheets for financial processes -- like closing the books at the end of the month or quarter -- and complex BI reporting and analysis, tasks that Excel does not perform particularly well. Though the report does not single it out, Excel is far and away the most widely used spreadsheet application, Kugel said, dwarfing all its competitors combined.

"The structure of the spreadsheet is flawed because there's no way of maintaining referential integrity, which is to say that the context of what's in the cell is found in the combination of row and header," Kugel said. "But if you insert rows or insert columns … you wind up destroying referential integrity, particularly if you're linking spreadsheets."

For years, unfortunately, workers were forced to live with the spreadsheet and all its drawbacks. There simply were few alternative applications that could do the job better, Kugel said. But that was then.

Companies today have the option of ditching spreadsheets in favor of dedicated software applications for reporting and analytics jobs. Kugel said such applications, like BI tools and financial reporting software from vendors such as Cognos and Hyperion, are now widely available at affordable prices for midsized to large organizations. For small businesses, he suggested looking into Software as a Service applications as a less expensive alternative.

That said, Kugel acknowledged that many companies just aren't ready or willing to part with their spreadsheets. Those who insist on clinging to Excel for financial reporting and other critical processes should at the very least invest in spreadsheet management software to gain some level of control over them, he said.

Among other functions, spreadsheet management and control software can locate spreadsheets stored on networked laptops and desktops, identify who's accessing them, and track any changes made to them. The software, from vendors like Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Compassoft Inc. and San Ramon, Calif.-based Prodiance Corp., can even detect certain errors in spreadsheets, like bad formulas and broken links. In addition to reducing errors and maintaining consistent data, Kugel said, spreadsheet management software can help companies comply with federal regulations like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) and can reduce time spent with auditors.

"One of the big values of this kind of software is it makes your audit process, whether for SOX or anything else, a whole lot smoother," Kugel said. Auditors can be "reasonably certain that everything is fine and that you in fact have ongoing control of the spreadsheet to prevent fraud from occurring."

Kugel added that companies shouldn't take an either-or approach to spreadsheets but should recognize that spreadsheets and more sophisticated reporting and analytics tools can live together in relative harmony if properly managed. Besides, he said, trying to get some users to give up their spreadsheets is the ultimate exercise in futility.

"There are an awful lot of people who are very well trained, with years -- decades -- of experience in using spreadsheets," he said. "And you're not going to get them to change -- period."

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