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The Decision Factor offers insightful comments and observations on analytics—from views on new technology approaches and market dynamics to the latest industry trends driving demand for faster, smarter information analysis. This blog contains personal views, thoughts, and opinions from SAP employees, mentors, and friends working in the area of analytics. It’s not endorsed by SAP nor does it constitute an official communication of SAP.

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Herding Chaotic Spreadsheets

Herding Chaotic SpreadsheetsSurprisingly, after more than a decade working with business intelligence (BI), I still hear customers complain about spreadsheets proliferation and the information chaos they create. Yes, even after several generations of BI tools we seem to be unable to solve the issue—we can’t get rid of spreadsheets! 

Data manipulation nightmares related to the use of spreadsheets may happen in your businesses and could lead to lasting repercussions (a recent example of that is the London Whale scandal). Luckily, there are many ways in which your IT department can help keep that chaos under some level of control. 

  • Promote a culture that values data trust over data availability. Is junk data better than no data? No. Many users use Excel as their data playground, but sometimes employee Bob’s not-quite-accurate numbers leave the spreadsheet. Unfortunately, twenty spreadsheets later we forgot those were Bob’s numbers and all of a sudden the business is making decisions using them. 
  • Connect spreadsheets to your corporate data and secure them. When you let users connect to corporate data directly from Excel you are in a certain way controlling what goes into the spreadsheet. While you can’t prevent Bob from fiddling with those numbers, you at least will have your spreadsheets as close to the version of the truth as possible. And by securing them you will be preventing unauthorized access to that data. 
  • Learn what users do in spreadsheets. Often users need to build their own calculations to compensate for the fact that they’re missing in your data warehouse or they need to clean the data before they can start analyzing it. By observing what people actually do with spreadsheets, you may find opportunities to improve the quality of your corporate data.
  • Educate your users about alternative tools. There are going to be use cases where Excel is going to be the best tool for the job, but quite honestly, there are LOTS of cases where Excel just make things more difficult. Encourage your users to try some of the latest tools for data exploration and self-service BI and you’ll be surprised to find out how many would happily abandon Excel!

The true problem? When spreadsheets are badly used, your organization is exposed to information governance issues. They may not be at the top of your information governance worries, but the risks are real. 

How does your organization deal with spreadsheets?