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Up and Away

Companies are feeling a little less trapped by spreadsheets these days.

A strategic plan to increase sales, for example, required so much rekeying, reloading, and rechecking of data that weeks were wasted, says Rogers. “It got to be that everyone had his or her own little Excel model, with underwriting having one and sales another,” he says. “Excel is an excellent spreadsheet, but a poor platform for collaborative planning across an organization.”

Rogers weighed several BI options but found the prices too steep, until he learned about the SaaS offering from Adaptive Planning, which allowed him to introduce BI for just $35,000 a year.

In addition to its core BI capabilities, “the tool was especially valuable after we acquired another insurance company,” Rogers says, “since we could add their specific information into our own planning system and use our own assumptions, capitalizing rules, and per-unit cost drivers.”

Duke Manufacturing also went the SaaS route, choosing Host Analytics’s Host Budget/Host Forecaster program, which allows Reader to slice and dice performance data supplied by Duke’s 90 different product groups. One upshot is greater accountability on a very granular level. “We can look at each product group in terms of fixed and variable material costs and labor costs, and then compare them against sales in previous years and against our current budget to see if we’re budgeting properly,” Reader explains.

No Joke

At Homedics, a designer and distributor of personal-care products in Commerce Township, Michigan, “we used to joke that we had four definitions of net sales,” says CFO Bill Carroll. That’s a common problem at companies that rely on a hodgepodge of spreadsheets or multiple BI tools. So Homedics standardized on one product, QlikView, which (in conjunction with ERP software from Oracle) gave the company a set of standard definitions thanks to its use of a series of fields where commonly defined data converge. “The ability to get quality, transparent information quickly helps me to chart one course of action versus another much faster, and as a result leads to quicker decisions,” Carroll says. “It’s all about being decisive. And in the current economic climate, smart planning and execution have never been more important.”

Homedics used the QlikView tool initially for sales analyses; salespeople could fire up their laptops and drill down into data that shows sales per category per customer per region, right down to the materials contained in each product. “Sure you can do this with Excel,” Carroll says. “It’s just a question of how much time you have to do it.”

But for all their powers, BI tools of all vintages face a monumental challenge in making spreadsheets truly obsolete (see “Off Course” at the end of this article). Microsoft gauges the number of Excel users worldwide at more than 400 million, and Forrester Research estimates 50 to 80 percent of enterprises still use stand-alone spreadsheets for critical applications like financial reporting.

At security software giant Symantec, Excel spreadsheets still collect and manage data from operating entities, says CFO James Beer. Familiarity and ease of use win over his internal customers. “Frankly, I’m agnostic,” he says. “We believe that the best-run companies typically have a heterogeneous technology environment, with the onus on IT to integrate it all seamlessly.”

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