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Up and Away

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

Not that Symantec isn’t brimming with BI tools; it just insists that they all be able to coexist. An Oracle data warehouse serves as the hub, supported by analytical tools from BusinessObjects and Hyperion. A Star Analytics integration server moves data out to operating units.

The company fully acknowledges that while spreadsheets are comfortable for many employees, they pose challenges beyond the difficulties of doing rapid, sophisticated data analysis. Security is one; BI systems can keep critical data confined to well-protected servers in a way that easily circulated spreadsheets simply can’t.

Another advantage to BI, harking back to the multiple definitions of net sales that Homedics grappled with, is its ability to get everyone on the same page. “We all want one source of truth,” says Jeff Brobst, vice president of finance at Symantec. Excel’s vast capacity and its design as a personal productivity tool make data integrity and ownership very hard to verify. As Brobst warns, “You can go down a rat’s nest.”

Kurt Schlegel, vice president at technology research firm Gartner, offers an example. “Say you have a product-recall issue and need to find out fast which of your plants produced the tainted component,” he says. Could a spreadsheet-based system help you quickly answer questions such as, If consumers are at risk, how much product must be recalled? Is it on shelves, in warehouses, in transit? What are the consequences of doing too little? Too much? What’s the bottom line? “With million-row spreadsheets not uncommon and different users mashing up the data,” says Schlegel, “you might not know where the data came from, in what form, and whether it is trustworthy.”

This tug-of-war between data reliability and control will plague users of stand-alone spreadsheets for the foreseeable future, Evelson warns. He is adamant that in the current economic climate, BI tools “are absolutely essential, because companies compete based on the decisions they make.”

The cost depends largely on scope. At the high end it’s entirely possible to spend several million dollars to roll out a traditionally licensed system across a global organization. At the low end, the SaaS model allows companies to pay on a per-user, per-month basis or a similar arrangement, and may allow a toe in the water for only a few thousand dollars.

The cost-benefit analysis has to take into account just what BI systems are for. In the past, they provided a slicker way to produce reports and develop budgets. Today, as Evelson says, they can become a competitive differentiator when they are used to analyze customer demographic data, sales trends, macroeconomic indicators, and a host of other measures.

Even an evangelist such as Evelson has no doubts that spreadsheets are here to stay. They are “a permanent fixture in enterprises because no other analytical application is as ubiquitous and familiar,” he says. And for all their advances, BI tools are still criticized for being too rigid and hard to learn, too IT-intensive and difficult to mix and match.


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