The Financial Times from December 8th 2010 included an interesting special report called “The Connected Business”. A bunch of great articles about technology in the office of the CFO. One thing that caught my attention was the fact that the entire section highlighted the problems caused by the use of spreadsheets.
For people who work in the field of Business Analytics it has long been clear that while spreadsheets are useful, they are not the right tool to manage your company. People like us sometimes take that knowledge for granted. Here are some interesting pieces I picked up in the section.
Nigel Rayner from Gartner is quoted as saying: “But when I talk to them [CFOs] about management reporting, understanding the drivers of profitability, forecasting or planning, all they know are spreadsheets because they have always done it that way. They are not aware of how the technology market has developed.” Andrew Meade from Accenture confirms this notion in another article: “Most companies bemoan the fact that they have a spreadsheet jungle.”
Mr Giles Thomas from Revolver system highlights some of the inherent risks: “Businesses that start using spreadsheets for a specific purpose can get grabbed and they never escape. When you have a spreadsheet with thousands of rows in it, things can get quite nasty.” He highlights this problem with the case of an unnamed investment company: “For several months, they had been running the business on numbers that were meaningless. When people copy and paste, they often forget to incorporate the changes they have made.” The FT then highlights some of the other associated risks like proliferation, tracking, version control etc..
One article raises the question of whether the massive use of spreadsheets is likely to change in the near future. But the somber conclusion is: “He (Mr. John Van Decker – Gartner) and other business analysts do not see this situation changing quickly, because they say most business and finance education does not address these issues“. Mr Rayner adds “It is a cultural issue, because finance folks tend to be very conservative. They are comfortable with what they know, which is spreadsheets, and having an army of spreadsheet jokeys.”
The point about education is an excellent one. I used to be an active member of the Institute of Management accountants (IMA). The organization itself is great and I highly recommend their professional degree CMA (Certified Management Accountant). But they consistently frustrate me with their singular focus on spreadsheets. Hundreds of articles in their publications teach people how to leverage spreadsheets. They offer courses for managing a complex budgeting process with spreadsheets. Time to wake up, from my perspective.
The conclusion? Well, the section does offer some nice examples of how technology helps and I will continue to write more blog posts in the near future about that. But the key finding for me here is the astonishing fact that there is a serious opportunity for all of us. As a CFO I have the ability to gain a serious competitive advantage (or: to avoid disaster) and as a Business Analytics professional I can make a serious contribution to the success of many businesses. Let’s use this opportunity.