“Spreadsheet automation” – An FSN interview with Spencer Kupferman, Vice President, Worldwide Corporate Affairs, at Global Software Inc, who provides deep insights into this rapidly growing market.

6th November 2013

The spreadsheet is undeniably the most successful management tool in the finance function.  Its use is pervasive and transcends every business function, language and culture. And although it was originally designed as a personal productivity tool its impact and reach has been greatly extended by a relatively new industry dedicated to spreadsheet automation, turning standalone worksheets into a secure platform for business applications and operational reporting. 

In this interview Gary Simon, FSN’s managing editor, talks to Spencer Kupferman, Vice President, Worldwide Corporate Affairs, at Global Software Inc, a pioneer in Microsoft® Excel-based automation and analysis tools on popular enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms such as SAP®, Oracle®, JD Edwards®, Sage® and Infor®.

 

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Editor: What is Global Software’s strategy?

SK: “Our mission is to leverage the Microsoft Excel brand. It’s a global brand with half a billion users but our goal is to enhance the user’s experience by automating the integration of Excel and ERP systems – eliminating the manual steps in the reporting process and requirement for human intervention.”

“Companies all around the world make a huge investment in their ERP systems in order to have a place to store their transactional data and similarly, they make significant investments in their business intelligence (BI) strategy to get at that data.  But in the final analysis that data always ends up in a Microsoft Excel. So why wouldn’t companies want to invest in accessing the Microsoft Excel application with intelligence built into the Add-Ins to efficiently automate their processes, reduce errors and leverage the information held in their ERP systems in a secure and dependable way?”

 

Editor: 30 years after they first appeared, spreadsheets are still going strong as the workhorse of the finance function.  Why do you think that is?

SK: “For a CFO and their colleagues in Finance there is no application more intuitive than Excel. These people are absolutely addicted to this tool and flexibility.  Our mission is to support them by providing focused application(s) that truly enhances the user experience and allowing the finance users to focus on what they do best which is analyzing the business and trends as oppose to having these users waste time and precious resource trying to get the reports they need in a proprietary interface.  This is a cumbersome task and precisely why Excel has been so dominant all these years.

 

Editor: So does Global Software have a role beyond the finance function?

SK: “The challenges that companies face include changing and adapting to new realities on the ground and we are constantly evolving what we do as well.  And although we started in the finance function we are not a one-trick pony.”

“If you look at the breadth of ERP there are dozens of modules but one has to recognize that ERP’s strength lies in its origins in manufacturing and the shop floor – not in Microsoft Excel-based operational reporting.  So companies throw a BI solution at ERP and hope that it will provide the information and solve all of their reporting challenges they need but it is not always the answer.  It’s like using a grenade when all you need is a surgical scalpel, something more tactical and intuitive for the user that complements the BI infrastructure already in place.  They want information in their Excel spreadsheets but they do not currently receive this data dymanically in Excel.  So we have expanded our technologies such as the “QueryExchange” and “SmartPaks” which deliver loads of content driven information directly to the users on dozens of modules (i.e.-AP, AR, Inventory, Materials Management, Projects, OPM, Manufacturing, Distribution, Sales, Fixed Assets, etc.) throughout the world’s leading ERP’s.  These capability speaks to our ability to dynamically scale our solutions across the entire ERP, not limiting us or our partners and customers to a certain area in the ERP.

 

Editor: What does Global Software do that the ERP vendors can’t?

SK: “It’s the whole concept. Excel automation is not what ERP vendors do for a living at all so there are huge gaps for the religious Excel users. Building solutions in Excel is an afterthought for many ERP vendors whereas it’s all that we do. We eat, breathe and sleep Excel automation. Try searching Oracle or SAP’s site for Excel automation!”

 

Editor: The BI and performance management industry has railed against the use of spreadsheets, citing spreadsheet errors. Can they justify their position?

SK: “I think they do face some difficulty justifying their position, after all we didn’t couldn’t have built up our business so successfully because Excel is an incompetent solution.  Excel as a standalone proposition is a different matter, but using an Excel ‘add-in’ such as our flagship Spreadsheet Server leverages the inherent security and integrity of an ERP system is not prone to errors, otherwise I’m sure we would have heard from some of our 5,000 customers across the world by now. Our tool was designed to reduce errors and get information into the hands of decision makers more quickly.  The significant amount of intelligence we have built into our software over the last 20 years accomplishes this.”

 

Editor: Global Software has been working with spreadsheets for many years – where is the spreadsheet’s ‘sweet spot’ and what should they definitely not be used for?

SK: “I don’t think there is anything that I wouldn’t use Excel for – other that frying ‘easy-over’ eggs for breakfast!  Our customers use Excel for every type of reporting.  The beauty of Microsoft is that it has been continuously evolving Excel to the needs of users. Everything they do is about what the users want rather than what the people that built it want. I think they’ve got it consistently right.”

 

Editor: Is using spreadsheets as a fully-fledged application going a step too far?

SK: “It depends on what your purpose of usage is. What we see all the time is that people are trying to use Excel in its purest form to build different and complex models. What started out as a simple macro and a few formulas can quickly turn into “spreadsheet chaos” as we call it here at Global. If you get into this position where you connecting workbooks to workbooks with various macros and pivot tables, it can get unwieldy – most likely you’ve gone too far with it and it’s probably time to look at our Spreadsheet Server application.”

 

Editor: Why do you think spreadsheets have been described as the ‘poor man’s BI tool’ and would you agree?

SK:   “No, you are looking at two completely different offerings that accomplish entirely complementary functions.  We are not competing with BI tools otherwise we would have been out of business a long time ago.  We don’t do data warehousing, business cubes, staging areas or data mining.  As I mentioned earlier we ‘live’ between your everyday Microsoft Excel user and the BI environment.  Our tools are tactical in nature, our technology is much more familiar and intuitive to adopt. There are no proprietary interfaces to learn, whether it be Cognos or Business Objects.  The everyday user can just pick up Spreadsheet-Server and use it right away. It complements BI but is much more immediate and tactical.” 


Editor: What advancements in spreadsheet technology have influenced your business the most?

SK: “It’s not so much the advancements in spreadsheet technology that have influenced our business but our commitment to deep knowledge of all of the ERP systems that we connect to which matters. We have invested heavily in specialists that have in depth product knowledge of all of the ERP systems and that gives us market breadth but also matters to the multinationals that use our products. For example, when they make acquisitions they want to harness management information in acquired companies very quickly and that could mean connecting with a variety of ERP systems across the group.  Our Spreadsheet Server can dynamically link to all of the ERP systems and bring the results into a single spreadsheet for consolidation – something that would be virtually impossible to do instantly in any other tool.  We are one of the few people in the world that can do this.”

 

Editor: So finally, what are the biggest challenges you foresee over the next 5 years? 

SK:  “The challenge for us is staying at the top as the market leader and continuing to grow and meet the market need.  Our CEO says “it’s lonely at the top”, it certainly is, but we are comfortable in this role as the top player in the Microsoft Excel Automation market.  Getting to be known as the defacto standard in a particular market is difficult, we’ve accomplished that, staying on top is even more challenging, we’re looking forward to that challenge.  Over the next 5 years we will be setting the standard for this technology just as we’ve done the previous five years.  I’ve seen many niche companies come and go over the years because they become complacent and content with their accomplishments, they get knocked off the top spot because they fell asleep at the wheel.  Our culture is different, we love to compete, we wake up every day in search of the next spreadsheet to automate.”  

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