FSN White Paper
The last few years have witnessed a period of unprecedented turbulence in the field of management and financial reporting. After a decade of heady expansion and globalisation during the late 90's, when double digit growth was assured, most Western economies have settled back into a more sedate pattern of growth and the excesses of the dot com era have been trimmed. The regulatory environment has become more stringent and accounting standards setters around the world have sought to harmonise financial reporting and bring it more closely into alignment with internal management reporting.
At the same time, the trading environment post Millennium has become extremely challenging. A period of ultra-low inflation in the Eurozone and the United States , together with increasing price transparency on the internet and inexpensive goods from burgeoning economies in the Far East, China , India and the old Eastern Bloc has eroded suppliers' pricing power. Managing profitability in these conditions whilst at the same time meeting increased regulatory demands for information poses a significant challenge for information systems.
Information needs have been simultaneously stretched in three directions. Firstly, the depth and breadth of the information that has to be reported, secondly the speed and frequency with which information has to be furnished and finally the increased complexity of reporting.
One of the most notable shifts in reporting over the last 10 years has been the move to 'narrative reporting' on both sides of the Atlantic . For example, the EU Accounts Modernisation Directive in Europe has raised the bar for external financial reporting as well as introducing novel areas of disclosure. Companies in Europe are now required to report much more comprehensively on the trends and factors affecting their performance in addition to their prospects for success. The main thrust of the legislation is to cause companies to report information externally in much the same way they would report results internally. The statutory requirement (IFRS - International Financial Reporting standards) for companies to report their results by the primary and secondary business segment normally used by management for internal reporting is a good example of how statutory and management reporting are coalescing.
But the regulation is also widening the scope of reporting into areas such as employee reporting, environmental and social reporting. It seems that external reports not only have to cope with shareholders' information needs but also the needs of a wide range of other stakeholders.
Not only are information needs becoming more comprehensive but there are significant internal and external pressures to accelerate business reporting. The EU Transparency Directive requires listed companies to produce quarterly reports in much the same way as organisations are required to report in the United States . At the same time new regulations on both sides of the Atlantic require companies to report more quickly after their period end.
In addition economic pressures are also causing companies to report more frequently, for example, the need to bring products to market more quickly and to identify under performing or over performing business segments is key to competitiveness.
The interaction of constantly changing business and regulatory requirements has given rise to extremely complex information needs. Rapidly changing trading conditions and competitive pressures can impact business models at a moments notice requiring organisations to have information at their fingertips so that they can respond. Performance has to be constantly planned, monitored and analysed to support timely decision making as well as satisfying increasingly onerous regulatory demands.
Organisations across the world have enjoyed the unfettered use of spreadsheets for more than three decades. Spreadsheets have liberated end users from the limitations of traditional IT and permitted them to develop rapidly a whole raft of critical business applications that help them to manage more effectively and compete more vigorously. By any measure the success of spreadsheets has been astonishing. They have become part of the corporate 'DNA' and so deeply embedded that, in practical terms, there is not a business process, industry segment, functional area or geography that does not rely to some extent on spreadsheets.
Since its invention around three decades ago the spreadsheet has become an enormous success and become the de facto standard for production and ad-hoc reporting in organisations of all sizes. However, regulators, auditors and organisations themselves are discovering that over time, 'harmless' spreadsheets designed initially for personal productivity and effectiveness have evolved into business critical reporting applications or play a vital role in supporting them.
For many, this high degree of reliance on spreadsheets which are informally developed, maintained and used represents a serious operational risk. For example, almost every business professional, from whatever discipline, has had first hand experience of how easily errors can arise because business logic has been changed, a cell reference has inadvertently been overwritten or data has been misplaced. Added to which there are many publicly recorded instances of spreadsheet errors giving rise to serious financial loss or reputational damage.
Special care needs to be exercised in relation to reporting applications. For example, if the reports are standalone and populated by data manually then there is the inevitable risk that data is miss-keyed. On the other hand if the spreadsheet is integrated into, say an underlying ERP system, then errors can still arise simply by the way that information is described on the face of a report generated from it.
Despite these misgivings, the spreadsheet has survived the test of time. The causes of error in spreadsheets are well understood and by and large responsible users and organisations can put checks and balances in place to safeguard their integrity.
Furthermore, the cost effectiveness of spreadsheet reporting (compared to traditional IT methods) and the speed with which changes can be implemented are overwhelming attractive and redeeming features when responding to a dynamic trading environment. Add to this the global success of Microsoft Excel, then the business case for using spreadsheets as the centrepiece of a reporting platform can be compelling.
From its humble beginnings the spreadsheet has adapted very well to developments in reporting requirements. Pivot tables have allowed a certain amount of multi-dimensionality in the spreadsheet world and more sophisticated graphing and charting options have allowed organisations to emulate scorecards and fancy dashboards with the minimum of spreadsheet skills.
But it is this accessibility and ease of use of Excel that has allowed people drawn from all functional areas of a business to take advantage of spreadsheet based reporting. In effect, spreadsheets have become a universal 'language', allowing organisations to deploy reporting applications across functional divides and across different territories.
The inherent flexibility of a spreadsheet also means that organisations can develop spreadsheet applications to meet their more esoteric reporting needs. More recently the technology has improved to such a degree that businesses can generate and print statutory forms and returns that are indistinguishable from the original.
To date, reporting needs have frequently been met by the Business Intelligence (BI) industry which has built its reputation on the ability to query, analyse and report on information. There are a number of suppliers who have considerable expertise in gathering information from diverse data sources, storing it in relational or multidimensional databases and exposing it to a variety of analysis, query and reporting tools.
But for most companies, gathering data on an enterprise wide basis is a formidable task because information is scattered so widely through their organisations. The underlying systems tend to be a potpourri of technologies assembled over a lengthy period to meet different needs as they arise. This frequently leads to data inconsistencies which, if left unchecked can lead to data quality issues that undermine the integrity of reporting.
Managing these issues on an enterprise wide level just exacerbates the issue and many companies are littered with failed BI projects and 'shelfware' i.e. systems that are purchased but not implemented.
Over time the boundary between traditional Business Intelligence and performance management has become blurred. It is no longer sufficient to view data through a 'rear view mirror' - modern demands mean that companies have to assess a wide variety of financial and non-financial performance measures from across the business. This means that performance and business reporting has branched out well beyond the finance function. But have the reporting tools kept pace?
In a sense the problem with Business Intelligence is that it has become too complex and when it comes to analysing and reporting information users are often faced with a bewildering choice of reporting tools. For example variances can be explored from scorecards, dashboards, ad –hoc analysis tools and reporting products, each with their different characteristics which take time to implement and use. In a large organisation, the number of different IT vendors engaged across the business can add considerably to the number of available options which in turn flows through to the cost of support and training.
It also means that end users are constantly reliant on IT for the maintenance of reports tying up valuable resources on both sides and delaying the speed with which important information can be retrieved.
There are also broader commercial issues connected with the use of Business Intelligence systems. The market for these systems has seen a spate of acquisition and merger activity as Business Intelligence and performance management vendors combine their technologies to provide wider performance management capability. In these circumstances it is difficult to know which vendors will succeed in the longer term and which will be swallowed up by acquisition.
Almost by definition, performance management needs to be implemented on an enterprise wide scale if it is to act as a dependable decision making resource, but making strategic investments in a climate of change is an unattractive proposition. These are typically costly decisions involving hundreds, if not thousands of users, so if a supplier falls by the wayside or their technology direction changes following an acquisition then considerable investment may be put at risk.
The irony of the situation is that despite large scale investment in sophisticated performance management and Business Intelligence applications the spreadsheet remains the reporting tool of choice. Its grid-like construction of rows and columns is deeply engrained in the finance department. But for those that are less numerate it also supports a wide range of presentation styles making the technology accessible to users from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Such is the familiarity of the spreadsheet interface that in recent years Business Intelligence vendors have abandoned their resistance to spreadsheets and adopted spreadsheet style interfaces to their applications effectively using the familiarity of the worksheet as a window onto their underlying databases. However, with BI software licensed on a 'per seat' basis this can be a costly option for organisations that merely want to give users access to a simple end-user reporting tool.
Furthermore, given the commercial uncertainty surrounding even established software vendors, many organisations may be reluctant to deploy Business Intelligence solutions on such a large scale. So how does an organisation meet the burgeoning requirement for reporting across the enterprise in a cost effective manner without attracting significant commercial risk?
One obvious candidate is simply to use Microsoft Excel. Whilst this has certain attractions, for example, familiarity, flexibility and ease of use, the product in its 'native' form is disconnected from underlying data repositories. In effect the spreadsheet is rendered inert by an inability to draw on data sources other than by cumbersome integration or re-keying data. Furthermore, the lack of control surrounding the definition of terms, calculations and amendments presents an unacceptable risk of error, particularly in the finance domain.
Excel 'add-ins' provide an obvious solution to the lack of control but the downside is that they are by definition an 'add-in' to another product, with all of the added expense that this implies. On the other hand, if this 'add-in' capability can be captured in stand-alone Excel then the users can be presented with all of the benefits of a easy to use reporting environment together with controlled access to an underlying database at reasonable cost.
These are issues familiar to XLCubed a relatively new company established in 2002 to exploit technology developed and successfully deployed in ExxonMobil in the late 90's. The company, which is headquartered in Maidenhead and with offices in Irvine California , has around 70 staff and approximately 350 customers worldwide.
Like most niche companies, XLCubed is excellent at what it does and since its early development has created products for the desktop and the web. Essentially, this means that complete Excel functionality is available in a web browser giving organisations the ultimate flexibility to deploy the product wherever it is needed.
As the name suggests, XLCubed is designed to work off multidimensional data warehouses, fully exploiting the richness that multidimensional views of business data can provide. Once XLCubed is linked to an underlying data mart, data warehouse or cube it can directly exploit the dimensions held with the databases from within Excel to surface information in an Excel spreadsheet.
But the product provides functionality well beyond 'raw' Excel. Once connected to a cube, the product provides 'drill down' on the underlying data in the customary way allowing the users of reports to navigate to the appropriate area of information.
Ranking capability, filters and sorting allow information to be pinpointed accurately and a 'breakout' capability allows users to roam unconstrained through the dimensions in the underlying cube or to examine a particular slice of information.
Leveraging a combination of native Excel and XLCubed allows users to generate complex reports or simple reports as needed, but the additional capability within XLCubed also provides more innovative ways of displaying information through dashboards and scorecards.
A key advantage of the technology is to be able to place segments of reporting information where they are required on the report page. As the cells operate independently they can be cut and pasted around the sheet without losing the integrity of Excel cell and number formats . This functionality is particularly valuable when constructing complex combinations of reporting views on a single page, in a similar manner to building a portal of information from different underlying sources.
For a number of years organisations have been challenged when it comes to producing reports on the web. Many applications can publish pre-canned reports and make them available across the web, but the ability to create and edit reports has proved extremely difficult. XLCubed Excel Edition overcomes these limitations in three important ways. Firstly, it allows Excel reports to be published directly to the web from within Excel (the user simply saves the report to the appropriate directory and folder). Secondly, it permits access to reports over the web from within a web browser whilst retaining the full capability to browse and retrieve data from an OLAP cube or multidimensional warehouse and finally, it allows data entry and write back to the database, if required.
Excel on the web is transforming technology that is liberating for users and IT departments alike. Architecturally, it provides a simplified solution for distributing information right across the enterprise. This means that users can access specific datamarts related to their function or role using a tool that they understand.
From an IT perspective there is zero deployment. The 'client' end of the requirement is satisfied by Excel on a PC (which almost all users have) and a web browser. Clearly the issue of data management remains, since XLCubed needs access to an underlying data warehouse in order to satisfy the end user requirement for information. (XLCubed works with a wide variety of databases such as Applix TM1, Microsoft Analysis Services and SAP BW). But by providing an instantly deployable reporting tool, the problems of data management and reporting are decoupled. In other words the IT function is free to concentrate on marshalling information and serving it up to XLCubed unencumbered by concerns over how it will be accessed.
Similarly a Excel/web based solution is to all intents and purposes infinitely scalable, subject to the normal constraints on bandwidth, server capacity and performance. This means that IT capacity planning becomes a much easier proposition added to which there is far more certainty around costs of deployment, support and training.
Rapid economic and regulatory changes are driving substantial demands for internal and external reporting in organisations of all sizes. Reporting requirements are simultaneously broadening and becoming more complex, added to which external regulators are imposing even tighter reporting deadlines.
The net result of these changes is that companies have to cope with far more data sources and higher volumes but the traditional approaches using Business Intelligence and performance management tools are often perceived as too complex to use and too costly to roll out on an enterprise basis.
Spreadsheets have often filled the gap in reporting, allowing users to create easily reports dedicated to meeting their specific needs. However, these unconnected spreadsheets are vulnerable to a wide range of errors and are often considered to present an unacceptable level of operational risk. Nevertheless, spreadsheets have many virtues which have made them the reporting tool of choice for more than three decades.
Business Intelligence and performance management vendors have recognised the considerable advantages of spreadsheets by incorporating Excel add-ins into their portfolio products. But for the majority of users who may only seek to use spreadsheet capability as a 'window' onto a database the deployment of a full Business Intelligence suite is both intricate and costly.
By decoupling the delivery of information through a spreadsheet from the historic approach used by BI vendors, XLCubed has delivered a way forward that is economically, technically and operationally more attractive for large scale deployments - without jeopardising control. Additionally, specialised functionality they have built into the product takes spreadsheets to the next level by providing the freedom to create a wide range of specialised 'reports' such as dashboards and scorecards.
Web based deployment of BI capability has become the norm but complete Excel capability on the web has been a long time coming. The ability to combine web deployment with the reporting workhorse of industry is surely compelling.
About FSN Publishing Limited
FSN Publishing Limited is an independent research, news and publishing organisation catering for the needs of the finance function. The report is written by Gary Simon, Group Publisher of FSN and Managing Editor of FSN Newswire. He is a graduate of London University , a Chartered Accountant and a Fellow of the British Computer Society with more than 23 years experience of implementing management and financial reporting systems. Formerly a partner in Deloitte for more than 16 years, he has led some of the most complex information management assignments for global enterprises in the private and public sector. His latest book, "Fast Close to the Max" will be available in the Spring 2007.
Whilst every attempt has been made to ensure that the information in this document is accurate and complete some typographical errors or technical inaccuracies may exist. This report is of a general nature and not intended to be specific to a particular set of circumstances. FSN Publishing Limited and the author do not accept responsibility for any kind of loss resulting from the use of information contained in this document.
© FSN Publishing Limited. All rights reserved 2007.