The spreadsheet is no longer the poor man’s BI

15th October 2013

CFOs want software to support intelligent and informed decision-making and they are in two minds about which software tools are best able to deliver this, as FSN writer Lesley Meall discovers




Earlier this year, the analyst company Gartner asked CFOs to name the business process area that was most in need of improved technology support. The list was topped by analysis and decision making, followed closely by the ongoing monitoring of business performance. 2013 is not the first year that Gartner has asked CFOs this question and the answers mirrored CFO priorities across the past five years. It is possible to read many things into these findings, as Gartner does here. Clearly, CFOs are interested in technology with the potential to improve analysis, decision-making and insights into business performance – and they are exploring all sorts of options. 

For some, specialist business intelligence (BI) tools seem to be the solution. “We wanted real-time access to a consolidated perspective of our performance,” says Mark McDerment, group finance director at Mill Asset Management Group, which chose Intuitive Dashboards from Intuitive Business Intelligence to provide this. “It enables us to view and analyse our financial performance against our targets in a visually meaningful way, allowing us to quickly identify and resolve potential issues,” he says, adding: “We benefit from a consistently reliable and interactive view of our key financial metrics – something that spreadsheets simply cannot match.” 

Opinions differ on this. The spreadsheet has long been seen as the poor man’s BI, but attitudes towards it are changing. Spreadsheets are now much better at supporting collaborative processes such as budgeting, and enhancements to functionality make them the BI weapon of choice for many finance professionals. “Microsoft Excel is the world’s most ubiquitous BI solution. It is already in use on 750 million desktops,” says Bill Jelen, the consultant who is better known as Mr Excel. “The number one feature in non-Excel BI tools is ‘Export to Excel’” he says, because this is a tool that accountants know how to use. 

This familiarity influenced the software selection process at the Coca Cola Bottling Company Consolidated. After considering various ways to more efficiently determine profit ratios using the data from its SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, it opted for Spreadsheet Server, an Excel add-in that integrates with various ERP systems to enable live reporting and analysis of dynamic ERP data. “Allowing users to work in an environment they are familiar with is one of the benefits,” says Christy Ruth, director of financial systems and business integration at Coca Cola Bottling Company Consolidated. 

Integration was also a significant factor in the BI technology decision-making process – for both Coca Cola Bottling Consolidated and for Mill Asset Management Group. “As Intuitive BI is fully integrated with Advanced OpenAccounts, users are able to analyse our financial data more easily, so potential issues can be identified and resolved far quicker,” says McDerment, the group FD at Mill Asset Management Group. While Ruth, at Coca Cola Bottling adds:  “The software relieves us of the need to re-key data and saves time creating reports, which allows us to spend more time doing analytics.” 

Software vendors are understandably keen to emphasise the strengths of their particular offerings. Mark Gray, director of client services at Global Software Incorporated says: “The Excel user interface in our Spreadsheet Server is a natural fit for how finance professionals work. They know Excel intimately and they are very comfortable working in that environment.” Tony Bray, managing director of Intuitive Business Intelligence has a different perspective. “With a spreadsheet, you need the accountant’s practiced eye to see what is going on. With dashboard visualisation tools such as traffic lights you can see the information you are looking for in a second.” 

Appearances matter and finance professionals are not the only ones in the business who need to see and understand finance information. But visualisation is another area where spreadsheets are no longer the poor relation of BI. “The data visualisation tools of Excel have been substantial and overlooked for some time,” says Gray, and they are improved by the new BI functionality in Excel 2013. The latest release of the spreadsheet adds Power View (for interactive data exploration and presentation) and Power Map (a 3-D visualisation tool), as well as strengthening spreadsheet governance and compliance features. 

For Mr Excel, all of this added functionality is merely the icing on his favourite cake; according to Jelen, the truly ‘transformational’ BI smarts were added in Excel 2010, when Microsoft made a PowerPivot add-in available as a free download. “Suddenly, you could mash up data from disparate locations, even data with as many as 100 million records,” he says, and you no longer needed to understand VLOOKUP to join data sets as you could define relationships in just a few clicks. It remains to be seen what impact the new functionality has on the spreadsheet’s appeal, but it no longer seems like the poor man’s BI.