For Maximum Business Value, Data Leaders Should Optimize Rather Than Eradicate Spreadsheet Use

Despite the desire of many data leaders and their teams to minimize spreadsheet use and encourage their constituents to adopt more modern business intelligence (BI) and analytics tools, spreadsheets remain the most common vehicle for delivery of data-driven insights. Longevity, easy availability through bundling in office suites, and user familiarity all contribute to broad and deep use of spreadsheets in most organizations. Our data show that spreadsheets are not going away—their prevalence remains high and even increases over time as more areas of the business seek to access and visualize critical data.

Although many data leaders see spreadsheets as problematic and strive to reduce their use, many organizations with a high level of spreadsheet use do not actively try to reduce that use in favor of other BI and analytics tools. Why would organizations choose to continue and even expand the use of spreadsheets? It is all about strategic value and the right mix of tools to best serve the capabilities and goals of the user population. Spreadsheet use can and should be managed, guided, encouraged, or possibly replaced and optimized for better business outcomes.

Data leaders and their teams should identify and observe the current penetration of spreadsheets across the organization. These observations help them understand the locations (which business functions and processes), usage patterns, and business goals associated with spreadsheet use, which in turn helps determine whether and how to optimally balance spreadsheet use versus use of other BI tools. Crucially, BI teams need to accept that spreadsheets are unlikely to ever go away. Rather, data leaders should consider looking at spreadsheets and spreadsheet skills in the organization as an opportunity—a base of knowledge and data-driven intent they can harness to drive adoption of BI goals and more advanced BI tools.

Data leaders seeking to optimize strategic value from spreadsheet use need to start by looking across key business functions, and assessing where spreadsheets are used in critical processes and for casual data analysis. After that, data leaders can begin to assess whether the use contributes to the strategic goals of functions and the organization as a whole, or whether, to the contrary, it might degrade the organization’s ability to be data driven or inhibit the adoption of more strategic and effective BI tools. Often, users resist moving to newer tools because they are comfortable with and have developed effective skills with spreadsheets.

The main questions to ask when completing this analysis are “Are we getting enough strategy value from spreadsheets?” and “Where can we create more strategy value by rebalancing the degree of use of spreadsheets versus other tools?” Collecting data and insights to answer these questions allows data leaders and their teams to develop plans for how to drive changes in the mix of tools used to better support strategic goals.

Increasing strategic value does not necessarily mean reducing spreadsheet use in favor of more modern and sophisticated tools. In some cases, the desired goals, current skills, and styles of analysis needed (exploratory versus repeatable production processes) may mean that spreadsheets are, in fact, the best-fit tool for the job. This can even require that data leaders actively work to increase spreadsheet use in such scenarios. In other cases, helping users find analytic content they need more readily and enabling them to contribute effectively to data-driven decisions may make spreadsheet alternatives most effective. In such cases, data leaders can then work to manage spreadsheet use downward, removing spreadsheet use from critical processes and replacing them with other tools—or standardized, governed, synthesized data itself.

Looking across the industry, few organizations are good at analyzing and determining the right mix of tools for optimal strategic business value. No data leaders appear to be stellar at this exercise—it is something around which all data leaders should strive to build a competency. This means having a dedicated focus on strategic goals and value, not just technology and tools deployment issues. It also means being tuned in to the BI awareness, skills, and development needs of the people most critical to the business processes in question. Developing this competency will allow data leaders to identify specifically where use of spreadsheets can be adjusted to optimize the value for users in performing critical processes and making key decisions.

Data leaders and their teams can begin driving the identified rebalancing changes by allocating the appropriate level of resources / funding toward spreadsheet deployment in upcoming budget cycles. The focus cannot be solely on increasing or decreasing use of specific tool types. Data leaders should actively seek opportunities to drive improved impact and value without capital investment in deploying more tools. For example, creating more and better training on spreadsheets (and other tools) may directly increase strategic value without requiring any tool changes.

BI success is about business value, not tool deployment. Data leaders must actively work to amplify or reduce spreadsheet use based on how it can move their organizations closer to being completely successful with their BI initiatives and making substantial contributions of strategic business value. They should be open to encouraging the use of spreadsheets in scenarios where it is the most effective way to enable strategic value, and where spreadsheets map well to the skills and capabilities of the relevant users.

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