VSJ – Feb 2001 – Sounding Board

Clinton Jones, MIAP has wide experience of database systems. He’s worried about how people use less sophisticated tools as though they were a DBMS…

I recently completed a substantial implementation of a mid-sized ERP system that successfully provided end-to-end connectivity of the full procurement, production and distribution life cycle. What amazed me was that the CEO, an accountant, had such a penchant for spreadsheets that they could be found almost everywhere within the organisation. The ERP implementation helped to reduce their number considerably, but I couldn’t quite make them disappear completely, particularly when the CEO wanted to shortcut the way the system required things to be done. Staffing was also an issue. This was an organisation where head-count optimisation was an acute characteristic.
There can be little doubt that the spreadsheet was a godsend in computing technology for the accounting community (I am married to an accountant – I should know!). Spreadsheets have the ability to get that collection of columns and rows to do the most amazing things. With the most recent spreadsheet technologies, you have the even more powerful capability to use the spreadsheet as a database! I remember, as a student, creating ‘what-if’ macros, using data table sorts and a multitude of sophisticated queries using Lotus 1-2-3. It was database-like in functionality. You had to have some understanding of the concepts of fields and records. However I could already see the relative fragility of the tool and the limited scalability of the applications that were developed using this powerful, yet still simplistic, script-like language.
About three years ago, a friend called on me to have a look at a spreadsheet she had running on her computer. She used it to do the financial accounts for her nephew’s laundry business. She was complaining that it took a long time to do the processing. Processing? What did she mean? When I looked at the application – which is what I have to call it – I was astounded. The embedded macros were extremely sophisticated. A pathologist-friend who loved to tinker with software had developed the entire system as an ‘experiment’. He had created a mangle of processor-intensive code that stored, validated, formatted and printed transactions and reports for her – a truly amazing demonstration of the power of the spreadsheet macro! And all this in a DOS-based version of Quattro Pro!
I have just started on another ERP implementation and the first thing that struck me is that this multimillion pound business has almost all its business functionality tied up in a massive slew of Excel spreadsheets. The scope is vast, from stock accounting and reconciliation through to accounts payable and forecasting. If ever you needed a business case for investment in an off-the-shelf Office Suite, this has to be it. Spend a few hundred and get the functionality of a big system that costs hundreds of thousands. The downside is that version control is a nightmare, scalability is limited, errors are inevitable and the business risk is palpable in the event of a disaster. This is a classic case of your business processes being only as robust as your last backup of those spreadsheets.
I am in awe at the extent to which the end-user pushes the envelope with COTS packages. Is it any surprise that they balk at the cost of proper applications development? It’s time the industry stood up for itself and told the users: ‘Listen guys, you really aren’t using this package for the purpose for which it was intended!’
Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.

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