Matti Kinnunen
Sep 12, 2010
Posted in category: 2010 Member Articles

Excel sheets - systems or not?

A while ago, I was chatting with an a secretary of a mid-size company. Somehow we came to talk about payroll and travel claim management in the company. The secretary became very unhappy and lamented:
We have a very very awkward process, because we have no systems. 
I got very curious and asked him to show how they handle payroll and travel claims. It turned out that employees filled in excel sheets and stored them in Sharepoint databases (either as such or as PDF files). The secretary then transferred the information (or summaries of the information) to other Excel sheets and sent them to an outside accounting company for filing and bank transactions.
Similar situations are common in companies of all sizes. Excel sheets are ubiquitous. They get sent and stored and uploaded and downloaded and occasionally even printed, faxed, and scanned. And stored in both electronic and physical folders, and then lost and sometimes found, although much less often than one would like. Without Excel sheets most companies would grind to a halt. No matter how advance ERP and other large and expensive systems they are running.
Clearly, there is something useful in Excel sheets. What could it be? Could it be, that Excel sheets are systems by themselves? At least they perform functions just like proper systems, e.g. Oracle or SAP, do. Data gets inputted by a human operator, transformed via various simple and semi-complex computations, and presented again to the human operator. Sometime the data even flows from an Excel sheet to another system automatically, most often to MS Access and other databases. Sounds like systems to me.
We must conclude that Excel sheets are systems. They are essential parts of enterprise architecture in all companies. It is not easy to find all relevant Excel sheets and to understand the data transformations they do – and later to implement similar transformations in, say ERP-systems. There are no central repositories of Excel sheets, no automatic tools for finding them. The only way to find them is to talk to people, asking them to show how they really do their jobs. It is surprising how often the official process descriptions omit Excel sheets.
Actually, Excel sheets are the single most important source of complexity in enterprise architectures. Getting rid of them would be good, but will not happen. Thus we need to find better ways for finding them once and where they appear. Then we must establish a process for implementing the functionality in one of the systems among which the sheets are. Not an easy task, but letting Excel sheets take over enterprise architectures will make systems upgrades very hard.
Back to the secretary. He was not really lamenting the want of systems, but the want of automatic interfaces among systems. He was forced to be the interface, a task not suitable for a human. Poor man.
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