In my work consulting for large companies, I often ask for process or business rule data to work with, and a common answer I get is something like: “Ah yes, I send you an Excel where there are the codes/data for…”.
When I hear this, many alarm bells go off in my head. To explain why, I will try to break it down into logical steps:
- What is an Excel spreadsheet?
- Why it is popular?
- How much does it cost to your department/company?
What is an Excel spreadsheet?
A spreadsheet is an easy way to collect information about anything you can think of. Let’s say that you have a process which consists of many specific rules, then you can collect the rules very quickly in a spreadsheet.
For example, if you need to collect data about production/sales/marketing figures and share in some way with other people, then it’s really easy to create a new spreadsheet, paste in it the figures from another system and then share it in the intranet.
Why is this spreadsheet method so popular?
There are few valid reasons that make a spreadsheet a very attractive tool for sharing data:
- It’s free. Sure, you already payed good money to Microsoft for the Office license, but you would do it anyway, because of the other products (Words, Outlook, Exchange and so on…). It’s a very wise attitude to squeeze a product you pay for and use every single bit in your daily activity at work, if it can save you time and money
- It’s fast. It takes few minutes (sometimes less than 1 minute) to input and share data using it
- It’s flexible. It can chew any (almost) any kind of data you want (with a lot of limitations, but still…)
- Everybody knows it. You don’t have to explain how to open it, read the data, copy the data from an Excel Spreadsheet, it’s just common knowledge.
How much does it cost to your department/company?
And this is the really tricky question, because the answer involve many different factors. We could count the time that it takes to write it + the time that it takes to read it. Then we should take in account the interpretation of the data. Then, once we have understood the data, what happens?
Your wishes and the reality
Whenever you create and share your spreadsheet, your wish is to share a process or data with other colleagues and employees, so they can use them as input for their job. The last part of the sentence is the important one: you wouldn’t create those spreadsheet if nobody would use them to perform some other activity with those data, right?
Let’s formulate again your wish now, in a way that makes sense from the business perspective:
I want to share these data to make them part of a process
I want to share these data to represent a process
In a company, you can’t use any kind of data without a process that can extract, ingest and elaborate them. It would otherwise be meaningless.
In the second part of the article I will try to visualize the differences between a Excel-based process and a Database-based process.