A few years ago, a colleague and I gave a presentation at the Society for Insurance and Financial Managers (SIFM) where we compared Excel to duct tape, that is, a universal solution to almost any problem as long as the solution doesn’t have to be very pretty or last very long. The funny thing was that after the presentation, virtually every member of the audience came up to us and asked if we were talking about their company. They all felt like we had aired their dirty little secret, but it turned out everyone had the same secret.
In my last post, I talked about gaps that can spring up between core applications in many enterprises and the stopgap solutions that users put in place to fill them, most often Excel. I think there is a better way to deal with these gaps through a formal program of what I’m calling “gapplications”, solutions designed for quick implementation but incorporating a greater level of rigor and control than the desktop productivity applications most often used today. To be successful, a gapplication program has to bring to the table powerful, flexible technology and a rapid implementation process.
When evaluating technology for filling gaps we have to start by looking at why people use Excel. The main reason Excel is used so broadly is that it, like duct tape, can do almost anything. Excel is a spreadsheet, a list manager, a database, an analytical platform, a form builder, and (with VBA) a development platform. With this range of basic functionality, Excel can act as a financial reporting system, a CRM system, an order entry system, a ticketing system, and many others. Excel also has a shallow learning curve and, for a reasonably skilled user, is self-service. You don’t have to call IT to make changes to your Excel solution.
An Excel replacement has to not only meet a wide range of functional requirements; it has to support some level of user configuration. This leads to the unfortunate conclusion that the only thing that could fully replace Excel in all of these facets is Excel itself. However, there are tools that can automate major gap areas that are commonly patched up using Excel today.
Business Process Management Applications
One of the biggest areas of opportunity I see for gapplications is in Business Process Management (BPM or workflow) applications. Workflow applications are most easily distinguished by a work queue, a list of work items that help a user or group of users manage tasks in a process. As a stopgap, these work queues are often implemented using ‘E&E’ solutions (Excel & Email) where task lists are kept in Excel and emails are sent between individuals to act as process handoffs. E&E solutions tend to proliferate in organizations with older legacy systems where the effort and time required to add usability features isn’t worth the investment, but can also show up in modern architectures when gaps exist between processes. For example, between the CRM front end and quoting/order entry core system.
In addition to meeting the functional needs of managing queues and process communication, BPM systems can also meet the self-service requirement of a gapplication since many can be configured by business users through drag and drop process designers that work like Visio. Using these process designers, a business user can identify queues, tasks, roles, handoffs, and branching logic for workflows without IT involvement. This can allow them to prototype, modify, test and deploy applications very quickly, making BPM systems a viable gapplication platform.
The BPM marketplace has a large number of tools that range in complexity and implementation cost. For a gapplication program, it’s all about ease of set up and ease of use. Therefore the best candidates are cloud based to minimize deployment effort, and are relatively simple to configure. In my experience, Appian and K2 are two excellent choices that meet these requirements.
Enterprise Performance Management Applications
Another class of applications that can replace Excel-only stopgaps are Enterprise Performance Management (EPM) applications. These tools are used to manage complicated quantitative modeling and reporting requirements that push Excel to its limits. Now, some of you may say this is cheating, since many EPM tools are really ‘Excel-on-steroids’ solutions – that is back end databases that integrate to Excel front ends to provide better data control and scalability. Ok, fine, I’m cheating. However, these tools do fulfill the definition of gapplications in that they provide greater control than you can get from a pure desktop app while maintaining much of the flexibility and self-service of Excel. EPM systems often achieve this by implementing add-ons in Excel that allow you to write formulas to view, update, and navigate quantitative data in a database. Two of the better solutions I’ve worked with in this area are Host Analytics and Cognos TM1.
BPM and EPM systems are just two examples of application categories that can form the basis of a gapplication program. They combine flexible deployment and user self-service with enterprise-class data management capabilities to provide a real alternative to Excel abuse. Other applications like this exist in the areas of CRM, analytics, and many others. They all share the characteristics of a good gapplication platform: they fill a process gap, they provide data control, and they can be flexibly and easily maintained and modified by business users.