Developments in information technology have revolutionised the way organisations work. Yet technology can also stifle productivity, trapping people in a systems cul-de-sac and costing your company a fortune. A good example of this is how businesses have used relational databases and Microsoft Excel for analytics, forecasting and modelling, in much the same way for the last 15 years, even though this provides a limited, two dimensional view of business information. Excel is a good tool, used by many throughout the world, but it is not perfect. It has limitations. It is a poor data repository and is less than efficient for accessing data in external sources.
Now, however, say Theunis Viljoen, founder of Biolap, a business intelligence software consultancy firm, and Duane Presti, CEO of PARIS Technologies, a global software publisher, it is possible to break that paradigm, and instead view business information in a multi-dimensional way – a powerful business intelligence tool to be used by management to optimize decision making..
‘We noticed a huge gap in the way that most companies work,’ says Viljoen. ‘In the IT department, people seem to want to solve everything using relational databases. But then there is a separate culture of people within organisations, typically in finance departments, under pressure to get reporting or analytics done for senior management, that tend to want to solve everything using just Excel.’
The difficulty using relationship databases combined with Excel, however, is that the user is limited to using a rigid data structure in two dimensions, whereas activities like analytics, forecasting and modelling, really require agility in order to fully interpret a problem.
‘There is an outdated Excel culture in many companies, where people do things out of habit, the way they have for the last ten or 15 years. They really haven’t changed the processes around the way that they work with Excel.’
Using existing methods require a lot of data manipulation, including a lot of manual data inputting‘ It is a clerical nightmare, and extremely unproductive, using highly skilled finance people to maintain what is, in some cases, many thousands of spreadsheets,’ says Presti. ‘One company had people typing sales data into a spreadsheet that took three days to complete. In another, there were some 3,000 people crunching in Excel for several hours a day. The failure to evolve and improve the Excel culture is so costly; it can be a big part of the payroll and, in some companies, their single largest cost.’
‘The failure to evolve and improve the Excel culture is so costly; it can be a big part of the payroll and, in some companies, their single largest cost.’
PARIS set about developing a better link between the customer’s data sources and the Excel spreadsheet – accepting that these two tools were unlikely to be abandoned by organisations. ‘The challenge was to access the data in a customer’s database and transform it in a way that Excel can make the most of it.’
They had three main goals: to improve the lives of people working with Excel, who currently waste a lot of valuable time doing clerical work; to give IT departments a tool that could be deployed to satisfy the needs of Excel users; and to help the users of spreadsheet information – typically the senior management, as most decision support information is provided to management in Excel spreadsheets.
The result was PowerOLAP, which takes the relational data and transforms it into a multidimensional cube, then allowing the user to represent multidimensional information in Excel. It dynamically integrates the spreadsheet, Web browser, relational database and an optimised multidimensional database, creating a single, more powerful, more flexible application.
Users notice a number of differences in their business after deploying PowerOlap, says Presti. a greater contribution to the business because they have more time to analyze the data that they just obtained from a PowerOLAP cube. This instant access to real-time data is what empowers the Excel user to employ their analytical skills and make a broader, more significant contribution to the business.
‘Plus we guarantee savings of 25% of time, but many businesses save up to 90% of clerical time clerking spreadsheets; it dramatically changes their lives and the way that they use spreadsheets, freeing up people in the finance function to have a more strategic focus to their work.’
But perhaps the most significant advantage, says Viljoen, is how PowerOLAP helps senior management get the information they need faster than ever to make better business decisions much quicker.
‘A huge benefit is the agility of the system to be able to respond to the analytics and reporting needs of management – the decisions that come from that can have a huge beneficial impact on the company and be the difference between a good quarter and a TREMENDOUS quarter.’ ■
Excerpt from CIMA magazine