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Business Drivers Behind the Online Spreadsheet Boom
Last night, a factory manager in Singapore looked at his Dell Latitude waiting for his inventory to be updated by his distributor in Korea. Meanwhile in Seoul, e-mails are quickly exchanged between shipping clerks at three factories to produce the final document.
Yesterday afternoon the CFO submitted a quarterly report to the Board. This morning his manager found the most current HR data is in HRversion5.xls, not the HRversion4.xls he used.
The National Marketing Director finally received the monthly forecast spreadsheets from the six Regional Managers, who collected the spreadsheets from their sales teams. Although it took two hours to carefully assemble all the data, the cut and paste errors generated more than $1 million in forecast revenue.
Business Transformation 101
How can events like this continue? Don’t companies spend billions of dollars each year on IT infrastructure to streamline those things? Do core business processes not include applications for manufacturing control, inventory, sales, and finance?
Yes of course. And the open secret is: it doesn’t work. They can’t.
Makers of ERP, Procurement Management, CRM systems and the like aim to manage internal business operations. In many cases, it just doesn’t apply to the way business is done today. Tom Friedman helped define the new infinite globe in The World is Flat. There is little dispute now that the core of business ethics lies outside the four walls of the parent corporation and is disconnected from the infrastructure designed to govern it.
Employees in home offices, overseas-based vendors, and field sales teams spread across five continents must work and collaborate while disconnected from their IT assets. Essentially, they improve. They use tools they know and tools they have in common.
What started out as a gap-stopping activity has now become a standard for the company’s internal and intercontinental business. Outlook and Excel have become the leading collaboration and productivity applications of the 21st century.
So what’s the problem?
Excel was originally designed as a personal productivity tool, but it is now relied upon as a business-class application that serves as a lynchpin in the “flat world”. Every week, millions of Excel spreadsheets around the globe are launched in Starbucks, airline lounges, and office cubicles. For internal use and data, Corporate IT enforces security, version control, user rights, backup and permissions. But Excel is there. It is on almost every computer in the world and can be created, edited – and thanks to e-mail – exchanged wherever, and whenever, there is a WiFi connection.
Email can be a double-edged sword. Over the past 15 years, it has become an indispensable, universal communication tool. It’s the number one way to share files – whether it’s a daily cartoon, a pdf, a YouTube movie, or an Excel file. It’s useful, universal, and immediate. And although it’s a major part of the Excel workaround, while it helps solve one problem, it creates a host of others.
Administration: Once you click send, the file is no longer under your control. What can be (and probably is) sensitive company data is in the hands of people you can only trust to be trustworthy.
Time The email is sequential. If you need input from multiple people, you depend on them opening, contributing, and resubmitting the document in a timely manner. What chain does the person have now? How are they doing? When will I get the file back?
Responsibility: Who changed what, why, when? Are you working with the latest version or is someone else here doing other versions? And with the upcoming presence of Sarbanes Oxley, tracking the composition of the work product is now mandatory.
Security: There are good reasons for a company to spend millions of dollars on the security of its servers and its data. In the wrong hands, company secrets can be exposed or employee information compromised.
Email and Office applications have come a long way in the last 20 years. But business is needed even if it depends on these technologies, which in their current state, represent a band-aid, not a breakthrough.
The concept of “community” is not new. The idea of two or more people being bound by a common interest can be traced back to earlier human endeavors. Recently, and thanks to the growth of the Web, thousands of “communities” have sprung up to serve people with their hobbies, interests, or political leanings.
The advent of Web 2.0 technology has led to hosted communities where members can interact with people with similar interests. Sites such as MySpace and Facebook were among the first to exploit the concept of social media on the Internet. For the most part, these sites are designed for consumers and people who communicate in their personal time. But what about business? Does public opinion matter to them? Of course – in spades!
The distributor in Singapore who sends the product to the factory manager in Omaha, and the COO in the New York headquarters, are community members. Their common bond is the goal of producing the product on time and on budget. Their communication channels include telephone, fax, and email. This type of ad hoc relationship may not show a formal label, but it is a community nonetheless. By necessity and tradition, society is a fact of business life. As they continue to expand, the challenge of managing and maximizing productivity becomes paramount.
Controlling the public
Managing the concept of community is emerging as the Holy Grail of taking command of a new business paradigm. Billions of dollars invested in IT infrastructure – sophisticated application suites, bulletproof security, and armies of IT professionals – are ineffective in increasing profitability and control for distributed workers and communities.
The recipe for success in online business community management must focus on several key issues.
Security: Once you send a file/document by email, you will no longer control its delivery. It resides permanently in the host who can do what he wants; today, tomorrow, or next year. Your company’s intellectual property is now just one click away from being in the public domain.
Cooperation: Often, many people are needed to contribute to a particular task. This is especially true for spreadsheets. Waiting for a response from an email sent to 12 people in a row is not cooperative; it’s more of a chain letter.
Compatibility: Collaboration, communication, and productivity are impossible if the result is a community working on different devices or applications. Microsoft Office products are on more than 400 million computers worldwide. Excel is the gold standard for spreadsheets and is used by 9 out of 10 business people in the world.
Innovation: Today’s society has different needs than its tube-based predecessors. Ideally, the public architecture will not only accommodate, it will provide productivity features not currently available in native Excel or business applications.
Working Safely: Above, an oxymoron; but regulations and accountability are realities that must be faced head on. Where is the documentation showing who changed the cells, and when? A solid, readable paper trail is absolutely necessary.
SaaS Why do people need Software as a Service? Because they want real-time applications instantly. The concept of SaaS is at the forefront of bringing society to the Internet. Security and access information are controlled by members of the public with centralized control.
Safe Online Storage: The only way to have one current version of the truth is to have one current document that everyone has access to. And without the file residing on any personal computer, the data will never be compromised or lost.
eXpresso is a software platform that adds dimension to sharing. It is a Web 2.0 hosted workplace for Microsoft Office applications. The first offering in Excel spreadsheet management and collaboration in secure, structured business environments. eXpresso was developed on the principles and methods mentioned earlier in this document.
Users of eXpresso include small work teams, cross-enterprise project members, and distributed sales teams. Corporate finance departments and compliance professionals use eXpresso to manage the collection and reporting of accounting documents.
There is no attempt here to describe all the features of eXpresso or to compare them with alternatives. A tour of the working product is available at eXpressoCorp.com and interested parties can try eXpresso for free. Key features of the sample:
Create or edit Excel spreadsheets online in real time
Store Excel spreadsheets in a safe, encrypted storage location
Collaborate and share spreadsheets with individuals & teams
Assign or revoke View, Edit, Download, or Download rights
Compare cell & formula differences between spreadsheets with one click
Another notable difference between eXpresso’s spreadsheet management and online alternatives is eXpresso’s support for Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. Many of these products promote an online alternative to Excel. Competing with Microsoft for a share of the office application market is certainly an ambition. But there is little evidence that people want a new spreadsheet; what they want is a shared measure of what they already use.
Today’s mobile, distributed workforce faces communication and productivity challenges (as mentioned earlier) that have nothing to do with the suitability of spreadsheet applications. The real problem is the lack of architecture to work with millions of people who already have a favorite spreadsheet: Excel. Offering a standard spreadsheet with reduced functionality does nothing to improve collaboration or support for the business community.
The commitment to support Express users is based on three main principles in the eXpresso philosophy.
1. There is nothing wrong with Excel. After all, it is one of the most trusted applications in the world. And, a spreadsheet application can’t be fast if it’s not Excel – if you need to learn something new, it’s not immediately.
2. The second reason can be explained by a number: 150 million. That’s the global estimate of Express business users who are prime candidates to become instant eXpresso users.
3. Beyond the blue numbers, Excel has been established as the industry standard for spreadsheets for many years. People know it, love it, and use it.
Traditional business structures are losing power – driven by significant changes in the way people work, the way organizations communicate, and the disappearance of traditional barriers of borders and time zones.
One of the ways to embrace change is to formalize it and use it as a naturally occurring community of like-minded people. The Web 2.0 concept is an important foundation and tool for using the Internet to provide public administration and specialized application services.
Offerings in the field of online services will continue to grow. In the direct spreadsheet market, potential users will be attracted to a service that offers universal value features.
Outlook and Excel are registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation.
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