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Making Peace with Spreadsheet "Jockeys"

I just finished writing the second draft of a report titled, “Transforming Finance: How CFOs can Use Business Intelligence to Turn Finance from Bookkeepers to Strategic Advisors.” In the report, I interviewed several so-called “spreadsheet jockeys” who dominate the financial alcoves to find out why it is so hard to get them to use BI tools instead of spreadsheets where appropriate. (The report will be published in January, 2010.)

I was lucky enough to interview a lady who used to be a financial analyst and is now in charge of business intelligence. Her perspective is revealing on why the BI team failed to meet her needs and how she is trying to change the situation.

“When I was in the planning and forecasting role within finance, the BI team would generate a report that gave me 90% of what I need. And while they felt they had addressed my needs, this was almost useless to me as I would need to rerun my manual queries to get the 10% of data that was missing. The BI team needs to understand the entire workflow. They need to ask why a financial analyst needs a report and what they are trying to accomplish.”

Shivani Thakur, director of e-payments and business intelligence at Points.com

I was also struck by Shivani’s rationale for using Excel rather than BI tools when she was in the finance department.

“I have been one of those so-called "spreadsheet jockeys" not out of an affinity for Excel but out of necessity. Finance is under tight time pressures to crunch the numbers and provide recommendations to the business. Major decisions are made on these recommendations (e.g. whether to take or reject business or do layoffs.) The finance team cannot afford to be wrong or wait for the data to be in the right format.”

“The reason that Excel is used is because this tool is the only place where you can download reports that meet some (not all) of your needs and then adjust and/or link (i.e. integrate) the numbers accordingly. I have also worked at organizations where a new BI tool provided data in a timely and appropriate format that financial analysts could slice and dice. However, the output had to be in Excel since again the tool did not provide all the data, and it was necessary to manually link to other sources of data.”

“Yet, spreadsheet jockeys struggle with version control, linking issues, and other errors when manual intervention is required and we end up with about 15 to 20 spreadsheets all linked together. This is not a desired state for anyone in finance. But currently other alternatives are not available.”

Now as a director of BI, Shivani is frustrated by her inability to meet the needs of financial analysts like her.

“One of the things I struggle with most is how long it now takes me to respond to business requests. As a "finance geek" I was able to slice and dice numbers in a number of days by downloading reports in Excel, linking them manually and doing whatever manipulations I needed. The BI team and environment that I have adopted is not as nimble. Integrating data into our systems and then ensuring the maintenance and quality of that data is taking months to complete. It is only after this that a simple report can be built.”

Shivani’s company is in the early stages of BI, and I’ve counseled her to keep plugging along until something happens that awakens the top executives to the importance of BI to the company and to the need to invest aggressively in this area. Usually, this is a merger or acquisition, a new executive or CIO, or new competition or regulations. Hopefully, this “change event” will happen soon before her company loses a person who understands both sides of the business-IT equation and can truly make a difference.

Posted by Wayne Eckerson on October 14, 2009


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