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Business Intelligence: the Dangers of Excel-Based Reporting

Business Intelligence: the Dangers of Excel-Based Reporting

Business Intelligence (BI) is a phrase thrown about quite a lot these days as organizations of all sizes strive to get better, more accurate, and more timely data with which they can measure, assess, and plan. Business Intelligence software as well as ERP and financial software providers are upping their reporting capabilities and providing dashboards where summary reports and trends can be configured for users - whether they be at the 50,000 foot level or down to the nitty-gritty; for CEOs , business analysts, accounting staff, etc.

Even I Know How to Use Excel!

We came across an article at CloudAVE.com where consultant John Donagher mentions that many of the current ERP solutions provide some sort of tool that allows these reports and dashboards to be created in Excel. The almost universal competency in Excel that most consumers of these reports possess makes this feature seem like a great one to have. You no longer have to go to IT to pull a report . You can pull the data from your enterprise software database and build the report yourself in Excel. Donagher points out however, that this strength may also be a weakness. We might add that it's a sign of a larger problem with enterprise data - financial data in particular.

Donagher describes the DIY process of reporting in Excel:

"They have to know the data, they have to understand what filters to apply and how to code the calculations, and they have to verify the output. Potentially users who would never be expected to write a report using a reporting tool like Crystal Reports are now tasked with generating their own reports using Excel. Even if the report is generated successfully you’re still left with the widely-documented dangers of using spreadsheets – especially the risk of errors in formulas and calculations and the risks associated with governance and control of spreadsheets."

Up (and Down) a Creek

We agree, and a cursory look at some of the standalone Business Intelligence tools, like Domo, tells us that the potential problem exists in both directions. BI solutions are promising to pull data from all of our systems across our organizations to get a complete picture of where we stand and how we're performing against key performance indicators. One place this data can be pulled from is Excel. So not only are the "widely documented dangers of using spreadsheets" in play downstream, when reports are created, but they're also potentially subverting the quality of the data upstream, going into the BI tool.

Even They Know How to Use Excel!

We know first-hand where organizations can wind up when they grow quickly and/or plan poorly with regards to their accounting systems. We meet with organizations all the time who have been maintaining their financial information in Excel, often in the charge of an admin or even the CEO - both ill-equipped with the time or experience to maintain good financial records. The data is often wrong, incorrectly coded, or at least out of date. Reports can't really be trusted, let alone used to determine real-time performance or for strategic planning.

Job One: Get out of Excel

So what is the answer to this problem? Well when it comes to accounting and financial systems, the data needs to be entered into a system not a spreadsheet. And the system needs to have approvals, workflows, and data input requirements. The data needs to be secure and available in real-time. And the tools that run reports on that data should exist natively in the system itself. The reporting tools should be flexible, user-configurable, and allow for non-financial data to be incorporated. Best-in-class financial management software can also pull data from (and make data available to) other tools, whether they be CRM systems to give a quote-to-cash picture of the enterprise, or Business Intelligence solutions that can then provide other enterprise-wide reports and metrics. The information is secure, real-time, and error-free.

Spending many years working with companies to get OUT OF Excel makes us feel uneasy about the new trend of reporting to and from Excel...no matter how convenient it might seem.

If you’re interested in how AcctTwo can help your business navigate these options from a finance perspective, just fill out the form below to get receive a complimentary assessment of your finance function.

Topics: Blog Business Intelligence / Analytics excel-based reports Financial Reporting Informational Financial Analysis, Ratios and KPIs Awareness