A Future Without Spreadsheets?

by Rob Hull

Spreadsheets may still be a great choice for some tasks, but not for the kind of agile planning and analytics required in today’s fast paced business environment.

The global marketplace is moving faster, requiring companies to be more agile than ever. Yet businesses—and specifically finance teams—still rely on tools that sustained them decades ago. Those tools were designed for an age when planning was an annual, top-down and linear process, but today we no longer have the luxury of devoting an average of 77 days to develop an annual plan. Change is continuous, so planning must be too.  And it must also be more collaborative.

The rapid change in our technological ecosystem is causing a growing number of finance chiefs to tell their staff to find tools better suited to modern business planning and analysis than spreadsheets — for decades the default planning application for virtually every business. The inconveniences of spreadsheets for planning and analysis, such as version control errors stemming from manual data entry, clumsy email collaboration, and the challenges of creating a single source of truth from disparate data sources can now be a distant memory thanks to modern planning tools. As Bernard Marr observed in Forbes, spreadsheets may still be a great choice for some tasks, but not for the kind of agile planning and analytics required in today’s fast paced business environment.

From the cloud, a different way to plan
These and other observers have pointed to the rise of cloud-based planning software that has taken the fundamental capabilities of the noble spreadsheet and turned them into something that spreadsheets never quite managed to be – automated, intuitive, collaborative, integrated, multi-dimensional, and always up to date. Just as cloud-based CRM applications like replaced legacy applications like Siebel, so too are cloud planning solutions replacing spreadsheets and legacy applications to provide much needed agility in today’s era of urgency.

Spreadsheets are a wonderful personal productivity tool, and as such will continue to have a place among business applications. But for company-wide finance, sales, and workforce planning, reporting and analysis, the future will look different than the past.

The future of planning is unfolding
With the advancement in technology, we’re starting to see menial tasks accomplished through automation, making time for teams to spend on high value tasks. Finance execs report that, on average, 83 percent of their staff’s time is spent on manual, menial tasks like data input and consolidation. That’s lost time that could be converted to more valuable and strategic tasks with better tools for planning, reporting and analysis.

Pinsent Masons LLP, a UK-based law firm with offices throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Australia, found that swapping out spreadsheets for cloud-based planning, reporting and analysis helped automate previously manual tasks, freeing finance staff to be more strategic. “We spent 70 percent of our time entering and verifying data, and 30 percent viewing and interpreting it,” notes Andrew Brett, who heads financial reporting at Pinsent Masons. “We now can spend seven out of every 10 hours gleaning insight from our data.”

Meanwhile, anytime, anywhere access and intuitive application design make planning far more collaborative. Spreadsheets are great for individual users, but in small groups, they’re less great and in large groups, they’re abysmal. On the other hand, cloud solutions were built for collaboration. They allow any authorized participant to work on a plan, from anywhere, at any time. Better still, you’ll always know who made changes and when. Leading cloud vendors have introduced intuitive planning interfaces that make it easy for non-finance personnel to collaborate, enter data, create reports, and run what-if scenarios because they recognize that in business, everybody plans.

Organizations that make the digital transformation leap for planning will see gains in scale and speed. The spreadsheet wasn’t built for enterprise scale, but the cloud was – modern cloud-based planning solutions can support thousands of concurrent users and highly complex multi-dimensional models. Modern solutions are also built to address the performance demands of enterprises. The most advanced cloud planning software solutions use powerful modeling engines that add memory and compute resources when needed and remove the data limits finance pros have come to despise.

Teams can also access data from every corner of the business. Manually importing enterprise data into spreadsheets can be complicated and troublesome — and that’s being polite. In contrast, the best cloud platforms automatically integrate data from your ERP, HCM, CRM and other transactional data sources so that you can refresh data with a single click and know you are working with the latest information.

Mind the gap
There’s a dangerous gap that can emerge when companies rely on outdated processes while their competitors embrace new, more agile ways of working. Agile teams produce market-leading results. The gap yawns even wider for companies still relying on tools developed for the way businesses operated before the internet changed…well, everything.

Holistic company-wide planning isn’t the pipe dream it once was – it’s now a business imperative and it’s the key to unlocking the kind of agility that turns planning into a competitive advantage. Realizing this, more and more execs are coming to the same conclusion: On the journey to the future, spreadsheets for business planning have become as archaic as the Rolodex. 

Rob Hull is the Founder of Adaptive Insights, a Workday company.