Until a few years ago, Thule Group's North American division would have been considered a "classic spreadsheet-driven" company, according to Vice President of Finance Mark Cohen.
"We had one person in accounting who kept all the data as up to date as possible, including departmental expenses that outlined the costs of running the factory. However, it wasn't unusual for it to take a week to consolidate cross-company information, and it wasn't unusual to discover that what managers were looking at wasn't the final spreadsheet," Cohen says.
Out-of-date sales and manufacturing numbers were unacceptable for Thule Vehicle Solutions North America, a 400-person operation that makes products like roof racks and bicycle racks and generates 15% of its parent company's revenue. "Budgeting and forecasting are a big deal for us. We're a seasonal company, so we have to have product ready to go or the sale will go to our competitor," Cohen says.
Frustrated, Cohen abandoned Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet application in 2008 in favor of a software-as-a-service offering from Host Analytics Inc. The new package, Host Analytics Budget, provided the support for real-time collaboration and mobile access that his team needed.
Now users can create, edit and view real-time business data and generate reports through a browser, with the number of things they're able to do dependent on their level of authorization. The Host Analytics package includes built-in version control; data is automatically fed from the division's Oracle ERP system into Budget and can be imported and exported in Excel formats, if needed, so users can share information with colleagues in other parts of the company. Pricing starts at $250 per user per month.
Getting more reliable data
Cohen says the collaborative nature of the tool has improved the timeliness, accuracy and accountability of his division's reports because each person is now responsible for inputting his or her own data. "Ninety-five percent of our spreadsheets are gone, and we've completely eliminated the delay in receiving critical reports. Our business leaders also know that the data they have in hand is accurate and dependable," he says.
Cohen's frustration with spreadsheets is not unique. As decision-making becomes more collaborative and workforces grow more distributed and global, the days of compiling a spreadsheet, mailing or e-mailing it to colleagues, then manually inputting updates and re-sending it seem antiquated.
Moreover, in recent years there has been concern about user error creating mistakes in spreadsheets that could cause trouble for companies -- particularly those in heavily regulated industries.
Microsoft, for one, says it has new features in Excel that address some of those concerns. (See "Microsoft responds," later in this story.) For example, there are ways to enable Excel to accept real-time data feeds, but that solution doesn't help when there are multiple updates from individual employees who aren't necessarily adhering to a regular update schedule. (Article continues on next page.)