June 4, 2012

The Endangered Spreadsheet Culture

Nicole Hemsoth

An increasing number of businesses are looking to big data visualization tools to spot and further analyze business trends, but for some, the move away from the spreadsheet behind the gatekeeper’s watch hasn’t been smooth transition.

Nearly all of the visualization tools that have emerged (and evolved) over the last few years have emphasized a “power to the user” approach. The goal is to enable departmental executives to create their own simple to understand visual reports on complex data sets using intuitive BI interfaces, removing the middleman and eliminating what’s been the steady culture of the mighty spreadsheet.

According to Ron Van Zanten, vice president of data quality at Great Western Bank, despite the wide range of visualization tools available to data-driven companies, there is a reluctance to shift from raw data to a more fluid representation of that information.

As Van Zanten stated, “The adjustment to data visualization tools has been a difficult one, both operationally and culturally. Business users trust their spreadsheets and don’t want to give them up.”

Van Zanten told us today that access (and resistance to) discoveries via big data visualization is causing a big shakeup within an industry like his that has changing data requirements but a slow-to-adopt culture, even if the benefits of such a transition are clear.

As he stated:

“At Great Western Bank, it’s been an adjustment for us to having a centralized data store. Every group in the bank has had an information silo at one level or another. In finance, they have been masters as bringing totals from GL and manipulating it in Excel and creating new insights. These tiny analytics systems contain many spreadsheets with Vlookups. This happens in the branches as well, the creation of B-day lists, follow-up lists, the power and flexibility of Excel gives the users the feeling of control and trust. They can see the data and are very willing to manually validate numbers.”

Van Zanten claims that developing a system that centralizes disparate systems, and provides a tool that allows for the manipulation of larger data sets represents a significant cultural change.

He notes that for example, “users still would like to access the DW via Excel, which since we are based on the Microsoft BI stack is tolerated. Even though we have a better self-service tool (MS PowerPivot) that allows for data interaction.”

In Van Zanten’s view, people no longer are the stewards of small silos of information. “Before incentives was synonymous to a particular expert….Access to data is more universal. And that has been unsettling to certain persons who build cottage industries based on certain accesses.”

While visualization companies, including Tableau, are aiming to change this culture by emphasizing the ease of use and sense that anyone can become a data scientist with enough data, this could be an uphill battle for the spreadsheet culture.

Outside of visualization-specific companies, nearly all business analytics platform vendors are implementing an ease-of-use optimized set of tools for heavy-duty data visualization. These tools  remove the silo and put the power in the hands of the users and endanger that spreadsheet culture Van Zanten references —bad news for the IT professionals and business ecosystems that have thrived off limited access and usability of data.

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