Spreadsheets have become a du jour “standard” for some forms of Business-to-Business integration, offering a data representation that is easy to produce and consume, and is widely supported across industries and geographic boundaries. Spreadsheets are also very portable; they can be emailed, viewed across platforms (Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X, Linux) and are accessible by many software packages (Microsoft Excel, OpenOffice, Google Docs).
Using spreadsheets as an integration medium can be challenging, however, because the layout of data within a spreadsheet can vary. Spreadsheets aren’t always simple grids of rows and columns. Data can be represented in a tabular format, e.g., to transmit raw data from a back-end application, or in a forms-based layout, similar to what we might find in business documents like purchase orders and invoices. That flexibility makes the spreadsheet versatile and attractive as a data-publishing tool, but makes integration of some spreadsheet cases less trivial.
The business value of incorporating spreadsheets in your integration strategy lies in operational cost savings and improved turn-around when processing of spreadsheet data is automated. For example, spreadsheets can become a medium for machine-readable orders from low-volume customers (both in order size/value and frequency of orders submitted). Unlike faxed or telephoned orders, spreadsheet orders can eliminate rekeying of order data, minimize the need for human intervention, and reduce order processing overhead to the point where small orders can be profitable to fill.
Over the next several blog posts, we will explore considerations for integrating spreadsheets with ERP and other application systems. Later, we will expand our examination of Data Integration topics to include XML and Web Services Integration, Flat-File Interfacing, and database integration, then branch out further to explore connections with Business Process Automation, B2B Collaboration, and other related topics.