Saving the world, one spreadsheet at a time

How many times have we needed to format some data quickly and reached for our favorite spreadsheet application? I am just as guilty of this as you are.  Or maybe we needed to send data to someone, but weren’t sure what capabilities they had to parse out a flat file. The spreadsheet has been the Swiss Army knife in our IT toolboxes for years.

As our businesses drive us to leverage integration to reduce costs, we typically look to the large implementations for ROI. However, there is some low-hanging fruit that just requires us to think a little differently about an age-old problem; dealing with customers that eschew technology.  These are the customers that are still faxing orders to you.  They do email, hopefully, but one thing they do know how to use is a spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets do have valuable integration use cases, both inside the business and externally. An application example that comes to mind is mining shipment data from a database and producing the data in a format suitable for business end-users. Dumping the data to a comma-separated-values (CSV) file is quite limiting in presentation control. Yes, the data is all there, but the end-user is still going to spend time “prettying up” the contents.  Printing a report to PDF also gets the job done, but it’s still just a report. Wouldn’t it be useful to query the data and easily put it into a spreadsheet that encourages user interaction? This approach takes the data publishing paradigm one step further, enabling the end-user to interact with the data and empowering them to draw new insights that are beneficial to the business.

Let’s think about how we use spreadsheets outside of our business. The immediate idea of receiving and sending data to our trading partners comes to mind. So, why do we use spreadsheets for this? Couldn’t we send EDI or some form of flat file that they could consume? As technology costs come down, lower volume trading partners are extending their technological muscle. A few years ago, these same companies faxed their orders to you, which required a person to retrieve the fax, validate the contents for accuracy (product, pricing etc) and then re-enter the data into your order processing system. This process has the potential for errors from re-entering the data and raises the processing cost per order significantly because of the human interaction required. Considering that these orders are typically lower in overall volume and value, it makes them the most expensive to process!

It’s 2009…I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to expect business users to know how to use a spreadsheet. So, could we not provide a template of a business document (such as a purchase order) to our customers and let them populate their data and send it back to us via email?  We could easily read the spreadsheet contents and incorporate the data into our back-end system. It would be easier for our lower-tech customers, while saving us time and money.

As we think about integration, let’s think outside the box on how we are going to automate our external partnerships that are still using limited or manual processes. The spreadsheet is a du-jour data standard that is familiar to most business users. It’s a tool that we can leverage, with a bit of clever implementation, into a big win for our organizations.

In our next installment, we’ll explore XML, how it promised to set us all free and enable our applications to communicate automatically.  (Spoiler: We’re still waiting!)

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