Looking at some of the early reflections on the Enterprise 2.0 conference
, the point about return on investment (ROI) and benefits has come up time and time again.
Proponents of Enterprise 2.0 have heralded the shift in the discussion to this issue with offered few answers, but meanwhile the nay sayers continue to point and laugh saying ‘show me the money!’ These critics have pointed out that executives can see the tangible value of three-letter acronym systems, like CRM, ERP, MRP, etc, but not this vague slack sounding Enterprise 2.0 thing. The argument is that they don’t want this vague ‘social’ stuff, they want process specific systems that someone can give a no mucking around bottom line sales pitch business case for, using proper management sounding speak (e.g. speak like we do).
I’m going to step out of that crowd and suggest that perhaps we need to look at this a little differently. For the benefit of the nay sayers, I’ll try to stick with something they should be very familiar with – spreadsheets.
Historically (I’m talking IT years here), spreadsheets have been pretty much ignored by the research community. There is a small clique of researchers interested in spreadsheet risk (a real issue by the way, where financial transactions are concerned) and vendors who are interested in pointing out the problems so they can sell business intelligence solutions. But there is very, very little on the business benefits.
I had trouble finding recent figures, but today there must be absolutely millions of businesses around the world that quite literally run mission critical business processes using spreadsheets. If the City of London is a proxy for other global financial centres
(PDF), then I think we can argue that the global economy runs on spreadsheets. In fact, a regulator actually stated:
“Spreadsheets are integral to the function and operation of the global financial system”
Which brings me to this point – the spreadsheet clearly has more than just some passing value to organisations, it has vital importance.
But if this is true where is the business case for spreadsheets? Further, where is the neatly categorised list of definitive and all encompassing use cases? And I’d like a statement of ROI for each with that too.
Looking back at the history of the spreadsheet
, the idea was inspired by observing the frustration and tedious process of a university professor creating a financial model on a blackboard. (hmm, sound like user centred design anyone?) Some people recognised the wider potential – an original review of VisiCalc
“VisiCalc isn’t as easy to use as prepackaged home accounting programs, because you’re required to design both the layout and the formulas used by the program. Because it is not pre-packaged, however, it’s infinitely more powerful and flexible than such programs. You can use VisiCalc to balance
your checkbook, keep track of credit card purchases, calculate your net worth, do your taxes – the possibilities arc practically limitless. Using VisiCalc does require a minimum amount of programming skill, but it’s far easier to prepare a VisiCalc model than to write an equivalent BASIC program.
Who should buy this program? At $200, it is almost as expensive as an Atari 80OXL. Anyone who has need for more than one accounting package, however, would do well to consider buying VisiCalc instead. With a minimum of effort, you can have VisiCalc performing most functions offered by the home accounting packages, and then some.”
But today, spreadsheets are more than just about numbers. Like cockroaches, spreadsheet have continued to thrive despite the growing (perceived) sophistication of modern enterprise information system. They record data, drive barely repeatable processes, they are spread around by email systems and people use them to address problems that other systems fail to solve. I promise you, the success of every high end TLA system is backed up by spreadsheets. These spreadsheets, often combined with collaboration tools, fill gaps not just in the agility of those TLA systems, but they support more fundamental information sharing and collaboration so that people can actually use and make use of those same systems.
For example, I worked on a strategic IT project for a large, global company where some idealists wanted to push for day 1 reporting from their financial system. But other wise and experienced voices in this field pointed out that day 2 or 3 should be the real aim. Why? Because they needed to collaborate and resolve issues in the data that was coming in from different parts of the organisation first before they committed that data. Note, the point of the argument wasn’t that we shouldn’t bother with the TLA system and just use spreadsheets, but simply that we should look at the holistic processes and often social/collaborative work practices involved.
Bringing this back to Enterprise 2.0 [or what ever your social software term of choice might be] I’m not suggesting the spreadsheet is an exact analogy. However, there are many similarities worth bearing in mind, particular around the concept of emergence
that is at the centre of the Enterprise 2.0 definition:
- Its what people do with it that adds value;
- What you can do with it is only limited by your imagination (I’ll let you think about the implications of this);
- Once you have the software, it doesn’t take a programmer to apply those ideas, although you might need a few superusers; and
- Implemented incorrectly, it can introduce risks.
If you still don’t agree, then I suggest you put your money where your mouth is: Have a go at suggesting to CFO’s that there is no sound evidence-based business case for the spreadsheets and in fact the evidence that does exist creates risk. The only sensible thing to do, and to avoid all this spreadsheet hype of course, is to immediately remove spreadsheets from the corporate network. And think of all that money we’ll save in licensing. That makes good business sense, doesn’t it?
What do you think?