Living with =SUM

Many applications are getting friendlier with the popular Excel spreadsheet.


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The old adage, "If you can't beat them, join them," apparently also holds true for Microsoft Excel, as software developers of all varieties are implementing features that make their products look more like the universally used spreadsheet program. Coupled with the increasing ability to integrate with Excel and other Microsoft Office products such as Word, adoption of the familiar worksheet interface is designed to make learning other applications easier.

"There is acceptance of anything that looks like Excel or works with Excel," says Jo Ann Cummings, product manager for CCH's ProSystem fx Tax.

Google Puts on a Grid

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Even the search engine Google is looking to leverage the widespread knowledge of Excel. Google announced in June that it has launched a test of Google Spreadsheets on Google Labs, its "technology playground" where it showcases ideas "that aren't quite ready for prime time."

A free service, Google Spreadsheets enables users to create, store, and share basic spreadsheets on the Web. Google Spreadsheets can upload spreadsheets or information from other desktop applications like Excel. These can be shared, updated, and edited by several users at the same time, saving users from having to manually consolidate multiple spreadsheets from others. Users also can chat while editing or viewing the same spreadsheet and control who may edit or view them.

Bear Stearns analyst Robert Peck called Google Spreadsheets "a potential killer app," but adds that he does not see it as a replacement for Excel.

"While we do not think that Google Spreadsheets will replace MS Excel, we view Google Spreadsheets as a convenient complement to MS Excel, allowing users to create on-the-fly spreadsheets that can be edited by multiple users and then saved to MS Excel," Peck writes in a research note.

Peck adds, "While the product's features and functionality in Google Spreadsheets are far from the level we have been accustomed to in Microsoft Excel (i.e. no charts, printing, or macros, etc.), we think Google Spreadsheets has the potential to become a killer app for Google that could potentially create a stickier user base and further strengthen the Google brand."

Peck believes that a logical next step for Google to take could be a PowerPoint application or video conferencing features.

Since its debut in 1987 (Excel 2.0 for Windows), the spreadsheet program has grown into one of the world's most widely used software packages. According to a Microsoft spokesperson, there are about 400 million customers worldwide using Microsoft Office, which includes the spreadsheet application.

The problem is that accountants try to get spreadsheets to do everything and they don't do everything well. Despite its short learning curve, Excel has its limitations.

Spreadsheets may provide flexible-modeling capabilities for transforming data, but can lack the formalized processes, centralized data, and collaborative aspects of enterprise business intelligence or business performance management applications, according to Adaptive Planning, whose product line includes budgeting and forecasting. Consequently, they can be time-consuming, error-prone, and result in multiple, incompatible "versions of the truth" throughout the company.

One challenge with Excel is that it becomes increasingly complex as a business grows and more people become involved in the process, says William Soward, president and CEO of Adaptive Planning, a budgeting software company based in Mountain View, Calif.

"All of a sudden, you have something that ends up having hundreds or thousands of spreadsheets, and it becomes risky and difficult to run a business on spreadsheets," says Soward. "It takes a tremendous amount of staff work."

Echoing that sentiment, Chris Reich, director of product management for CRM Solutions at Sage Software, says, "It does get to a point where you are building complex spreadsheets. Tracking that data can be tedious. [Excel] is great to manage numbers, but once you get across departments, managing that gets to be impossible."

To overcome those problems, many software publishers have set out on a road to develop systems that increasingly integrate with-and resemble-the powerhouse spreadsheet.

For example, Adaptive took the "best-of-Excel" approach in developing its application so that users can spend more time analyzing their business and less time manipulating spreadsheets. There are currently more than 50 companies using Adaptive Planning software, most of which are midsized businesses.

What was once a hosted budgeting, planning, forecasting, and reporting solution is now also widely available as an on-site deployment option with Adaptive Planning 3.0.

"In some cases, companies may feel that they would rather put [their financials] behind their own firewall and manage that data themselves," Soward says of the software, which has the ability to import and export data to and from Excel. "I think you are seeing more software companies adopt this hybrid model."

Adaptive Planning 3.0, coming to market this half, includes enhanced interactive modeling so end-users can access, create, analyze, and share information throughout the company; new dashboards for a graphical, at-a-glance view of key business metrics; enhanced budgeting and forecasting with annotations, workflow, and wizard-driven interfaces; and enhanced reporting and analysis to compare actual, budget, and forecast results across dimensions such as customer, product, and region.

"The key thing about this is the ability to interact with, and not just access, the data," Soward added.

Working the Worksheet

CCH has likewise recognized that Excel is a common denominator in the industry and is giving its software suite, known as the ProSystem fx Office, a family resemblance to the Microsoft product.

The 2004 introduction of its Worksheet View interface for ProSystem fx Tax enabled users to input data directly into worksheets and consolidate the information necessary to complete a tax form in one location. The company also added the ability to import/export from worksheet summary grids to and from Excel spreadsheets. CCH's Cummings says new import/export capability was developed in response to how customers work.

According to CCH, more than 1,700 new clients have signed up for the product since its introduction two years ago. CCH estimates that about 25 percent of firms use the worksheet view exclusively, while another 25 percent to 30 percent have adopted it with at least some of the staff members.

Another product in the suite, ProSystem fx Planning, can import data directly from ProSystem fx Tax via the spreadsheet-style interface. The company's ProSystem fx Engagement also centers around the familiar Excel look to give users of the trial balance system a shorter learning curve.

Among its features is one that allows users to roll forward every engagement workpaper and report, automatically populating all Word and Excel financial statements and workpapers with current dates, account balances, and variances.

The Problem of Chasing Spreadsheets

Ian Miller of Healthways is all too familiar with the challenges of running a growing business on Excel.

"You can be small, but if you are tracking a number of pieces and want a decentralized process, Excel can be a problem," says Miller, senior director of financial planning analysis at the Nashville-based company, which provides health and care support services to a variety of organizations, including health plans.

Healthways is a company on a rapid growth path. However, along with the growth came the challenges of managing growth. As more and more people became involved in the budget process, the company had 70 to 80 versions of spreadsheet files in circulation-a recipe for mistakes.

Trying to minimize these issues, Healthways implemented Adaptive Planning's budget software about two years ago.

"We are now spending time analyzing, as opposed to capturing data," says Miller, who estimates that during budgeting time, the company is now at least 20 percent more effective.

Similarly, Rob Gettinger, senior investment banker at The Yale Group, a boutique investment banking firm, has been using ValuSource Software for more than 10 years and finds the valuation software's integration with Excel to be a great benefit.

"Because it is seamless with Excel, it is easy for me to generate [business valuation] reports without having to keystroke a lot of data," Gettinger says. He notes that more than half of the input required in getting a valuation is Excel data.

Integration and ease of use enables less-experienced associates to perform a greater portion of the required work, freeing up more of his time to focus on other areas. He estimates the software saves at least 20 hours of "hard labor" each time it is used.

"You get the tools the 'big boys' have [Goldman Sachs, etc.] and you can deliver a quality product at a fraction of the cost," Gettinger said.

Meanwhile, Barbara Parent, business and account manager for Control Concepts & Technology, a manufacturer of control systems for the oil and gas industry, has found much success with Peachtree by Sage, which has enhanced its ability to work with Excel.

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