A little while ago, in her post Beware Supply Chain Excel Users—YOU are DOOMED!!!!, my colleague Khudsiya Quadri warned Microsoft Excel users that Excel is not a good option when enterprise applications are expected to be used. Reading her post and the comments that followed is a good exercise in learning different perspectives from different people. However, in my post, I’ll refrain from agreeing or disagreeing, but rather I’ll open another discussion that is also related to Excel—the user interface (UI).
My thoughts pertaining to Excel’s UI is triggered by a briefing that I just had with Siemens PLM regarding its Teamcenter offerings for the apparel, footwear, and accessories industries. During the presentation, a new feature caught my eye—the integration between Teamcenter 8 and Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint. In short, my understanding is that this feature allows PLM data and processes to be accessed within the Teamcenter environment and within the Microsoft Office environment and supports the control of content/data in a document in finer granularity than before. If you want to know more, Siemens PLM provides a three-minute video on its Web site explaining the Teamcenter-Office integration. This feature is innovative because word processing and spreadsheet documents in a PLM environment are usually treated as unstructured data objects managed through metadata (the tags or features of a document) rather than the content/data inside the document. I have to admit that this feature will prompt not only users’ productivity but also potential users’ buy-in when they are evaluating solutions.
The benefit of working with Microsoft Office more closely can also be seen by vendors in other enterprise software categories. As jbkuppe from Boardwalktech stated on Quadri’s post: Excel by itself is limited, but when coupled with a database which enables cell-level collaboration inside and outside the firewall, cell-level access control, auditability, security, and integration with [multiple] systems, supply chain users are very happy.”
Then, my question is, if a user has a real database-based enterprise system in place, why is Excel still being used? There might be multiple answers but I’d like to focus on one thing—the user habit. Excel has been around for 25 years and is the only prominent spreadsheet application on the market. Excel may not be a perfect tool, but after all these years, office workers’ experience has been tightly bound to Excel when they are thinking of entering, retrieving, and analyzing data. The familiarization and skills accumulated by the massive amount of Excel users are great assets to be used by enterprise software developers.
I was a fan of Super Mario Bros. when it was in a low resolution 2D format on Nintendo game consoles. When I tried the new 3D version on Nintendo Wii, I stopped playing it right away. Since my player experience had been locked with the old version, the look and feel of the new game wasn’t right—even though it was more beautiful and supposedly more entertaining to play. As for enterprise software (of course it is more serious than video games), no matter how complicated and advanced it is in the back-end, facing the end users, it’s better to be simple, intuitive, and familiar to users’ experience. As today’s enterprise software becomes more converged in terms of functionality (what the system can do), the UI (how the system allows user to do it) becomes a more important factor that distinguishes the good ones from the rest.
is that not a change management issue, even at isolated-individual level? how would you explain the reluctance of medical doctors to switch from manual note-writing to using an HIS with BI capability.
Hi, Ed - thought you might like to read this - about the “Excel” habit everyone has and why.
Good points, I would throw in that one of the reasons excel is kept even after a new program is provided is redundant capabilities. If the end user has to go through hours or weeks of training/effort just to learn to do things they’ve already been doing in excel for years, they’ll often get discouraged and just decide the new program doesn’t do anything excel can’t do and “sabotage” the project. Giving users the tools they’re familiar using then building on that can let them move more quickly through the “discouraging” phase where folks are saying “We already do this in excel”. Using your video game example, if we could let you play the new 3d game with the controller you were familiar with (rather than handing you a wii-mote and nunchuck) you’re more likely to enjoy the game than if we have to re-teach you how to run around using these crazy new controllers.
Yes, it IS a change management issue. And there is a huge emotional/ego investment as well, that I don’t think very many people consider when they are trying to wean users off their Excel-driven processes and workflow cultures. Remember, people are given Excel as part of the Office suite of software tools, and to do their work, they bend and twist whatever tools they have available to make it work for their needs. This involves an investment of their time, ingenuity, and sheer determination. When they have been “successful” with the system they have designed using Excel, they have a tremdendous and understandable reluctance to let go because of the investment they have put into it, and that generates also a fear that management will see their carefully crafted systems as “inferior” (which they’re not), which in turn could equate to judgement on the user’s performance itself. Education (training) on Excel itself can help this; explaining what Excel is designed to do, and what it is NOT designed to do, goes a long way to user acceptance of a real database and enterprise-wide solution. My two cents’ worth.
For one offs and snapshots excel is great. For enterprise systems, you need a database app. Nice that excel works with office and that is the biggest reason why businesses use it - and yes, with exremely ingenuitive bending of the tool. But the ablility of the tool to bend is part of what makes excel so great for individuals inside the organization. It is also what makes it terrible for standardized processes and data store required by enterprise systems.
I am not a Microsoft supporter, but I’m not a hater either.
If excel were so bad, it would not be the standard for business number crunching.
Hi lolo Tshaka, SandiSCE, and Chris,
Thank all of you for your inputs. Based on your comments, I think we can further the discussion to what the promising areas are for innovations (or changes). I had some discussions on this topic with my colleagues at TEC yesterday and the day before, and our conclusion was that the benefit of the new way had to be strong enough to make the learning process worthwhile.
Here I give you another example, the QWERTY keyboard layout. I heard that QWERTY is not an ideal layout, but imagine how hard it would be if you were asked to switch to another one. There are alternative layouts but none of them has gone far. So in this case, “keyboard layout” may not be a good place for innovation but in terms of “input devices”, innovations are possible and probably expected. Apple’s touchscreen technology is a good example of how change can be made if the benefit outweighs users’ investment in learning. Interestingly, this innovation goes back to the human nature of using hands, or more precisely, fingers. So to answer your question, lolo Tshaka, iPad (or other similar devices) may find its value for medical doctors so they can have manual note-writing and HIS with BI capability at the same time.
I could not agree more with lolo and Sandi. this is certainly a change management issue and needs to be handled accordingly.
Oh if only I could get rid of excel - don’t get me wrong - I love the flexibility of excel coupled with database access. However the reason excel is king is because the average user cannot get access to IT time or investment to move their excel models into their current or new applications. With excel and an inovative approach - most business reporting is possible
Several years ago we tried to get our customers to “move” off Excel to immerse themselves completely in their enterprise application (ERP or others). But what we’ve realized in the past few years is that having a dedicated data input and transaction system such as an ERP system is vital to capture data, but external tools can be a fantastic tool for analysis, reporting, etc.
Why do managers and, most important of all, secretaries, love Ms Excel? 1. Because it is the same as working with paper and pencil, no modifications of the common business routines and practices are required, 2. It produces nice printouts with no invlolvement of the computer staff, which is always hard to get. 3. They can modify the Excel sheet for themselves so that it suits their
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