It is one of the fundamentals of business management but one which many argue is often not up to the job. The Microsoft Excel spreadsheet is the workhorse of corporate decision-making, but its ease of use and familiar interface means that users gravitate towards it even when the data analysis they want to undertake would be better executed using a business intelligence tool and data sources held centrally.
Every time employees use Excel to analyse corporate data, the resulting information is locked away on local hard drives, inaccessible to the business intelligence (BI) tools that companies have invested small fortunes in.
As one delegate at Information Age's June executive roundtable debate on BI explained: "Excel is the most widely used reporting tool in the business. It's important because it allows users to manipulate data in ways that are useful to them."
But these separate pockets of information make it difficult for organisations to arrive at any consistent set of conclusions. Moreover, the majority of BI data is also still held in different silos by different departments and groups. That has created a pressing need for rationalisation.
As the IT director of a financial services company explained at the debate: "Getting a single view of the data is a key priority; not only a business one but a regulatory one."
While IT organisations try to smooth out data inconsistency, many of the BI tools vendors have come to terms with the Excel factor by launching add-ons to their products.
For some IT managers any attempts to force users away from the spreadsheet interface is tackling the problem from the wrong end: "What IT needs to do is to get out of the way and give end users the tools they need to do their jobs," said the IT director of a large media company. That is the way to increase the wider acceptance of BI, he added.
As the boundaries between spreadsheets and BI tools dissolve, businesses will be able to make better use of operational data. "We capture a phenomenal amount of data, but the value of what we collect is questionable unless we can provide context," said the divisional head of a large telecoms provider.