We've all seen the plot. Something helpful and friendly comes into our lives, and we make it part of our routine. But then it grows out of control and becomes a monster, knocking down neighborhoods, stock exchanges and even whole economies.
We might feel like we're living through that horror movie now. But there's another menace out there that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves, even though it has cost companies and consumers billions and played a central role in the demise of some formidable institutions. It sits on nearly every PC in the world, and it goes by the name of Excel, Quattro Pro, Numbers and lesser-known brands.
Yes, it's our common electronic spreadsheet, and some of its more notable snafus include a $2.4bn overstatement of dividends by Fidelity Investments, and the artificial inflation of U.S. natural gas prices by as much as $1bn. Faulty spreadsheets also led to the undoing of Enron, WorldCom and Parmalat, the Italian food and dairy conglomerate.
Although this year marks the 30th anniversary of the electronic spreadsheet, its problems continue unabated. Just ask Barclays. A formatting error on an Excel program put the investment giant on the hook for millions in Lehman Brother legacy assets that they did not intend to buy.
How did we get to this point, and why don't we do something?
First a confession. I did my part in feeding this menace. When I was fresh out of college, I was tasked with developing a service parts inventory system for a major high-tech company. Around the same time, a wonderful new tool had come on the market called VisiCalc.
It was like a leap into the future. VisiCalc did all the calculations in a spreadsheet's cells automatically - without our having to re-enter them. And it fit easily on every computer terminal. I encouraged my Fortune 250 company to use the program, and for the first time ever, service parts became consistently available when and where we needed them. Moreover, we saved millions of dollars by not over-investing in stock levels.
VisiCalc was soon replaced by Lotus 1-2-3, and suddenly the new child in our midst had become a vibrant teenager. It could drive more numbers, develop graphics and perform database operations. But already it was giving us headaches, as if it had a teenage mind of its own. If someone in our company entered data inconsistently, or changed a variable, or came up with a homegrown application, our calculations would be off, frequently without our knowledge. And despite the greater sophistication of spreadsheet products over the years, they continue to be unreliable. One research study found that through the late 1990s and early 2000s, an average 94 percent of organizational spreadsheets contained errors.
There have been attempts to rein in spreadsheets, such as dedicated planning systems and packaged software. But these solutions require constant updates and heavy investment in IT infrastructure, not to mention an inordinate amount of staff hours. So, most organizations continue to depend on spreadsheets, despite their adolescent tendencies - such as driving a company into the ditch now and again.
There is an alternative, however, to arrested technological development. And that alternative is tough love. Throw the teenager out - or, at least, off the premises.
In the small company I run now, which enables much larger companies to optimize their supply chain management, we've gone through a number of solutions. The best one turns out to be something called software as a service - or SaaS, for short - just the thing for an unruly teenager.
SaaS basically takes all the inputs that once went into the end-user spreadsheet and sends them to an off-site IT system, where designated techies control the data. Your organization can still request models, reports, communications and a wide variety of data analyses. But SaaS has taken the keys away - the ones on the PC - as far as the spreadsheet functions go.
The advantages over spreadsheets are several. Data inputs are more secure. Software updates are tested for soundness and then automatically deployed. And investment in IT infrastructure is minimal. SaaS does require organizations to trust others with their data. And it represents a tightening of end-user control, which might seem counterintuitive in this age of ever-downward shifting power. But as we move toward smart grids, electronic healthcare reports and other forms of societal digitization, SaaS provides a 21st Century technology that is up to the task.
Meanwhile, error-prone spreadsheets continue to underpin such critical functions as financial reporting, data storage, supply chain management and regulatory compliance -feeding future debacles that are largely hidden from us. With so much at stake, isn't it time we forced this underachiever to leave home and join the networked world?
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