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Bringing Spreadsheets Back In From The Cold

Posted by Brendan Canny in: robotic process automation, Automation, Artificial Intelligence, IPA, Intelligent Process Automation, RPA

We all love to hate spreadsheets, but they really are a victim of their own success. They are just so useful, and packed with features and programming ability. A recent report from the Altus Group, entitled The Innovation Opportunity in Commercial Real Estate: A Shift in PropTech Adoption and Investment shows that they are still an important tool for our industry, despite the emergence of newer technology.

60% of CRE professionals are using spreadsheets as their primary tool for reporting

The report says that, while a majority of CRE firms have now invested in integrated CRE software solutions, many are still using spreadsheets for critical CRE functions. Standout examples are 60% using spreadsheets as their primary tool for reporting, 51% for valuation and cash flow analysis, and 45% for budgeting and forecasting.

But, as useful as they are, there is no denying the downside of the spreadsheet. In 2015,a study reviewed more than 15,000 spreadsheets that formed part of the Enron Corporation court case, and discovered that 24% of the spreadsheets (with at least one formula) contained an error, 76% of the spreadsheets used the same 15 (out of about 300) functions, and 10% of emails (up to 100 a day!) were about errors and updates to spreadsheets.

So, is there a happy middle ground that recognizes the utility and demand for spreadsheets, but mitigates some of these downsides?

24% of spreadsheets contained an error

We think so. What we are seeing among our automation clients, is some companies making a positive choice to continue using spreadsheets for a range of reasons, including the ability to report on data in very specific ways; or running custom calculations and manipulating data in ways not supported by their software application.

For other companies, spreadsheets still play an important role as they migrate to newer systems and need to deploy spreadsheets as an easy and cost-effective integration patch, reformatting data as it moves between different systems. This bridging function allows companies to pick the best systems for their requirements, and provides a useful work around to expensive, bespoke, time-consuming development to get these disparate systems to integrate with each other.

Automating data entry reduces human error, speeds up the process and standardizes the business rules

In both cases, automation can be deployed to mitigate some of the challenges that spreadsheets create. For instance, automating data entry reduces human error, speeds up the process, standardizes the business rules, and even allows companies to include steps in the process that previously had been too onerous and time consuming. Automation can also solve challenges around version control and audit trails, creating a single source of truth you can be confident about. And your people will be happier, and freed up to do more strategic, rewarding things. Where previously they might have had to wade through multi-step, time-consuming spreadsheet-centered processes, in many cases they now simply email an instruction to a software robot, and then are alerted when the task is completed.

The reality is there is never going to be a single software package, or set of applications, to rule them all. That takes us straight back to the days of single vendor, black box scenarios. But by adding process automation to spreadsheets, companies can get the best of all worlds: tapping into the right, cutting-edge software to achieve their goals, and not spending hours, and dollars, on integrating. And, when they are ready to unlock more insights from their data, it will be clean, understandable and trusted. And there will be fewer wild goose chases trying to track down the most recent version of a spreadsheet lost in a multi-part email trail!

If any of this resonates with you, or if you find yourself wading through spreadsheets on a daily basis, let's start the conversation on how we can help. 

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