Spreadsheets are dead. Long live the spreadsheet!
By Mike Dorris
By Vincent A Veneziale
It never fails to amaze me how many seed businesses I come across that are so reliant on spreadsheets to run their seed production and processing operations. They actually use spreadsheets to manage their key business processes from seed production and inventory through to sales and invoicing. Multiple spreadsheets being updated and used to track the very fundamental operations and transactions of a seed business!
Very often these companies do not have much of a choice but to use spreadsheets. They need to use something to manage their seed operation, but their existing ERP system doesn't really do what they need it to do. Which is not surprising because seed production is unique and has some very specific requirements. The ERP system the accountants liked and selected for the company does not cater for the specific needs of seed production and inventory and is usually too expensive (difficult) to adapt (at least for the accountants it is!) – so that leaves the seed operation to find a different solution – which is almost always based on spreadsheets.
The creativity and skill to design and create these spreadsheets is phenomenal. Don't get me wrong, I think spreadsheets are great, flexible and certainly have a place in the world for doing the things spreadsheets are good at doing – like formatting charts and graphs, ad-hoc analysis and creating simple models. Using spreadsheets for doing things they cannot handle well could be more damaging than you realise. Spreadsheets are meant to be 'lightweight' databases and not the core databases of a seed business.
These companies are so accustomed to this reality that they probably don't realise the major challenges and time they waste.
Let me elaborate….
Spreadsheets do not roll up easily, allowing you a consolidated or to combine a view of the data from across the multiple spreadsheets used in the different areas and processes of the business. Sorting through multiple spreadsheets and countless numbers and transactions to compile the data can be confusing and very very time consuming.
It is a real struggle to get any meaningful reporting if you cannot bring together the data you need. To run a business successfully you need to have full control of your data.
Trying to get margin reports, sales volume reports, sales person performance and views on availability of inventory to help with planning production and scheduling deliveries would be challenging if not impossible.
Spreadsheets do not standardise processes across the business. So everyone does their own thing in their own way, however inefficient and ineffective this may be. This means that the data is inaccurate, out of date and not uniform with other data in other spreadsheets. This renders the data itself meaningless because you cannot rely on it and it cannot be used with other data to give you a big picture of what is really going on.
The different people involved in an organisation from the executives and managers to customers need access to reports and data and this can be at any given moment. Having quick, easy access to data is the only way to keep the business processes running smoothly. If that data is in disparate spreadsheets in different places in the business then this can be a disruptive processes and ultimately these issues cost money.
Even the best spreadsheets in the world can contain errors and mistakes, such as, double entries, mistyped values and formula issues.
How much time do the people using these spreadsheets spend tracking and fixing issues (if they notice they have an issue at all)? A study recently showed that regular 'spreadsheet' users were spending up to 18 hours per month doing just that. That's 18 hours per month spent doing non-productive activity. Multiply that by the number of people in a business doing that each month and it may shock you to realise how much time is being wasted. What else could be achieved if that time was spent on doing the productive activity?
Security & Data Integrity
Where are these companies keeping their spreadsheets? On a server? On someone's laptop? What if you lose the spreadsheet and don't have a back-up system in place? You could have lost days, weeks or months worth of valuable and critical business data.
The processes and people in a business cannot collaborate using a spreadsheet. Only one person at a time can update a spreadsheet. And how do you know you are updating the latest version of the spreadsheet? Which version of the spreadsheet do you look in to get a single version of the truth?
For seed businesses it is imperative that they are able to track and prove the provenance of any lot of seed. Where the seed came from and where the seed went. Seed companies are audited regularly to ensure that they are recording the information adequately.
If the spreadsheets cannot be relied on for accuracy and can be out of date or version control has gone off kilter then how can you prove that you are recording this information adequately to the auditors?
This is a major risk and should be of huge concern to a seed business.
The only real solution to reducing re-keyed data, having accurate and reliable data for reporting and running efficient business processes in a business is to invest in a centralised and integrated system.
Imagine if the seed company had a system fully capable of handling the specific requirements of the seed operation, allowing them to do away with all those spreadsheets.
Reporting would be easy as all the data across the business is in a single database and anyone who needs access to the reports and data would have access to it whenever they needed it.
The data would be accurate and reliable because it is validated when entered and uniformly defined irrespective of who entered it.
The business processes can be aligned properly so that the different areas of the operation work together in a more effective and efficient way.
The system's database is kept centrally and backed up regularly. Once the data is in the database it does not disappear.
No one has to spend the best part of 2.5 days each month correcting, consolidating and modifying data in spreadsheets. That's 2.5 days that would be better spent doing productive things to help grow the business and service the customer.
The system's database would be the master record keeper for all the traceability and detail regarding the seed lots and access to all the transactions would be quick and easy. The PHSI and BSPB auditors would love that.
An integrated system to run these companies' seed operations would enable them to free their people from the drudgery of wrestling with spreadsheets and allow them to focus on the important and productive things which would help to grow the business profitably.