Taming spreadsheet jockeys
Despite the hype about metrics-driven organizations, no one has yet put forth
a key performance indicator to evaluate the health of a data ware-housing
environment, so here is one: The health of a data warehousing environment is
inversely proportional to the number of spreadsheets used as data marts in the
organization. Spreadsheets run amok in most organizations.
They proliferate like poisonous vines, slowly strangling companies by
depriving them of a single, consistent set of information and metrics to
evaluate corporate performance and develop tactical and strategic plans.
Don't get me wrong. There is nothing inherently bad about spreadsheets. They
provide valuable functionality when used for their intended purpose as personal
productivity tools. Unfortunately, too many firms allow business analysts and
others to transform spreadsheets into data marts and corporate reporting
Many of us have witnessed
meetings that have degenerated into battles among business analysts who argue
vociferously about the merits of the data in their spreadsheets. They spend more
time arguing about ''whose data is right'' than helping their executives discuss
strategy and make decisions. Many exploit spreadsheets to protect their
organizational ''turf'' and to spin the data to reflect positively on their
group, sometimes at the expense of others.
These spreadsheet feuds make it impossible for organizations to create and
maintain a single version of the truth. Spreadsheets make it too easy for groups
to define their own metrics and to collect data from different sources at
various levels of granularity at different times. Thus, each spreadsheet
represents a unique view of the organization, an independent data mart --
or ''spreadmart'' if you will -- whose data cannot be reconciled with other
Moreover, by collecting and massaging their own data, analysts duplicate
effort and data. This hurts corporate productivity and increases costs. It also
turns business analysts into pseudo-data warehousing managers because they spend
an inordinate amount of time extracting and transforming data instead of
Exasperated by spreadsheet feuds and their drain on corporate productivity
and effectiveness, many executives finally recognize the need to invest in a
data warehouse and create a single version of the truth. But deploying a data
warehouse doesn't necessarily eliminate spreadmarts or the mentality that
created them. Analytic habits die hard, especially when there are political or
cultural reasons to resist change.
Consequently, many data warehousing managers find themselves in the untenable
position of competing for time, money and attention with the spreadmarts that
their data warehousing initiative was designed to replace.
Weaning spreadsheet jockeys
So what is a data
warehousing manager to do? How can you change analytic habits, resolve
informational turf wars, and eliminate spreadmarts that hold hostage the notion
of a single version of the truth? To many, these may be insurmountable
obstacles. Spreadmarts have caused the death of more than a few data warehousing
initiatives. However, there are a number of things you can do to tame
spreadsheet jockeys and their spreadmart creations.
1. Start at the top. Build your first application to support
the organization's top executives. Once they start using the data you provide,
everyone else will be forced to follow suit.
2. Throw a pizza
party. No joke. The only way you can get a single version of the truth
is to get all the relevant business parties in one room long enough to hash out
common definitions and rules for key business metrics. Buy plenty of pizza, lock
the door and post the CEO outside. Once you get enterprise-wide buy-in to
corporate metrics, the informational turf wars will dissipate.
Provide an incentive. Offer data, reports and functionality that
business users cannot get anywhere else. For example, the data warehouse (or
dependent data marts) may provide cross-functional views of data, external data,
or ways to annotate and distribute individual reports, among other things.
Unless the data warehousing environment provides at least 150% of the value of
the spreadmarts, you won't stand a chance of stamping out spreadmarts. Users
have to recognize that they are gaining more than they are giving up.
4. Make it easy to use and fast. Unless the new business
analytic tools make it easy for business users to access, find and use the data
warehousing environment, you lose. Also, users should not have to wait more than
five seconds to download or refresh a report, or to run a query.
Go with the flow. Some users will never give up their spreadsheets no
matter how robust an analytic environment you provide. So let them keep their
spreadsheets, but configure them as front-ends to the data warehouse. This way,
they can use their spreadsheets to access corporate-approved data, metrics and
reports. If they insist on creating new reports, provide an incentive for them
to upload their reports to the data warehouse instead of distributing them via
e-mail. For example, deploy a portal that lets them publish, subscribe and
collaborate on personal or workgroup reports.
high-quality data. If your data doesn't match users' expectations, they
won't use it. This means that you have to provide accurate data, and you must go
out of your way to explain where you got it, how it was calculated and why it
might differ from the reports they've been used to seeing. This meta data must
be integrated into the fabric of the application. That is, it must be displayed
alongside the report or data elements that users are viewing.
Sell, sell, sell. Once you've deployed a robust data warehousing
environment, never stop communicating and demonstrating its benefits. Show the
extra value it provides and how much time and money it saves individuals and the
organization. Emphasize what they get, not what they give up.
Following the above tactics will help you stamp out spreadmarts and deliver a
single version of the truth. The key is to be patient. Analytic habits don't
change overnight. It will also take time for groups to transition their turf
wars to other battlefields. With a heavy dose of patience, strong communication
skills and a robust data warehousing environment, you should be able to tame the
spreadsheet jockeys or, better yet, convert them into enthusiastic proselytizers
of the new environment.
Wayne W. Eckerson is director of education and research for The Data Warehousing Institute, where he oversees TDWI's educational curriculum, member publications, and various research and consulting services. He has published and spoken extensively on data warehousing and business intelligence subjects since 1994.