Winning the Battle of 42 Spreadsheets

Feb. 13, 2007
Because of the power to analyze numbers for all manner of uses from accounting to engineering, companies have needed to live in spreadsheets. Oftentimes, though, that lifestyle has produced pain and agony when one tries to verify a single point of truth.
For example, you, a spreadsheet generator/owner, and others from elsewhere in the company gather to discuss a spreadsheet everyone has reviewed. But almost immediately, you realize changes have been made since the last version you saw. No one can figure out which is the latest, true version. So, says Guy Creese, a content-management analyst with the collaboration and strategies group within Midvale, Utah-based IT consultants Burton Group (, “You then spend the entire meeting asking, ‘Will the real numbers please stand up?’ ”Battling spreadsheetsHe believes Microsoft Corp.’s ( Excel Services, released in November 2006 and part of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, will make these hair-pulling meetings disappear—and establish that single point of truth. To Creese, using those services means “winning the battle of 42 spreadsheets.”According to Microsoft, Excel Services extends the capabilities of Microsoft Office Excel 2007 through a scalable, server-based calculation service and interactive Web-based user interface. Users get broad sharing of spreadsheets and improved manageability and security of them. There’s also re-use of spreadsheet models. Through SharePoint, the services also can access enterprise-content-management features including check-in/check-out, auditing and versioning capabilities.“You access Excel Services through a Web browser,” Creese explains. “Suddenly, you can have people within the company and even outside, assuming they have editing privileges, altering the same spreadsheet.” He notes that if you can see the cell in which data or formulae are located, obviously you can edit that cell’s contents. Creese doesn’t believe that carte blanche editing rights should be given for the entire spreadsheet, but only for department-specific data.Imagine the evident beauty of having one spreadsheet on the server and only altering that spreadsheet. “When you get to the meeting, there’s only one spreadsheet, but it contains everyone’s changes—as opposed to the older way, in which you spent time cutting and pasting the changes, and then looking at that [revision],” Creese reiterates.He notes, however, that you cannot create the spreadsheet in Excel Services. That must be done, for example, on a personal computer (PC). “I export a Windows-based Excel spreadsheet to the SharePoint Server, and then you can edit it.” But Creese emphasizes that the spreadsheet will behave on the Web browser just as it would on the PC. Another significant, money-saving functionality of Excel Services that Creese mentions is its ability to query external sources to update information in a spreadsheet. “If you have a column of stock share prices, for example, through additional programming, you can have the spreadsheet go out and find new prices,” he explains. Of these functionalities—one common spreadsheet for all users, Web access and automatic data gathering from external sources—having the single spreadsheet is the most important, Creese asserts. That value goes beyond the focus that Excel Services brings. “Companies haven’t been able to wean users away from Excel—and that has been a problem for information control. But with Excel Services, the owner of the spreadsheet can control information on the spreadsheet,” he says.Even in companies that have made the switch to a business-intelligence application and its objects, however, Excel users still exist. Now, though, with Excel Services, those companies can still get a one-point-of-truth view, and thus, reliable numbers. Touting Excel Services as an example of using content for collaboration, Creese recaps, “Excel is here—and this (Excel Services) is just a way to make it friendlier.” C. Kenna Amos,