5 Ways to Improve Spreadsheets for Business Workflows

I recently wrote about five ways spreadsheets are destroying your business. Spreadsheets are a versatile tool for performing rapid, ad hoc data analysis, developing presentation materials, creating small knowledge bases, and collaborating with small teams. But when spreadsheets become operational tools in repetitive business processes, the manual effort required to maintain data quality and develop workflows can be costly and error-prone.

When spreadsheets become part of an ongoing process, it’s time for everyone who uses them — business leaders, solution architects, data scientists, and software developers — to rethink migration options to more robust platforms.

Since spreadsheets are the Swiss Army knife of office tools, the suitable alternatives for modernization include different types of platforms. Some spreadsheets can be replaced by configurable software-as-a-service tools, while others require a more customizable solution. Low-code options make it easier for developers to create and support improvements, and no-code options allow users to develop their own solutions.

For larger scale and more complex workflows, development teams can consider custom applications, Business Process Management (BPM) platforms, or other enterprise application development frameworks. Once a workflow fulfills a domain-specific or industry-specific need and is used by multiple departments, it’s worth revising platforms specific to the task at hand rather than replacing spreadsheets with lighter tools.

Depending on the data types, workflow, presentation requirements, security considerations, and required collaboration, different platforms are worth considering. In many cases, platforms tackle more than one type of use case, and many of the ones I list can fall into multiple categories.

Here are five ways to replace spreadsheets based on different platform types. Most organizations require several options to cover their broad spreadsheet usage scenarios.

Build a data visualization or dashboard

If a spreadsheet is largely a channel to display graphs and charts, one option is to rebuild the data visualizations into a self-service business intelligence (BI) platform. The best approach is to rediscover the underlying requirements and rebuild dashboards to meet business needs, rather than transferring the existing charts to a new platform.

Citizen developers and data scientists should consider identifying user personas, documenting the questions dashboards will answer, addressing data quality issues, and following data visualization standards. Some platforms are standalone data visualization tools, but many allow developers to embed visualizations directly into applications and other platforms.

Platforms to consider include Domo, KNIME, Looker, Power BI, Qlik, Sisense, Tableau, and ThoughtSpot.

Migrate to a SaaS or no-code database

If the spreadsheet is storing original data for a knowledge base or workflow, you probably need a database to migrate and manage the data. Assuming this is structured data (sheets with rows and column data), you can import it into a managed public cloud database like AWS Relational Database Service or Azure SQL, but that leaves you with additional development work around workflow tools and dataops.

Another option is to view SaaS and low-code databases that help you create the database structures, load data, develop role-based workflows, and create dashboards. Platforms to consider are Caspio, Kintone, and Quickbase.

Beyond SaaS, low-code, and cloud databases, architects and IT leaders should also explore domain-specific data lakes and data warehouses that support complete, end-to-end workflows. Examples include customer data platforms for customer data, AIops solutions for IT operations, marketing automation platforms, and enterprise search platforms. These platforms enable an easier connection to the common data sources for their domains and then provide a mix of workflow, machine learning, and reporting capabilities.

Enable department collaborations and workflows

Let’s look at a use case where a department or team uses spreadsheets to manage a workflow. The workflow can be a marketing team’s editorial calendar, a production department’s Kanban to manage work inflow and execution, or a field service team keeping track of their duties. These spreadsheets typically store just enough data to manage the workflow, but lack the configuration to track and control the process.

SaaS and no-code tools aim to enable a hybrid of workflow and collaboration capabilities. Platforms to consider include Airtable, Asana, Jira Work Management, Monday, Smartsheet, and TrackVia.

For larger scale and complex workflows, you should look at domain-specific platforms with data models, workflow configurations, and embedded best practices. These span a wide variety of platforms, including enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, content management, IT service management, flexible collaboration, talent management, and financial planning.

Hyper-automate integrations and data flows

Sometimes spreadsheets are used as intermediate steps in a data flow, integration, or low-level automation. A marketer may use a spreadsheet to aggregate email lists, or an IT engineer may have one to document the steps to reboot an application server. There are many spreadsheet-in-the-middle use cases where someone connects two ends of a stream and does some manual work in the middle.

Several types of platforms can replace the spreadsheet-in-the-middle use case:

  • Extract, Transform and Load (ETL), data prep, and other data ops platforms such as Alteryx, Informatica, Tableau, and Talend support data flows and pipelines.
  • Robotic process automation (RPA) tools such as Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, and UiPath can automate the extraction of information from websites, SaaS, and other sources.
  • Citizen integration technologies support if-this-then-that integrations between SaaS, cloud and other tools, including Zapier, IFTTT and Tray.io.
  • Integration platforms support data, API, and workflow integrations and include robust platforms such as Boomi, Celigo, Jitterbit, MuleSoft, and SnapLogic.
  • IT automation, test automation for quality assurance, CI/CD, and configuring infrastructure as code (IaC) are examples of IT platforms used to consolidate scripts, manual work, and spreadsheets into repeatable and automated processes.

Build an application with little or no code

If a spreadsheet performs multiple functions, including loading data, processing it, enabling collaboration, and presenting results, you may need to develop an application to replace it. Of course, you can code an app, deploy it in a serverless architecture, and maintain it through a flexible development process. But one of the reasons these workflows have evolved using spreadsheets is that IT can’t easily meet business demand for new apps and improvements.

Today, a significant portion of apps are developed on low-code and no-code platforms. Consider checking out my previous posts on seven keys to selecting a low-code platform and the seven low-code platforms developers should know. Some platforms that help developers and citizen developers build spreadsheets in apps include Appian, Betty Blocks, Bizagi, Caspio, Claris, Creatio, Google AppSheet, Mendix, Microsoft PowerApps, Oracle APEX, OutSystems, Pega, Quickbase, Retool, Unqork and Vantiq.

Before you leave that spreadsheet

While there are many options for replacing spreadsheets, keep in mind that apps cannot easily replace the openness and flexibility of using them. People love the versatility of spreadsheets and the ability to add columns, modify data, and create formulas on the fly — something you’ll likely have control over when you migrate the data and workflow to other platforms. It also means people have to get used to new experiences, tools and user interfaces, along with the idea that aspects of what people did manually are now being automated.

Before you get started, it’s important to work with the primary users. Relax how they do things today and rebuild the requirements for what they are trying to achieve in terms of business purpose, quality and scale. Only then can you explore platforms, create prototyping approaches, develop solutions and make improvements.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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