A Cloud Solution for the Spreadsheet Proliferation Problem
March 31, 2009 Alex Woodie
One of the problems with running your business on Excel is that it introduces collaboration challenges. When spreadsheets are e-mailed around, data gets corrupted, the security of proprietary formulas gets compromised, and “cut and paste” becomes a business process. One vendor that has come up with a novel solution is eXpresso, which hosts an Excel-like product that multiple parties can access at the same time through a browser. Earlier this month, eXpresso became available through the industry portal Covisint, where it targets the auto industry.
Despite the investment of billions of dollars into product lifecycle management (PLM) and ERP solutions, much of the country’s manufacturing and distribution industry–and the automotive industry in particular–relies heavily on Microsoft Excel to collaborate with supply chain partners, says George Langan, CEO of eXpresso.
“In a perfect world, you wouldn’t be using Excel for the things you’re using it for,” Langan says. “What people love about Excel is they can create their own templates or data models on the fly. They don’t need IT to do it. They can change them anytime they want, and they have complete control over it. That’s just human nature.”
But, as is in the case in many things, the solution has spawned its own set of problems. While Excel’s de-centralized model is great for letting people work with data by themselves, it’s lousy at keeping a centralized record of changes, or of allowing people to collaborate without e-mailing back and forth. Security is basically non-existent, and spreadsheets are easy to corrupt.
Rather than trying to force people to use server-based PLM or ERP systems, eXpresso figured there was a market for building a better security and collaboration model around the popular product. “We thought we could put together a generalized Excel platform to give you the ability to collaborate on Excel spreadsheets in real time and be able to control them,” Langan says.
The company built its own spreadsheet software that mirrors most of Excel’s functionality, but which is not Excel. (A new version that offers 100 percent of Excel’s functionality, including graphing and charting functions–as well as support for Word and PowerPoint files, is reportedly near.)
When a spreadsheet is uploaded to the eXpresso server, it’s broken into constituent parts and hosted on an Oracle relational database. Basing the product on a powerful database platform lets eXpresso do some nifty things, which Langan calls “asymmetrical collaboration.” In short, this means that multiple users can be given access to different pieces of data, or cells, within the same spreadsheet, and excluding access to others.
“I can take a document, and give you one view of a spreadsheet, and somebody else an entirely different view, for hundreds of different people,” Langan says. “A manufacturer can give us the same document, but you can only see the parts that are relevant to you, and you can only act on those parts. And I can only see the parts that are relevant to me and act on those parts, but everything will roll back up to the owner of the spreadsheet or document in real time.”
The solution so impressed the folks at Covisint that the industry portal decided to partner with eXpresso and offer the online spreadsheet to its 45,000-member organizations in the automotive, healthcare, financial, and other manufacturing sectors, who rely on the portal for secure messaging (EDI), secure single sign-on (SSO), and managed access to trading partners’ computer systems.
“We were really excited at eXpresso’s business model and solution,” says Joe MacLellan, who’s in charge of partner strategies for Covisint in Detroit, Michigan. “It doesn’t require people to change their tool. If they’re using Excel today to track the change control process or engineering change orders or RFQ process, they don’t need to change the tool. You’ve got macros still, and business processes around filling out documents. You continue to keep all that, you just move it into the cloud.”
eXpresso could be a real time-saver for Covisint customers, according to MacLellan. “If I have an Excel file, and I need data from four people, then each one of them has to fill out a separate column’s worth of information,” he says. “If I have to send that file to all four of those people, it’s pretty easy for them to update their information. They have Excel and they know how to use it. But when they send it back, I have the original version, and four copies. And now I have to do the manual cutting and pasting to create the new version. Or if you do it in a daisy chain, when it’s in the middle of that process, I don’t know who to yell at or where it’s at.”
eXpresso’s alerting system, which automatically e-mails a spreadsheet owner and tells him who is accessing the spreadsheet and what cells are changing, holds a lot of promise. But to get there, users will have to get comfortable storing their data in the “cloud.”
“There’s going to be, as is for all cloud computing activity, a need for people to get over that mental hurdle of moving my solution to the cloud as opposed to having it on my C drive,” he says. “But as we see that becoming more prevalent, we see tools like eXpresso being more valuable to our users.”
Covisint customers can get access to eXpresso for $60 per user per month. eXpresso currently only supports Internet Explorer, although support for other Web browsers such as Mozilla Firefox is on the way. For more information on eXpresso and demos or downloads, check out www.expressocorp.com.