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Can Business Information Systems be Developed on Excel? YES!

Ask yourself: what can I do with the Excel I have on my computer? In most cases, the answer will be: maintain tables, compute with formulas, present data as charts, summarize tables by different variables. The advanced users among us will add: record a sequence of tasks and save as a “Macro” for automatic repetition. * Did you know that Excel offers a complete development environment allows for information systems for almost any purpose to be realized at a significant lower time and cost?

Every entrepreneur, business owner or a corporate manager knows that information systems are essential for business growth. Where an existing solution is not available for purchase, a “tailored made” (or bespoke) solution must be developed to support the business processes. However, working with a software house to analyze the business requirements, design, plan, develop and implement such a solution is very costly, inhibiting many from going that direction. Their workaround? Non-professional improvisations using Excel tables, disparate documents, file folders etc.

The problem: attempting to manage structured information as part of our business processes using disparate Excel tables compromises our business in several ways:

  • The information and the processes are disconnected. We need to wire in our head relationships between different tables and files, in order to implement the business process we have “in our head”.
  • The data is unrelated. Tables relationships, association of documents to rows in a table, lookup reference lists for filtering and searching – they all are not linked, opening the door for data entry errors, duplication and presentation of a wrong picture of reality.
  • Tedious data entry prone to errors. Filling out rows in wide tables, without any data validation and compliance to our business rules, leads to waste of time and errors we may never find out about.
  • Limited analytics options. In order for the operational data accumulating in our tables to serve us in managing our business and offer business insight, it needs to be aggregated and viewed in multiple ways. Usually, our possibilities to gain such intelligence using Excel’s analytics tools, based on disparate tables not designed for this purpose – are very limited.
  • We nurture a “Spaghetti” of data instead of information and knowledge. As the amount of our data grows, without a proper database planning, it becomes a burden, instead of an asset. We find it difficult to locate data, to count on the reliability of the data, the files are inefficient to work with and it becomes highly challenging to migrate the data into other information systems.

Excel: An Advanced Development Environment in the Palm of your Hand

The following form is part of a comprehensive training and competencies system developed for one of my customers. The solution supports all of the annual planning processes, training allocations, email and SMS reminders, certifications control at the department level, training results reporting, Retroactive training inquiry, certificates publishing, reports for managers in different levels, and dashboards. The system was developed on Excel in an architecture of a central Databases (MySQL) serving all system users who use specific Excel files as their solution interface.

Analyzing the requirements, planning, designing, developing and delivering this system could have easily reached $30,000 or more, using “traditional”, non-Excel technologies. With Excel and the MySQL Database the total investment was about half.

The following dashboard is part of a comprehensive sales management system serving another customer of mine, a company distributing projects to all large hotel chains worldwide. This personal dashboard alerts the sales rep to the tasks requiring his attention and presents the status of his personal pipeline. Hidden from the eye, the system centralizes data from 15 Excel files serving the sales reps, producing different dashboards to managers in different levels in the company.

This solution could have easily cost $40,000 using a software house not using Excel, but ended up at about half that mark by using Excel.

As you can see, beautiful, sophisticated business information systems supporting mission critical business processes can be realized in any industry, with Excel. I like to put it this way:

For an information systems developer, Excel offers a standard development environment, from which Excel’s out-of-the-box interfaces and tools can be leveraged, in designing a beautiful and intuitive to use software solutions, realizing significant reduction in investment and time.

Are there any drawbacks to developing information systems with Excel?

While Excel can be the ideal platform for certain solutions, few limitations and constraints needs to be considered:

  • Few business-grade developers available in the market. Excel is not positioned by Microsoft as a development platform, while a wide range of other technologies are available and used to train students in universities. The Excel programming language, VBA, used also in developing with MS-Access, by the way, is not popular, therefore not many experienced developers with the required computer programming background are available to develop advanced business information systems.
  • Excel is not suitable for Internet information systems (used as web application through web browsers).
  • Lack of full compliance between Excel VBA code running on Windows and Excel VBA code running on a Mac with Apple’s operating system. Special care and implementation considerations are required in some cases when the solution needs to be supported on both.

What Can You Do?

When I meet business owners and corporate managers, I offer the following process:

  1. Identify your main processes, requiring a robust information system
  2. Maintain a detailed diagram showing the work process, people taking part, different steps inter-dependencies, parallel vs. sequential execution of steps. This is very important and will allow you also to improve and fine-tune your business processes. This is to be revisited periodically.
  3. Go shopping for adequate solutions readily available that adequately supports your business processes. Typically, a standard solution that meets 80% or more of your requirements should be seriously considered.
  4. If a “Tailored Made” solution needs to be developed, approach software houses with Excel development experience, you might end up with a reasonably priced solution providing the required business outcome.

I’m always happy to discuss your situation and needs and offer a free initial advise on the strategic direction for you.

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