I was reading this article on the BBC about Excel today, which made gave me some ideas about a post. There is no doubt Excel is a powerful tool (other spread sheet software is available!) but unfortunately it is often misused, or used in error.
Firstly anyone has used it will know how easy it is to make a mistake. Its easy to construct a bad formula or worse one that returns an error. I joked on twitter earlier about unit testing spread sheets but as far as I’m aware this isn’t possible or doesn’t happen. This means that potentially important business decisions can be made with poorly tested calculations, the effects could be disastrous.
Worse though is that while data lives in a spread sheet on someone’s hard drive its not available for others to use. The same is true of Access databases, which potentially live on single machines, where the data is not organised or shared in anyway that is useful to other people in the business.
As I am currently interested in data analysis its a real shame to think that potentially useful data is languishing on employees hard drives. It would be great if instead of storing data in this way that Excel users were accessing a data store, a warehouse for example, where they could use a product like PowerPivot to show visualisations, but without the need to store the data locally. That said in this day and age I still think that is not a particularly common scenario. The data needs to be easily available to Excel users, in a way that makes logical sense, so that it can be manipulated without having to always go through IT.
While this is a long way from Big Data, I think this is one of the first steps a business can make to become more data aware. To link a companies systems, like CRM’s, sales data, website stats, HR information and accounting, would begin to empower a business to look at details that really matter, like when are the busiest periods, who are the most likely customers, and how much services cost to implement. I’m sure it would be possible in any business to see interesting patterns, and to surface facts that no one was aware of.
Finally I noticed that its Big Data Week starting tomorrow, which includes a day in London on the 25th April. I’d like to have made it along as some of the topics sound great, but doubt I will be able to.