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Outgrowing Microsoft Excel (and What to Do About It)

Find this Podcast “Outgrowing Microsoft Excel (and What to Do About It)” on the ThreeWill Soundcloud, Stitcher, and iTunes.

Outgrowing Microsoft Excel (and What to Do About It)

Danny Ryan:Hello and welcome to Two Bald Brothers and a Microphone podcast. This is your host, Danny Ryan, I’m here today with Bruce Harple. How’re you doing Bruce?

 

Bruce Harple:Hey, good morning Danny, doing great.

 

Danny Ryan:Good to be back with you for our quarterly discussion here.

 

Bruce Harple:Absolutely. Always fun to do these.

 

Danny Ryan:Excellent. We’re actually going to do a followup from the last one that we did on application modernization. What do you want to talk about today?

 

Bruce Harple:Yeah. What I want to do is take it from a very generic and general concept down to, let’s just pick something really specific. What I want to talk about today is the modernization of Excel.

 

Danny Ryan:What do you mean by the modernization of Excel?

 

Bruce Harple:Really what I mean is, it’s really moving Excel from a client side, so it’s sitting on somebody’s laptop or desktop single user tool, to something that’s really … it’s cloud based, it’s collaborative, it’s a multiuser solution or application, or a collection of solutions. So, really moving it from a tool to something that actually provides other business value to an organization and can be turned into an actual cloud based solution.

 

Danny Ryan:Tell me about, how are people currently using Excel? What’s the current usage of it?

 

Bruce Harple:Excel is just an amazing tool. We kid around and we call Excel the Swiss army knife of technology, because there’s not an organization anywhere that’s not using Excel throughout the whole organization. Everybody thinks of it as a back office, finance, accounting tool, because it’s that rows, and columns, and totals and all that stuff. It’s used by many of our customers to track marketing development funds, track front door requests that are coming in, to manage their portfolio of projects at a broad level for leadership reviews. It’s used by sales, by marketing, by operations. It’s just a great way to capture information and keep track of it.

 

Bruce Harple:But today, it’s very much a single user tool, and when I say that it means I create a spreadsheet information, and if I want to collaborate with others in my team, I email it to them. So I’ll email it to you, Danny, you’ll review it, you’ll add your line items, and you’re going to send it to Tommy. He’ll add his line items and then it comes back to me, and then there’s all these iterations, we’ll call it a different name. I might call it version one, you’ll call it version one underscore Danny, so you have multiple versions floating around. At the end of the day, you don’t know which is the right and the final version. So, it’s not really … the way it’s used today, it’s difficult to collaborate.

 

Danny Ryan:How do I modernize Excel then? What’s the first step? Talk me through this.

 

Bruce Harple:Yeah. So really, when we think about monetization of Excel, we’re really thinking about fundamentally moving it from a client side tool right to, let’s put it in the cloud. Because now, once it’s in the cloud, now I can collaborate. Anybody that has a browser on any device can come in and collaborate and work on an Excel document. What I’ve done, Danny, is I’ve laid out … when we talked to customers about modernizing applications, we talked about different levels of maturity on how deep and how broad you go with that modernization, from basic to advanced, to strategic, to visionary. That’s how we try to categorize things.

 

Bruce Harple:What I wanted to do was just talking about … so if I’m going to modernize Excel, what are the steps to get there? Because I can crawl before I walk. I could walk before I run, it’s that analogy. Start with level one. How do I begin? Level one is just taking and using Excel online, and Office 365. Probably the biggest value thing that you get out of that is, now I can enable coauthoring have a document.

 

Danny Ryan:So now there’s no more emailing the document around?

 

Bruce Harple:Yeah. I’m not emailing the document around. I’m sure that document is with you and Tommy and all three of us can be in there at the same time updating that document right here. We can see each other changes.

 

Danny Ryan:Welcome to the 21st century.

 

Bruce Harple:Exactly, exactly. Really, that’s moving from single user to multiple user. We can all collaborate together, and now I can share that document in a central repository, so I can either put it in one drive for business, or I can put it in a SharePoint document library. Maybe there’s a ‘department document library’, or something like that on my intranet. Now I’m getting it in one place, I’m collaborating, and I’m sharing that document. That’s basic, and so next I want to go up to level two. Now, I’m doing that, everybody’s bought in, we’re all collaborating.

 

Danny Ryan:Let’s level up, Bruce.

 

Bruce Harple:Let’s go up.

 

Danny Ryan:Let’s level up.

 

Bruce Harple:Next is really, now, what if I start to leverage Power BI, another tool in Office 365. Now I can take this a Excel spreadsheet that’s sitting in the cloud, that we can all collaborate on, put in Power BI on top of that. Now, I can really simplify consumption of that spreadsheet. Spreadsheets, they could be big and complex, and to often find information in spreadsheets can really be difficult. With Power BI, I can turn it into a dashboard, and it could be very graphical. I can generate pivot tables. When you think about decision making and analysis … now let’s take another tool and get more value out of those spreadsheets, and again, in the collaborative environment, I can share those BI dashboards now outputs with everyone on my team. We can all collaborate, we can all analyze, we can all make decisions together. That’s what I call getting up to the next level, level two or advanced.

 

Danny Ryan:Nice. Next level, or is that it for that level?

 

Bruce Harple:That’s it for that level. We got two more to go.

 

Danny Ryan:Kick it up a notch.

 

Bruce Harple:The next level we call strategic. Yeah. This is where we begin to move from Excel to a PowerApp. So now we’re talking about an application, still with Power BI, that becomes a key piece of the solution as well, and what that allows is multiuser contribution on any consumption of that data that was previously stored in Excel. We’re getting more towards the single source of the data because now instead of the database stored in the spreadsheet, it’s likely to be stored in a SharePoint list, in Office 365-

 

Danny Ryan:Maybe a relational table.

 

Bruce Harple:Maybe. We’re getting into creating a modern form, or a user experience that sits on top of all that data. Instead of a spreadsheet UX, where I’m just in there and massaging cells, and columns, and rows, now I put a form on top of it, so I really simplify and broaden the number of people that can actually enter data into that spreadsheet, into that table.

 

Danny Ryan:This next level, you’re actually moving out of Excel, you’re putting it into a SharePoint list or a lightweight database somewhere outside of Excel. This is almost like an approach to prototyping something out, and then your application … it sounds almost like you’re moving towards conforming the app to be more usable by a larger group of people, easier to use and where you’re using … the whole prototyping piece is being done in Excel, but in the end you’re moving off it to something else, it sounds like.

 

Bruce Harple:Exactly. Yeah. It’s basically putting a UX on top of Excel, and you’re moving that Excel backend content into a data store in the cloud, which like you said, could be SharePoint or could be some simple relational table. And it is, it really broadens the usage and the number of people that can contribute to that solution. You can also begin to put complex business rules in to really help ensure the integrity of that data. Now I can start putting logic around what’s being entered. I can just start doing drop down boxes and things like that. I can do multi select. It starts to move it towards an application, but it’s an application that is going to help … you can secure your data, but it’s going to help you make sure that that data is good and valid and what you would expect. It gets to make that data more uniform.

 

Bruce Harple:It also enables you to start adding search capabilities. Today if I want to find something in a spreadsheet, I can go up and I can use the find button with the find box, but now I can actually, with a search, go find a specific row in that table now and get to a specific piece of data that I’m looking for. I can filter all the data and sort it differently in a UX that’s not so Excel based. Again, it’s going to open up the number of people that can come in and enter data, consume that data. You’ll get the data much quicker.

 

Danny Ryan:To level up on this, with skillset … because we’re moving now from somebody who’s just editing an Excel document and sharing that document, to one where it sounds like the front end could either be a SharePoint list or it could be a PowerApp or some custom front end for it, but then we’re starting to talk about … then that moves outside the power user type of … or maybe the power user could use SharePoint lists as the front end, but it sounds like PowerApps and starting to do some of this customs search stuff, then we’re starting to get in … are we getting into development yet? That’s my question.

 

Bruce Harple:At this point, we’re probably getting into some development, for sure, to create that UX, but there’s a lot that you can do that a developer could do out of the box from Office 365. I don’t necessarily have to write code to get to the point of using and building a PowerApp that … you could think of a power up as something that sits on top of Excel. The other thing you have, is you could begin looking at Excel add ins, which are adding other capabilities to an Excel spreadsheet that can enable some of the same capabilities to simplify entry of data, to implement business rules and things like that, and to automate some of the aspects of an Excel spreadsheet. There are a couple of different directions you can go, but yeah, you’re starting to move now into something that really becomes more of a solution.

 

Danny Ryan:I’m ready for the next level.

 

Bruce Harple:The next level is level four, which we call visionary. This is really where … now, let’s say I have a spreadsheet where I wanted to collaborate with external users outside of my business, outside of my enterprise. To do that … hard to do with Excel without emailing an attachment. I could share something with Excel Online with an external user, but if you really want external collaboration, you’re moving now to more of a custom application more than likely, still with SharePoint as the back end, capturing all that list data, that Excel data.

 

Bruce Harple:But I can begin now also to make sure that that solution is more mobile responsive as well. This is really where I want to get into the more advanced application that can be used by people outside of my company, that I can make mobile responsive, any device anywhere concept. I can also be looking at more advanced Excel add ins as well. It’s really moving further, deeper into that stack of tools and technologies to enable these custom solutions.

 

Danny Ryan:It sounds like a key aspect of this is you’re now branching outside your own organization or outside your own company, and starting to have people interact with that data outside.

 

Bruce Harple:That’s right. Exactly.

 

Danny Ryan:Cool. Was there a fifth level?

 

Bruce Harple:That is it. Four levels.

 

Danny Ryan:That’s it.

 

Bruce Harple:That’s it, level four. We fully powered up. You’re at the top.

 

Danny Ryan:You’re talking through this. It really sounds like this is almost an approach for companies to take for creating line of business applications. The first step for all of this is to mock it out in Excel, a lot of data’s relational, and so using a simple table in Excel is a good starting point. Sounds like what you’ve described to me is like, what are the steps of … and I think there’s some … what’s also interesting might be to talk about the triggers of, when do I know I have to move beyond that Excel spreadsheet, because then at that point in time, all of a sudden you’re incurring costs, you’re staring to … you have to have some business case for, “Why can I not just manage this in Excel?”

 

Danny Ryan:It sounds like for some of the customers that we’ve worked with, it may be anything from a security standpoint, where they’re trying to control the data, like, “We can’t just have everybody edit an Excel spreadsheet, we’ve got to control certain aspects of the data. Two, we need to have it accessible on mobile devices-”

 

Bruce Harple:Correct.

 

Danny Ryan:“… or we need to have it accessible to people outside of our organization.” There’s certain things that come along that say, “You know what, we’ve outgrown Excel. We need to start talking about … well, let’s move beyond this”, and there are certain key things that come into play, where you start saying, “Okay, well what’s the next level that we have to look at, and is that worth the cost involved in this?” I think what’s interesting as well is when you move up levels, you’ve now … you’ll lose some of the things that you have in Excel. Where originally it was just an Excel spreadsheet that you could go in and make easy changes to, now it’s an app that you’ve got to … you don’t have that access to the data, so easily manipulate it like you could be before, but it’s a just very interesting approach.

 

Danny Ryan:How do I get started? This sounds interesting. I’ve outgrown my level one, and I’ve shared it with my group, and I realized I am in a bit of chaos, let’s say for the reasoning of, I’ve got to control or audit certain information that I am storing in this Excel spreadsheet. Talk me through the next steps from there.

 

Bruce Harple:You triggered another thought when you were talking before this. The other thing you were talking about, moving away from Excel, and now I’m in a PowerApp or a custom app, but the beauty of, as you move up the maturity level, is along the way, you can always export that data back to Excel. Because everybody’s got comfortable with Excel spreadsheets. They’ve been around for so long and we love having those Excel spreadsheets in our document library, in OneDrive for business.

 

Bruce Harple:The beauty of this, as you go up these maturity levels, you can always at the end of the day, export that content and get it back in Excel if that’s important to you and important to your business. But anyway, I diverted back. But getting started, it’s your point Danny, trying to figure out, where do I go from where I am today with a client side Excel spreadsheet, and I want to really collaborate on that? What we do is, we can get started with … we’ll call it a modernization assessment and a proof of concept. Really, it goes back to trying to gather some fundamental requirements about what you’re trying to accomplish with that Excel spreadsheet. What’s the business problem you’re trying to solve with Excel with all that data? Who were the users, who are the contributors, who are the consumers of that content, what kind of security, as you said, Danny, is important. Is mobility important?

 

Bruce Harple:There’s an assessment that will help us understand what you’re trying to accomplish and what’s important, and then we can map that to the different maturity levels to figure out what makes sense for each customer, and then we can do a proof of concept. Or what we can do a couple of proof of concepts. You can decide where you want to make that investment.

 

Bruce Harple:We recently did this with a customer who was using Excel to track all of their projects. They had an advanced Excel spreadsheet, they had a and a plug in they were using set on top of it and we were helping them modernize that because it just wasn’t working for them. It was an older technology. They knew they needed to be able to collaborate across many, many more users and share that information. We ended up developing a PowerApp POC and discovered there were some limitations around that. Around external users and around mobility, and so then we had to move to a custom app, still with SharePoint as the back end, but … so we ended up doing two proof of concepts, which helped them visualize and get their hands on a solution in a very short period of time.

 

Bruce Harple:[inaudible] assessments and PLCs, we’re talking about weeks to do these. They’re not month long projects. They’re very quick, very precise to the point of letting you see something, so you can decide, “Yes, I like that. What’s it going to take to fully implement that proof of concept in my organization in Office 365?” That’s how we like to approach these things. You have to do something small, concise, let people see something, touch something, get some feedback, and then decide what’s next.

 

Danny Ryan:Excellent. Excellent. Well, this has been helpful. I think understanding this approach and I have a feeling … when I think about with all of the different spreadsheets are out there in the world, what percentage of those spreadsheets are ones that it’s appropriate just to keep an Excel, versus the ones that you really do need to level up, as we’ve been talking about? And I start to think about … boy we’ve been doing this for … and probably back when I was on projects, I can remember working with customers, and the core problem was that they were using Excel for everything.

 

Bruce Harple:Absolutely. Absolutely.

 

Danny Ryan:This problem has been around since the advent of Excel.

 

Bruce Harple:It has been.

 

Danny Ryan:Just starting to think through helping them have … what is it going to look like if I move off of Excel? I’m glad you’re here, there’s something where we can prototype something within a very short period of time, give them an understanding and a picture of what it’s going to look like, and it sounds like this is a recent technology for me, but it sounds like PowerApps is a key aspect of this as well, that’s come along within the last couple of years-

 

Bruce Harple:That’s right.

 

Danny Ryan:… as well, because I would say I think we used to do things with InfoPath and some different forms based stuff-

 

Bruce Harple:That’s right.

 

Danny Ryan:… in the past. There’s one aspect that we haven’t talked about that plays into this, before we wrap up, which is workflow. I think that this is … when we’re talking about that you can go and edit the … basically edit the data inside of this, there’s typically business process and workflow that’s involved in this content, that I think along with making it accessible on different platforms, along with security, that really is a key when you talk about line of business applications. Workflow, I think that’s probably one that comes into play as well.

 

Bruce Harple:Yeah, absolutely it is, Daniel. That’s a great point, and I didn’t mention that. Using Microsoft Flow is as a great way to start implementing and automating some of the process Flow that might be behind a form, especially in a collaborative environment. If there’s different approval levels might be involved, capturing information, Flow is a great way to start to implement some of those processes and automate that, so that’s a great point.

 

Danny Ryan:Awesome. I added one thing to the conversation.

 

Bruce Harple:You added value, man, there you go. There you go.

 

Danny Ryan:That’s my role, listen and read the questions that you’ve written for me. For folks, if you feel the pain of Excel and you know some of these of some of these issues that you’re feeling right now, hit home with you. What’s beautiful about what Bruce and his team has done, is that it’s a relatively short, take a look at what you’re using Excel for right now, and let’s go prototype some things out, so you could see what it could look like, and really just get a clear picture of where you need to go. It’s great how you guys can very quickly put something up in front of customers for them to see.

 

Danny Ryan:Reach out to us, obviously on the ThreeWill site, we have a contact us page, just reach out that way, it’s probably the easiest way. Tell me I’ve listened to this podcast and I’ll follow up with you quickly, and we’ll get you a get you started and get something set up, where we can begin to prototype this out and take a look at how can you address this pain that you feel on Excel right now. Bruce, thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

 

Bruce Harple:You bet, Danny. Enjoyed it.

 

Danny Ryan:We’ll see you after the new year. Have a merry Christmas.

 

Bruce Harple:You as well.

 

Danny Ryan:We can talk before then, but I know I’ll definitely see you some time-

 

Bruce Harple:Well, hard to believe the end of the year is here already.

 

Danny Ryan:It is, it’s amazing. Well, thank you everybody for listening and have a wonderful day. Take care. Bye Bye.

 

Additional Credits

Intro/Outro Music – Daniel Bassett

Danny RyanOutgrowing Microsoft Excel (and What to Do About It)

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