Life, the universe and Spreadsheets…

Mike Morley
May 26, 2021
“What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” ~ Steve Jobs

One of my favourite Steve Jobs quotes illustrates why he felt computers were a ‘bicycle for the mind’. Jobs’ use of cycling as an example for how technology extends our natural abilities provides insight into the interplay between technology and capabilities.  

In the same way I can still ride my old mountain bikes, I can use old, familiar technology such as spreadsheets to analyze data. But what am I missing by sticking to my old tried and true technology? While using old technology is comfortable, reliable and familiar, by continuing to use it am I really able to reach my full potential?  

When I started mountain biking in the 1980s, the bikes were road bike frames with big tires and slightly better brakes. While at the time, they were innovative, they were also limited by the technology of the day. Fortunately, bike technology did not remain static: innovation in the bike industry accelerated by adopting approaches and knowledge from adjacent industries.  

As bike technology improved, the capabilities of the bikes vastly improved to a state where I was able to ride terrain I would never have considered possible with my OG 1980’s bike.

As we all know, Jobs was way ahead of the curve. He knew that creating a tool to meet a challenge would in turn create new possibilities and capabilties.  

So, how does this all relate to Arcurve’s Advanced Analytics?  

When I think about the impact of staying current with technology in the context of my role as the Director of Analytics Technology at Arcurve, it constantly amazes me how pervasive those technologies from my early days of mountain biking are like spreadsheets and relational/SQL databases still are today.  

Both of these technologies were originally developed in the 1970s and rose to prominence in the 1980s. While I have long since hung the 1987 Brodie Catalyst on the wall of my garage, spreadsheet and SQL based relational database technology are both very much still alive and being used for making decisions at all levels of business in 2021.  

But there are fundamental limitations to making decisions with spreadsheets.

We know that many companies rely on spreadsheets as the primary methodology for decision support analysis. A study by Forrester research shows that more than 35 per cent of finance and accounting departments, and 31 per cent of operations departments rely on spreadsheets. In our experience, these numbers may be understated while the quantity of data has exploded since the 80’s.

Visicalc, Lotus 123 and, ultimately, Excel brought powerful capabilities that enabled analysis and decision support that had been impossible before their inception.  

Spreadsheet-based models are manually compiled and assembled by hand.\ The processes used to assemble the data require manual steps, processing and filtering (time consuming much?). Plus, how reliable, not to mention easy to understand, is the data?  In relying on spreadsheets to do our analytics work, we’re relying on manual processes dictated by technology that was created in the 1970s as the primary tool to make our critical business decisions. They also have a tendency to error, an inability to properly QA at the best of times, limit the number of power users, lack of controls and limitations of the programming skills mean they’re not exactly the most user-friendly way of collecting information, just to name a few of their limitations. And here comes the doozy… in today’s data rich environment, using spreadsheets as a foundation to gather and analyze complex 2021 data to make decisions may create a huge liability. Spreadsheets are a single-person analytics platform. They’re not designed for collaboration, nor are they effective for handling the challenges of the massive data world we now live in,  

We know… spreadsheet users have their own biases that are compounded by the fact that a person can only process so much data from a limited number of sources. The business stakeholder creating a typical spreadsheet decision model will use data sources that are familiar and easy to work with. The resulting decision data model only uses a small fraction of the organization’s potentially available data which, may ultimately, create biased outcomes. Instead of just choosing familiar, easy-to-use data sources and pulling a limited data set, doesn’t it make more sense to focus on all of the available data? More data means access to potentially crucial information, so using a tool to match your available data could give you a better data model and, ultimately, more money to your bottom line.  

Staying current with bike technology allowed me to experience amazing new terrain and new experiences. Staying current with modern data analytics platforms enables businesses to realize value and insight from data in incredible new ways.

Modern data analytics platform technologies ensure the data are put into robust Data Assembly lines featuring reliable, repeatable, transparent processes to harvest and integrate data into a foundation. This can then be leveraged by AI Algorithms to identify patterns in complex data sets and generate an entirely new way of gaining data insight, like our clients who use their findings to create efficiencies in their business and add dollars (in the high millions) directly to their bottom line.  

Unlike spreadsheets and humans, these algorithms can identify patterns in the data that are impossible to be detected by using a spreadsheet. The ability of these modern analytics tools to simplify and focus on the results allows us to concentrate on evaluating the results and make informed business decisions based on what the data is really telling us rather than what our old technology from the 80’s is suggesting.    

And while I loved my Brodie, if I kept riding it I would have missed out on many incredible experiences by not staying current with new bike technology. So if you’re looking to retire some of your spreadsheets to the curb and make informed business decisions using the latest technologies, we can help. Find out more about our Advanced Analytics Services here.

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