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The Right Tool for The Right Activity – Thinking Beyond Spreadsheets

How many times have we found ourselves using a common tool to solve a multitude of tasks knowing that this tool may not be optimal for the particular task at hand?  In the consulting industry, we rely on tools that provide quick answers, and these tools are accessible to our clients as well. But sometimes, things can be a bit like the old saying “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will start treating all your problems like a nail.”

For instance, at an oil refinery, one wouldn’t use duct tape to stop a hydrocarbon leakage, even though logically that may sound like a solution. As consultants, we have the responsibility to assess the client’s most complex issues and provide a solution that is specific to that issue.  

One example comes to mind: For a long time, many industries saw countless dashboards developed in Excel. No complaints here, I use spreadsheets for almost everything, even grocery shopping. Spreadsheets have provided, spectacularly nonetheless, solutions to an almost infinite number of problems – from the very simple bookkeeping to powerful answers to linear programming models in the Oil & Gas industry.

Spreadsheets have also allowed us to create management systems, where we can pull numbers, transform them, plot them and generate actions. However, this can be a trap of our own making: In the past, we never saw software versions coming up that could make incompatible our old tools, but that is not the case currently.

The questions we should be asking ourselves are – Should we acquire licenses for dashboard-specific software when we need to share KPI’s with the upper management? Are we extracting valuable information and transforming it into actions? Are we successfully upgrading our tools to provide better insights?

One area I want to highlight when it comes to upgrading and enhancing our dashboards is the costs related to implementing these solutions. This is a list of the top three that come to my mind:

  • Converting old dashboard from spreadsheet to a Business Intelligence solution: We find many times that back-engineering dashboards can be time-consuming (hence, expensive), particularly for dashboards that haven’t been in use for a while (did the previous user leave instructions on how to maintain and update all the spreadsheets?) This includes having the right resources to take care of the job, or if you are considering developing in-house talent to take care of it.
  • The cost of the solution itself: We see a wide range of prices, some very low coming from a startup that has a particular feature we would like to have. Or even at a zero-cost acquisition (there is a Python open-source library that can do the trick), though user-friendliness is not anywhere nearby. Other are expensive and provide powerful data analytics and impressive graphic displays.
  • IT department: Finally the company’s IT department will need to fully support the effort. On the one hand, it is required that they provide accessibility to the data (permissions and the right queries). On the other hand, this can be a shared responsibility between IT and the Operations department, and it is critical: Data Quality. We have encountered data fields that are a mixture of numeric and alphanumeric entries, or typos if the data input is manual (as can be the case at a lab). An additional effort would be required to guarantee that we are looking at the right information by implementing features such as frequency histograms or time series that allow us to spot outliers and errors and apply filters if required. You have to spend time developing rules and filters, and many times this will be an interactive process between the specialists and the developer to get to an understanding of what is needed.

It is our view that dashboards provide visibility to different areas at different levels, promote accountability, and improve behaviour among all actors. As management consultants, we support moving to the next evolutionary level using and exploiting the right tool for a deeper insight. However, keep in mind that you should have the right resources in place, both for covering the cost of licenses, and the team to develop and maintain your new, shiny, and enhanced tool.

The author of this blog, Gerardo Luyando is a Senior Consultant at Trindent.