Panacea or Placebo
Is web based reporting the solution to all reporting woes?
One of the most interesting articles I came across during the course of last year related to the development of what was ARPANET, the forerunner of the modern Internet.
newer and younger generation ARPANET was originally created to
allow “educational institutions” to collaborate and share information on
strategic military research.
The reasons given are simple:
The article, author and
source in which I found this escapes me, but it has been playing on my
mind, ever since I came across it.
So is web-based reporting the answer to all the ills, ever-present in compiled, fixed code applications? From my opening, one could be led to believe the safe answer to this question would be “no”. However, it is never that simple. There are a huge number of variables and perceptions that need to be considered, not to mention the vast amounts of money being spent by product, server and network vendors in marketing Web-based Solutions as the answer, for everything from convenience to the common cold.
I have watched, with interest bordering on amusement with not just a hint of frustration as, over the last five to six years, most vendors of financial reporting systems touted their web-based systems to all and sundry. I have even been told that a solution was selected based on the fact that the “financial reporting” system, allowed you to connect to both a news feed and the weather report from selected sources. Profound and inspired decision making if I ever saw it! A secondary comment which came from a CFO (Chief Financial Officer) of a large multinational over the decision to go with a system packed with “cutesies” was simple: “never mind, they obviously don’t understand the problem”. As true as this statement is, I am left wondering if they even understood the question, or if there was in fact a question?
So, ultimately with the choice of answers being:
What is the correct answer? Or closer to the truth, is there in fact a one correct answer? Is life a multiple choice questionnaire? In limiting the list to the five above, there will be an inordinate number of complaints, saying that I have left “their“system, concept, method or process out of the list.
The reality is far more simple, and so far more complex than following the bell curve offered by most salesman, or following the selection of customers that they offer. More often than not, the question and purpose is overlooked. What is the aim of the solution? What do you hope to achieve? And finally, what skills does your organisation have, and how do they work currently?
So now, the world according to Nicholas, the pros and cons of each methodology:
Scenario (1) has a highly educated and
normally very well paid data capture clerk “manipulating” decision
relevant information, in which the consequences of mis-capture are
The final element, which has made web based solutions, initially seem to be the panacea to information sharing’s woes, is portability. All database based solutions, unstrangely enough, require access to the database. All spreadsheet based solutions require access to (a) the source data to generate and update the report, and (b) access to the spreadsheet to view the report.
A reasonably simple task, when on the corporate local network, more complex when located in a distant back-water portion of the corporate backbone, and almost impossible when not connected to the corporate backbone.
With infrastructure and connectivity hindering the rollout of these solutions, developers turned to Web-based technologies for resolution. Simply put, the web platform provides an environment in which a browser is the only software required on the PC. The entire system is housed within the corporate server and delivered over TCP/IP.
The advantages are obvious, a single point of contact, a single security environment and a single common place application interface, the browser. This, coupled with lowered user training requirement, a highly graphical interface and data source independence seemed to resolve the core issues underlying “other” approaches.
Unfortunately, like all “miracle cures” there are constraints and side effects. Top amongst these are:
In saying this, a large number of report writer vendors have gone to great lengths to allow the user varying degrees of control over their reports.
Marketing 101 – The market will decide, as vendors we can influence the market, but at the end of the day, the solutions / products that will gain acceptance and grow are the ones that cost effectively meet the needs of the consumer or client.
So which platform or solution group has dominated … The spreadsheet. For all the inherent flaws included in creating spreadsheets, the spreadsheet is king! Why? There are two core reasons, firstly you do not have to be a developer to create a spreadsheet. Knowing a few simple maths functions is sufficient, coupled with how "office applications” have proliferated and spreadsheet skills being taught from junior school upwards, almost everyone has some degree of knowledge or experience. Secondly, flexibility, reports can be DESIGNED from the ground up by the consumer of the information, Not preformatted.
In no other technological arena, have we seen so much innovation (except perhaps motor vehicles) where the base core concept has not altered. The only two or three possible additions to the spreadsheet world since Visicalc first shipped more than 30 years ago, how people use and interact with spreadsheets have altered little. The majority of people using spreadsheets have only added or embraced wysiwyg (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) formatting, graphing and data connectors, since the beginning. The rest of the applications usage has altered little.
The web, and primarily email, have altered our lives, and for the better, anyone who remembers, however fondly the old BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) for data, information and application transfers can confirm this.
Web based reporting is neither a panacea (cure for everything) nor a placebo. It is an immature technology when it comes to reporting, and has a lot to learn. Fewer and fewer organisations are being wowed and woed by “cutesies”, and are demanding solutions that meet their needs. They have been through the cycle of going oh-my-gosh if you can interweave newsfeeds into a report writer, imagine what the report writer must be able to do!
Until the distinction between the people who are data-providers versus data consumers is fully understood, and the providers are given the flexibility and simplicity of the spreadsheet as a tool to provide the data in, Web based reporting will be viewed as an alternative delivery platform akin to traditional report writers and application based reporting services.
Nicholas Campleman is Group CEO of the Dream Catcher Group of Companies