If I say ‘reporting’ and you think ‘spreadsheet’, you’ve lost the game.
Well, not necessarily. The thing is, Excel is an amazing tool in the right hands. It is flexible, highly capable and infinitely customisable. And it is indispensable for any number of tasks in your business, that much is indisputable.
And here comes the ‘but’.
But if you are using it for reporting at any scale, it is, if not completely useless, then almost certainly entirely inappropriate. You probably know why, too, but let’s go over it anyway.
Excel, or rather the people using it, is error-prone. Make one small mistake here and it can snowball into big mistakes there. It’s tedious; you have to enter data manually. It’s not (necessarily) great for sharing and presenting information clearly and concisely. The very fact that a spreadsheet is so easy to use is also one of its biggest Achilles heels. Entering data is just so easy. So is entering it wrong.
In fact, those who are accustomed to working collaboratively know that spreadsheets are where information goes to die. Because, while you might be able to share them around easily, once everyone has a copy, it is their copy. Updates to your copy won’t make it to theirs, and vice versa. (Yes, this problem has been addressed to some extent with modern cloud solutions which allow collaborative work practices. No, not everyone makes use of a centrally located ‘master’). And with everyone taking advantage of the ease with which they can update, change and amend, multiple versions of the ‘truth’ quickly proliferate.
Meanwhile, the bigger and more complex your organisation, the more reporting really matters. How else are you supposed to keep track of all that’s going on?
It starts with ERP
While ‘size’ is something of a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question, there is little doubt that once your company reaches an inflection point, basic tools for managing it start to choke rather than enable. It’s generally at this point (which business owners are likely to recognise, either instinctively or thanks to an accumulating series of errors or obvious inefficiencies) that more sophisticated software systems are considered.
Yes, that means Enterprise Resource Planning solutions, like those from MYOB or NetSuite or any one of many options available today.
Beyond taking care of day-to-day operations far better than your old accounting package could, ERP also sets the scene for more effective reporting. In fact, ERP systems are sometimes described as reporting systems, since this is one of their fundamental functions – keeping you informed about what’s going on in your business.
What ERP systems do, aside from the obvious of streamlining, formalising and accelerating operations, is to create and store data more effectively. This generally makes that data visible and accessible to those who need to see and use it. It also establishes the basis for dramatically improved analytics and reporting (with reporting being the outcome of analytics).
Most quality ERP solutions these days include at least some reporting beyond the standard financial and management reports as standard features. Some will describe the reporting as ‘Business Intelligence’, for example, and offer that as a specific module within the software, others will have a query or report generator tool to rapidly create ad hoc reports, and most will offer dashboards with user access controls so your people can access data, create and use reports specific to their function within the business.
The crucial point of difference
So, what’s the crucial point of difference then, between this kind of reporting ‘within’ the ERP system rather than outside of it, with spreadsheets? Part of the answer is contained in the question: it is internal, it doesn’t require an export into a spreadsheet (where that data will go to die) and it is a controlled, formal process immune to error.
Unlike reporting in spreadsheets, which require plenty of manual effort, reporting within an ERP solution is largely automated. That’s why it’s practical to offer ad-hoc reporting; curious about something? Punch a few buttons and get the unvarnished truth. That just doesn’t happen with Excel. And while we’re at it, there’s another crucial point of difference: because the data is drawn directly from the source, rather than copied, pasted and manipulated, it just isn’t possible to fiddle the numbers, whether by mistake or on purpose.
When your company is growing, getting more complex and depends on accuracy and efficiency, ERP soon becomes necessary. Along with ERP, consider more advanced reporting – because if it’s still being done with spreadsheets, it probably isn’t good enough.
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