Challenging the ‘Spreadsheet mindset’

Pritesh Pattni

All businesses use spreadsheets – they are a staple of organisations everywhere. And, while they deliver a wide range of benefits, using spreadsheets for some business processes can be slow and prone to error.

That’s why many businesses are considering moving some of the processes currently managed by spreadsheets, onto apps where the goal is typically to improve data accuracy, streamline processes, enhance collaboration.

In principle, this sounds like a great idea, and while it will require some up-front investment, it will save money in the longer term.

However, there are a few things to be mindful of to ensure the change from a spreadsheet to an app delivers benefits to the business.

What is the spreadsheet mindset?

This is a term we use to describe the way that some businesses approach replacing spreadsheets with an app. Simply put, it’s when people decide they just need the app to do what the spreadsheet currently does. By replicating the content, formulas and outcomes of the spreadsheet, the business feels it will have accomplished a digital transformation that improves productivity and efficiency.

To our minds, there are some fundamental flaws in this approach – flaws that lead to businesses spending a lot of money on app development and just getting a very expensive new spreadsheet for their money.

Let’s look at the key dangers of the spreadsheet mindset.

You’re recreating something that might not be working – simply turning your spreadsheet into an app won’t transform the way you do things. If you’re struggling with the way your spreadsheet currently works, you need to spend some time considering what you want and how to get there before you spend any money on app development.

You haven’t consulted your users – knowing the target audience is one of the most fundamental aspects of app development. Without understanding who’s using the app, you can’t possibly design something that works for them. If a developer agrees to transfer your spreadsheet process to an app without asking about your users, beware.

You haven’t thought about the future – designing an app to manage today’s process is good; developing something that is scalable and adaptable for the future is even better. Why spend thousands of pounds for something that might be out of date in 12 months’ time? Many business app failures occur because there’s been no planning for what might come next.

You’re jumping on a bandwagon – this is easy for businesses to do, particularly if the competition is adding apps and new technology to their business. But app development is expensive and you need to be able to show a return on your investment. So rather than changing a spreadsheet process to an app just for the sake of it, always make sure you’ve got a clear business case.

Why move away from spreadsheets?

There are certainly many arguments in favour of ditching spreadsheets. They can be cumbersome and sometimes unreliable. They are difficult to keep secure, and a single error can create chaos. For example, during the 2012 London Olympics, someone on the ticketing team keyed in 20,000 remaining tickets rather than 10,000. So the tickets oversold, and it cost the organisers more than £500,000 to manage the issue.

Business leaders know that using spreadsheets can make them vulnerable. They are looking for process solutions that are more secure, more reliable, operate faster and contribute positively to productivity. They want technology that can be used simultaneously by staff members wherever they are, and whatever devices they are using.

And apps are the ideal answer. Properly designed and developed, they are an excellent investment, protecting the business for the future, simplifying processes and bringing teams together.

How to get it right

The first step to successfully transitioning from a spreadsheet to an app is to sit down and plan exactly what you need the app to do. This includes setting out the reasons why the spreadsheet approach isn’t working for you, and considering what your ideal app would look like – both now and in the future.

Once you have an outline idea of what you want, you need to find the right development team to work with you. The best option for this type of app is low code – this is where the app is built on a dedicated platform, using a combination of drag-and-drop elements and some traditional coding.

Low code delivers a faster build, a reliable solution and the ability to integrate with other systems – without the much larger costs incurred by traditional hand coding.

There are lots of low code app developers about, and it can be difficult to know who to work with – particularly if this is your first venture into the world of business apps. So, to avoid getting stuck in an expensive spreadsheet mindset, here are some tips on finding your low code development partner:

Which platform do they use? There are a number of low code platforms, and you want to work with a developer who is experienced with a mainstream platform – preferably as a partner organisation. This shows that your development team will have in-depth understanding of the platform, so that they can build the best technology for you. Common platforms include OutSystems, Quickbase, Salesforce, Appian and Microsoft Power Apps.

What questions do they ask? In order to build you an app that does everything you need, your development will need to know about your business, the app users, the key processes, future uses and any other processes the app will need to integrate with. The fewer questions your developers ask, the more wary you should be.

What experience do they have? There are plenty of low code developers who only focus on taking excel processes and convert them to apps. This might seem like a bonus, but it means they don’t have the wider experience that often comes in useful for building a reliable, useful app. Talk to your developers about the types of app they build and the use cases they have managed.

Do they understand technical architecture? Low code app development is very different to no code. No code is where developers don’t need any technical skills at all – they simple drag and drop various elements until the app is built. However, this comes with its own problems – to build a successful app, you need a development team that understands how technical architecture works – particularly if you might want to expand or extend your app in the future. Otherwise, you’ll be spending money twice when you really don’t need to.

Find your low code specialist

ISB Global Smart Solutions is an OutSystems partner company. Our development team has significant low code experience across a range of industries and works with clients to turn spreadsheet-based processes into user-friendly, adaptable applications that add long-term value to your business. We also work on a range of other app developments, all designed to improve productivity and operational efficiency. To find out more, contact us today.

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