Wall Street Journal Reports On How Workiva Customers Are Using Wdesk Instead of Excel

November 22, 2017

Originally published on The Wall Street Journal, November 22, 2017.

Stop Using Excel, Finance Chiefs Tell Staffs

Ubiquitous spreadsheet software that revolutionized accounting hasn’t kept up, CFOs say

by Tatyana Shumsky

Adobe Inc.’s finance chief Mark Garrett says his team struggles keeping track of which jobs have been filled at the software company. The process can take days and requires finance staff to pull data from disparate systems that house financial and human-resources information into Microsoft Corp.’s Excel spreadsheets. From there they can see which groups are hiring and how salary spending affects the budget.

“I don’t want financial planning people spending their time importing and exporting and manipulating data, I want them to focus on what is the data telling us,” Mr. Garrett said. He is working on cutting Excel out of this process, he said.

CFOs at companies including P.F. Chang’s China Bistro Inc., ABM Industries Inc., and Wintrust Financial Corp. are on a similar drive to reduce how much their finance teams use Excel for financial planning, analysis and reporting.

Finance chiefs say the ubiquitous spreadsheet software that revolutionized accounting in the 1980s hasn’t kept up with the demands of contemporary corporate finance units. Errors can bloom because data in Excel is separated from other systems and isn’t automatically updated. Older versions of Excel don’t allow multiple users to work together in one document, hampering collaboration. There is also a limit to how much data can be pulled into a single document, which can slow down analysis.

“Excel just wasn’t designed to do some of the heavy lifting that companies need to do in finance,” said Paul Hammerman, a business applications analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

Instead, companies are turning to new, cloud-based technologies from Anaplan Inc.,Workiva Inc., Adaptive Insights and their competitors. The newer software connects with existing accounting and enterprise resource management systems, including those made by Oracle Corp. or SAP SE. This lets accountants aggregate, analyze and report data on one unified platform, often without additional training.

Adobe switched to Anaplan early last year and many of the tasks previously performed in spreadsheets are now done in the system, maintaining “one source of truth,” Mr. Garrett said. Reports, including about head count, are compiled faster, he said.

P.F. Chang’s finance chief Jim Bell said he switched the company to Adaptive Insights from Excel because it fosters collaboration and cuts down on administrative tasks. Mr. Bell said he was examining how kitchen staff cuts at the company’s Boston restaurants affected profitability while on a flight from Spokane, Wash., to Phoenix in early October. The company’s northeast regional manager followed along from his office across the country.

“If I was trying to do this on a spreadsheet, it just wouldn’t happen,” Mr. Bell said.

A year ago, Mr. Bell’s team spent hours distributing hundreds of Excel spreadsheets to regional and unit leaders each month for planning and performance tracking of the company’s 415 U.S. restaurants, he said. Now the same process takes minutes.

Excel has been evolving to better serve its many groups of specialized customers, including in the financial community, said Brian Jones, head of Microsoft’s Excel product strategy. The latest version, launched this summer, allows multiple users to collaborate in a single document, crunch more than 100 million rows of data and comes with automated tools that find trends and suggest visualization, he said. And while many finance-industry customers might graduate to more specialized software as their needs evolve, most of these solutions have an “export to Excel” button, Mr. Jones said.

“You’re still going to use Excel for the things you’re not using a tailored solution for,” he said.

Excel also has broad reach. Office 365, which includes Excel, has more than 120 million monthly users, said Ron Markezich, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Office 365. The company wouldn’t comment on what share of these customers are using the program for financial analysis and accounting.

Wintrust Financial, which operates 15 chartered community banks in Illinois and Wisconsin, dropped Excel in favor of Workiva because of high error rates.

“The CFO would ask: can you tell me how many loans were paid off and how many did you refinance in the last quarter, and we got different answers from different teams,” said Anita Chakravarthy, senior vice president of performance measurement.

Workiva has automatic consolidation at the department level that helps reduce errors and tracks who made changes to the data for easy auditing, Ms. Chakravarthy said.

Kayla Davis, who runs financial planning at ABM Industries, relied on Excel to pull data from a motley of disparate accounting systems, accumulated over decades of mergers and acquisitions. Since switching to Anaplan in May, her team can give the CFO information more quickly because it doesn’t require as much verification, she said.

“If a job is losing money, you can quickly see what [happens] if we exit that job, what does that do to my entire portfolio,” Ms. Davis said.

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