Cognos Planning Tool Gets an Excel Interface-Lift

New add-in lets users exploit Excel to perform common tasks

How entrenched is Excel? Even vendors that market dedicated budgeting and planning tools recognize its continued importance. Witness, for example, Cognos Inc. announcement this week of a new Excel add-in for its Enterprise Planning tool. Officials say users can now perform many common Enterprise Planning-related tasks—such as “what-if” analyses or top-down planning—by directly entering commands into Excel spreadsheet cells.

According to Doug Barton, vice president of Enterprise Planning product marketing, few customers are prepared to fully break with Excel—in spite of the issues associated with its use in distributed environments (see http://info.101com.com/default.asp?id=6311). Even among Cognos’ own customers—which are presumably less dependent on Excel than users of competitive budgeting and planning products—few have altogether eliminated the use of Microsoft’s flagship number cruncher.

“Even in situations where planning is well deployed, people who are using our technology in a browser environment are still keeping detailed spreadsheets,” he explains. “There’s also a whole number of people in an organization that planning has not reached out to because those teams of individuals are isolated from the [planning] core of the company.”

In addition, Barton concedes, spreadsheets—particularly those that have evolved over several years of planning cycles—are typically highly sophisticated, such that they can’t immediately be brought into the Enterprise Planning process. “It’s vital that we support them in their transition, what that means is that spreadsheets often include some business logic that they can’t easily replicate on day one of the enterprise planning project, and [Excel support] helps to create this glide path,” he says.

Delbert Krause, director of Enterprise Planning product marketing with Cognos, says that personal spreadsheet use is also rampant in many customer environments. This has the result of effectively "silo-ing" planning information or other business logic on end users' hard drives: “There’s still even in those organizations, large pockets of teams or individuals who are still using spreadsheets. There [are] people who do their own planning in their own area and are working in the spreadsheet environment.”

In this respect, Krause argues, users can exploit Enterprise Planning’s new spreadsheet interface to link their Excel spreadsheet models directly into the enterprise plan. As they make changes to their local spreadsheets, this information is automatically synchronized with the master-planning model.

Like Enterprise Planning’s browser interface, the new Excel interface boasts integration with the rest of Cognos’ BI stack, such that users can exploit the scorecarding capabilities of Metrics Manager or the reporting capabilities of ReportNet or PowerPlay.

Many approaches to Excel integration are relatively static, such that users must first save data to a central repository before it is available to other users. According to Cognos’ Barton, however, Enterprise Planning’s new Excel interface can dynamically refresh planning data. “We have a real-time aggregation that takes place as people save their plans, so if I’m responsible for marketing in my group, as I save my marketing plan, my boss and his boss can see the impact of changes in their roll-out structures. This happens whether we’re working in the browser or Excel,” he explains.

Robert Kugel, a vice-president with consultancy Ventana Research, agrees that few, if any, companies can totally wean themselves from the use of spreadsheets. Nevertheless, Kugel asserts, dedicated planning tools—such as Cognos’ Enterprise Planning—offer a number of advantages relative to the use of spreadsheets. In this respect, Kugel distinguishes between Microsoft Excel when used by itself—i.e., as a standalone spreadsheet—and what he calls “better-than-spreadsheet spreadsheets,” which incorporate limited or full support for Excel in the context of a planning solution.

In marrying a discrete planning tool with managed Excel spreadsheet capabilities, Enterprise Planning is a unique solution. “Today, the reason I say that [the standalone spreadsheet is] obsolete is that you have a wide range of price points, dedicated tools that get around all of the issues that you run into when you’re trying to wrangle a bunch of spreadsheets into a coherent budget,” he argues. “There’s really no reason why a company with more than, say, 300 or 400 employees ought to still be using just spreadsheets.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.