Sooner or later your Spreadsheet Shantytown will spark a revolution
I’m, sadly, old enough to remember VisiCalc the original spreadsheet programme which long predates the recently infamous Excel which has caused so much grief for NHS Track and Trace. Visicalc ran on the Apple 2 and Steve Jobs was quoted as saying that “Visicalc propelled the success of Apple more than any other single event”. Dan Bricklin the inventor of Visicalc tells the story of how he invented the spreadsheet in a rather lovely low key TED talk (https://youtu.be/YDvbDiJZpy0). He extols the virtue of the use of low fidelity prototyping in product development and how they help you to discover more of your user’s problems and needs early in the process before investing in expensive mistakes. This is a wonderful story of how a genuine pioneer created his product by learning from user research and you can see how the basic design of a grid with numbered rows and lettered columns has remained for more than 40 years. This was clearly a very strong product.
In the modern age Excel is a very useful prototyping tool. It’s a great way, at low cost, to discover user needs through letting the user explore the possibilities without needing to be a highly skilled programmer. What it is not, however, is a database. Databases are designed to allow many people and systems to synchronously update, move and interact with complex data with complete transactional integrity. This is the engineering that is critical to any large scale computer enabled business service. The ‘Track and Trace’ programme undoubtedly needed to move fast in the beginning and in the early stages of such a programme, as getting functionality into the hands of users is the priority. At this stage it would be appropriate to use expedient methods such as Excel so that you can learn and improve the system through repeated iteration. It was however a huge mistake not to remove this critical weakness off the product backlog to remove this fundamental risk. From my own experience it’s not entirely surprising that this did not get prioritised as the problem existed at the boundary of two separate organisations where accountability is unclear and change is difficult to coordinate. This is the sort of systems problem that an agile organisational design based on building feature teams with full stack capability would root out.
Track and Trace is of course a young system so perhaps they can be excused for their error. Many asset managers are sitting on decades of spreadsheet development, the infamous Spreadsheet Shantytown of my title. This typically exists in the category of ‘there is no return on fixing this stuff’ so building support for remediation efforts is challenging and IT departments will often treat these services as ‘user developed applications’ and as such the problem of ‘the business’. Quite often this is being added to as new regulatory or client demands lead to the tactical decision to develop a spreadsheet to manage the process as IT don’t have the capacity or it will cost too much to build a proper solution. The question to ask, of course, is not what is the return in investing in appropriate data management systems, but what is the cost of not investing in them. When something bad does actually go wrong – as it inevitably will – the revolution is likely to be heading in the direction of your company’s leaders.
At APS we excel at building products and services to help you address your potential #excelgate. These are the foundations of the very positive revolution that is digital transformation and will return value through enabling the kind of adaptability that is the foundation for business survival.
We offer Design Thinking services and training that can teach you about the value of user research and iterative prototyping and our ‘Digital Data Lab’ provides a low cost, highly engineered foundation for developing data and data science solutions to your business problems.
We’d love to hear more about your problems so please get in touch and we can start taking action – today…