Holy pivot tables, Batman

Your PLM Logic is Useless: Because I’m Excel

Reading Lionel Grealou’s post PLM Vs Excel was a source of great entertainment, yet another salvo in the seemingly intractable war against the eternally entrenched spreadsheet. After all, I’ve written at least one of these myself, lobbing a mortar or two of my own. Yet here comes Microsoft Excel, crashing through the skylight or driving around a funky Lincoln Futura with flames leaking out the back. Is Excel the best tool for Bill of Material (BOM) management? Oh hell, no. Excel barely qualifies as a BOM tool at all, but it’s certainly everyone’s favorite. Na na na na na na na Excel.

Excel is the Batman of Product Lifecycle Managment (PLM), a vigilante working outside the system that benefits truly unfettered fanaticism and simultaneously annoys the cognizant authorities. You’ve got to hand it to Excel for its amazing versatility, the amount of surprises in that utility belt has kept the mighty spreadsheet relevant after all these years. Excel’s flexibility is both a blessing and a curse for information governance strategy the world over, and that includes especially PLM. Oh Excel, is there anything that people can’t twist you into doing? After all, some enterprising individuals have used Excel for some rather unusual things over the years. Simulations of Manhattan? Yep. Japanese murals? Subarashīdesu. A fully fledged role playing game from a mind warped by chartered accountancy? It even has achievements. My +1 Shovel of experience is evidence enough. Considering all that, perhaps versatile is not nearly a strong enough word for describing Excel.

Unphased, Lionel dutifully charges on with sound PLM logic:

“Often, the Product Life-cycle Management (PLM) business case can be justified by addressing and improving BoM management, in terms of resource efficiency, downstream productivity gains, root cause issue resolution, quality improvement, etc.”

It’s certainly rational. Sensible, even. But here’s the thing, the end users couldn’t give a flip. To them this sounds like suggesting that a bizarre flying space alien with lasers that shoot out of his eyes come rescue everyone. You know, like the man of steel himself. And it’s only going to get worse, as Excel steadily gains capability. To illustrate on that very point, Microsoft is porting their real-time collaborative edit capabilities from Office 365 into desktop versions of Word, Powerpoint and eventually Excel 2016. So expect Excel’s already high bar to rise again as it gains modern collaboration and version control.

Embedding PLM with Excel-like features simply isn’t enough. Replication is not enough of a differentiator. People continue to use Excel for a reason, they prefer it for a reason. User experience is king, data model and governance be damned. Oleg Shilovitsky chimes in on exactly this point in his response, PLM vs Excel: Bullfight Prohibition (Well, done sir, my favorite title yet!):

“Especially in our era of consumerization and total focus on user experience. Enterprise UX is going through the paradigm shift. Old, bulky, cumbersome, weighty and hard to use environment that can block a productive flow will be replaced with new tools. It is all about the need for speed. When each function engineers need is “15 clicks away”, you cannot expect company to perform well.”

Attempting to force a solution by shutting out Excel without an enticing alternative only invites a Shadow IT uprising to occur on some unsecured file share in a van down by the river. No, to compete on merits of user experience alone there are only two possible paths:

  • Embrace the Thing (Integration): Admit defeat and stop competing with a tool that’s shown amazingly enthusiastic and resilient user adoption. Instead find the best possible path in integrating with said tool in a way that accomplishes the higher goals. Essentially adding in the PLM flow as seamlessly as possible, mindful of data integrity. As you might have guessed, just mapping fields to attributes is not going to be enough.
  • Reinvent the Thing (Innovation): Commit to approaching the problem with a clean sheet and strive to reinvent the thing and make it 10x better. Listen to the wisdom of Bill Gross on why this is true.

In the meantime, I’m going to fire me up a VM and play me some Pac-Man… in Excel of course.