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How to replace 10,000 spreadsheets with an A3 page!

We are all only too familiar with the horror stories that surround spreadsheets since their creation back in the 1960’s.

In fact some reports suggest that close to 86% of all spreadsheets contain errors. In many businesses not only are spreadsheets pervasive but they are also considered key datasets and critical to the business. However, because creating, modifying and maintaining spreadsheets all too often falls into the hands of self-taught spreadsheet advocates in pursuit of a quick win (i.e. a solution to a pressing demand), any number and types of errors can lead to adverse effects costing the business considerably.

We (as the writers) have always believed that the person who could understand why spreadsheets (and indeed so many of them) are needed to support business activity would become one of the world’s most recognised people.

It is true that this person does not yet exist, so the race is still on to perhaps become that person. However, we recently had a detailed conversation with an individual who was informed by a senior colleague that his A3 page, that they were discussing, had the potential to replace over 10,000 spreadsheets in their business.

A 10,000:1 replacement ratio, well this is surely not possible I hear you say! Well it does depend on the contents of the A3 page, doesn’t it!

What could possibly be on this A3 page?

But before we explore this further let’s ask ourselves is 10,000 spreadsheets in one business a lot? How many do you think exist in your business? Now let it be more or less than 10,000, the real question is, what is the cost to the business of these spreadsheets? It is zero or a digit between 1 and 9 followed by 6 zeros? The reality for most of you might be that you don’t know the true cost of these spreadsheets!

Why is this relevant to anything I hear you ask?

The MSc in Data Business is where this individual appreciated how to create the contents of his mysterious A3 page. He followed an iterative, user-centred design approach and used the VIVID data structure canvas (see Figure 1) to guide his seven iterations of the design, build and evaluate activities (see Figure 2) in order to create the A3 page contents. Put simply, he adopted a mindset!

Data pic 1

Figure 1: Data Structure Canvas

So what content does the A3 page contain?

It contains a visualisation of the product and product lifecycle data assets of the business. A series of boxes and lines illustrating the relationships between the business things of interest. It is important to note that this visualisation did not exist in the business before now, but the 10,000 spreadsheets did!

So let’s reflect!

In reality it doesn’t matter what the A3 page content is, what really matters is the process that the individual followed (his means to that end)! In essence the individual simplified the business by exploring, understanding and defining the data problem (see Figure 2). Throughout each of his seven iterations he used his evolving A3 page content to start new conversations that were in effect transformative for him and indeed for those he interacted with.

Data pic 2

Figure 2 Data Business Mindset

So will this individual become one of the world’s most recognised people as a result of his A3 page?

Perhaps not but he is unique in that he realised the value of focusing on:

  • Data assets over IT assets
  • Visual and design thinking over technology
  • Being agile and mindful over just doing analytics

So for now this certainly makes the individual a Data Business practitioner champion and all achieved inside eighteen months!



Tadhg Nagle is joint Programme Director of the IMI Diploma in Data Business and IMI MSc in Data Business.

He is also a lecturer and researcher in Information Systems at University College Cork.

With a background in financial services his expertise is in strategic innovation and emerging and disruptive technologies. _____________________________________

FREE IMAGE-NO REPRO FEE. David Sammon, BIS, UCC. Photo by Tomas Tyner, UCC.

David Sammon is joint Programme Director of the IMI Diploma in Data Business and IMI MSc in Data Business.

Dave is a Senior Lecturer in Business Information Systems at University College Cork

David has published extensively in international journals and he is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Decision Systems.   _____________________________________


Paidi O’Reilly is a contributor on the IMI Diploma in Data Business and IMI MSc in Data Business.

He is a Research & Innovation Director with TexunaTech, a UK head-quartered data management solutions provider specialising in strategic data intelligence.

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