totherescue
In my last post, I wrote about poor Brian. When we left him he was sitting in quiet desperation, driven to the edge of his sanity by the need to make sense of the data he collected in a pile of spreadsheets (in this case for the purpose of generating his company’s CDP report). In this post, I’ll talk about the kind of application that is making the Brians of the world so much more productive.

Many of the problems described are rooted in the fact that Brian is managing multiple copies of the same spreadsheet. Each time one of his 200 facility managers makes a change to ‘their’ copy, Brian needs to merge that change into a common copy of the spreadsheet.

In recent years, solutions such as Dropbox, Google Drive and SharePoint have emerged, enabling multiple users to work on a single shared copy of the data. These have certainly made life easier – at the very least, spreadsheets aren’t being emailed back and forth as much. But underlying these applications are still flat documents, whether spreadsheets or text files.

The right kind of cloud-based application greatly simplifies efforts like Brian’s CDP reporting, saving valuable time and democratizing data to save money and make for a more productive organization.

The right application improves on the basic spreadsheet in many ways, including:

  • Enabling multiple users to work on a coherent data set.
  • Automating unit conversion.
  • Warning of outliers and missing or duplicate data.
  • Providing an audit trail.

But it goes further to:

  • Support dynamic and unanticipated data relationships
  • Facilitate in-depth and flexible analysis of the data.
  • Make it easy to generate many different charts and reports
  • Enable data extension and customization through the definition of new datasets and new calculations
  • Automate data collection
  • Engage employees

Let’s take a deeper look at the benefits that this kind of application brings.

Time Savings

Sending spreadsheets back and forth and then trying to combine many into one, is time-consuming. Managers often report spending hundreds of hours just collecting and organizing data

With a cloud-based application, there’s no need to email spreadsheets around. Each ‘data provider’ logs in to the application and enters their data. Because a single database underlies the application, the data is always up to date and coherent.

Data Quality

Maintaining multiple spreadsheets with multiple users and multiple data sources is error prone. Data must be copied and pasted. Units must be converted. Duplicates must be identified. The right application incorporates error checking and warns of outlying, missing or duplicate data. Unit conversion is built in, enabling each user to provide data in the units most convenient. The application quantifies the quality of the data so that the user can decide whether he or she can be confident in the data.

Audit Trail

The application provides an audit trail. Since each user logs in under his or her credentials, the application ‘knows’ just who created or updated each data record and when. An audit trail should also allow users to upload files or images with each record to substantiate the data.

Structured Data

Conventional spreadsheets do lend a degree of structure to the data collection task. However – too often, data providers modify parts of the spreadsheet to meet their specific data format. This makes it difficult to combine multiple spreadsheets. Managers can lock parts or all of the spreadsheet to prevent the data provider from tampering with the proscribed format. In this case, the data provider may simply omit that part of the data that doesn’t ‘fit’.

A cloud-based application can be designed to both give the data provider flexibility in data entry (such as by offering a drop-down with a broad choice of units) while simultaneously restricting them to a common format (such as requiring monthly data rather than annual). The application might allow the data provider to define new fields or column names while keeping the basic structure and data relationships intact.

Charting, Reporting, and Analyzing

Data is often collected with one purpose or report in mind. Spreadsheets will typically be structured to suit that purpose specifically.

But the collected data is a potential treasure trove of insight. The value of the data beyond its initial intended purpose might not be realized for months. In spreadsheets, the data remains static and perishable. When the data is resident in a relational database and accessible through a quality application, the data ‘comes to life’. Users with different needs and interests can chart one variable as a function of another. They can segment the data in ways never intended, revealing insights that lead to operational improvements.

For his CDP report, Brian’s only interested in GHG emissions. But the data includes electricity and fuel use for each facility. In the cloud-based application, a user might decide to chart their facility’s usage relative to other facilities. If the application stores the area of each facility, that user can chart energy per square foot for each facility. Such a chart reveals facilities that are using much more energy per square foot than the average (or much less). This leads to energy and cost savings.

Flexibility and Customization

Since spreadsheet solutions are often designed for a specific purpose in mind, they collect a specific set of data. When a new type of data is required, a new spreadsheet must be designed and re-circulated. For example – a new project is launched to collect water and waste use at the same facilities from which energy use was previously collected. This requires the creation of a new spreadsheet, doubling the number of spreadsheets in circulation.

In our cloud-based application, the administrator of the application can add categories of data and can configure the detailed parameters around each category in a manner that supports specific business processes. This exercise should not require a team of experts to customize the application at significant cost but should be doable with a few clicks, by any authorized user. The application remains alive, readily updated by those collecting and using the data.

Automated Data Collection

The cloud-based application can automate the otherwise tedious process of data collection. In many cases, data can be periodically retrieved electronically from other data stores, such as online utility accounts or other systems that are already part of an organization’s infrastructure. As such, data remains current without requiring manual effort. In cases in which the data is not available electronically, data can be imported from third-party spreadsheets in varying formats.

User Engagement

Finally, one of the benefits of the cloud-based application lies in the democratization of the data. In the old spreadsheet world, data providers often feel like cogs in a machine. They’re asked for data, they provide the data and that’s the last they hear of it. They wonder what part their data played in the whole – how their data compares to the data provided by peers. It’s fundamentally a many (the data providers) to one (the data collector), unidirectional exercise.

A cloud-based application engages its users. At the administrator’s discretion, they can be allowed access to their division’s data, their region’s data, or the whole dataset. They see the part their data plays in the whole, leading

to engaged users and to creative and unexpected insights. Of course, the application must support the appropriate level of segmentation among users who should not be seeing each other’s data.

To fully realize the value of engaged users, the application must be at a minimum, easy to use, and ideally fun and interesting to use.

Conclusion

Many companies (53% in 2014) are still using MS Excel spreadsheets for their sustainability reporting. Spreadsheets make the work of tracking and reporting such data tedious and error prone. Cloud-based applications are emerging to make this kind of work far easier. In addition to saving time and money, these applications increase the quality of the data and can lead to surprising insights. They promote greater transparency and deeper stakeholder engagement.

At Scope 5, we’re excited to be providing such an application and seeing our customers and partners through yet another CDP reporting season.