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Finding a cure for the spreadsheet blues

Book, video and music distributor Baker & Taylor had spreadsheet-itis. The system the company had used for years had become unmanageable.

“We were at the point of trying to coordinate information flow between users and 30 to 40 large spreadsheets that were linked together,” says James Sharrett, financial analyst and systems administrator for Baker & Taylor . “Some spreadsheets were five and six megabytes. Whenever we needed to make even the simplest change, it was a major undertaking.

“We spent as much time verifying that all the spreadsheets were actually linked together properly as we did anything else in the budgeting process. We have had some last-minute requests that took five or six people a day or two to accomplish.”

Baker & Taylor needed an information management cure.

In business for 170 years, the company distributes books, videos and music products to Internet and traditional retailers, as well as to library customers. Headquartered in Charlotte, NC, with operations and distributions center in a half-dozen locations across the country, Baker & Taylor has 500,000 titles in inventory and more than 2 million available for order.

After testing several products, the distributor chose a solution involving Comshare’s Web-based management planning and control software and Microsoft SQL Server. It is now finishing the first phase of a multiphase project to centralize information that has been housed in a variety of applications, spreadsheets and data repositories.

“Our long-range goal,” says Sharrett, “is to have a single, centralized management reporting and analysis system using Comshare software for the entire enterprise, combining general ledger information and sales information in one place. By bringing all that information together, our managers will have immediate access to a single version of the truth, and our detailed sales information will always tie back to our reported financial information.”

With the new solution, Sharrett adds, Baker & Taylor accesses only one central database that is easy to understand and administer. “Instead of buying multiple packages to get what we wanted, we chose an integrated MPC solution,” he says.

In the first phase of the project, the solution was deployed to all budgeting users who used to struggle with spreadsheets. “We fully administer the application within the finance department and use no IT support at all, other than to maintain the network portion of the server,” says Sharrett.

Now, the effort is underway to extend the remedy to others in the company. “After the next budget cycle in July,” Sharrett says. “we will deploy our production reporting over the Web. Also, we want to take advantage of the business intelligence capabilities, such as exception reporting and alerts already built into the software.” Those capabilities will eliminate redundant and often paper-driven analysis.

“In addition, we want to view data at a detailed customer level for other types of analysis beyond budgeting,” says Sharrett. “Our goal is to give more users, such as our sales and marketing people and our service center operations managers, the ability to go online to do detailed ad hoc analysis so they can better manage the business.”

If users have access to detailed information, they can eliminate all the intermediate steps they currently go through to get answers. That’s not just a cure; it’s a cultural revolution, according to Sharrett

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