Man on laptop with man with hardhat behind him.

To Spreadsheet Hell and Back

Written By: Matt Lieberson
July 18, 2023
6 min read

Why Data Fragmentation Is Terrible for Your Business — and What You Can Do About It.

Anthony Offredi has worked as an engineer in industries that range from construction and manufacturing to automotive and consumer. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s seen the same data disarray: disjointed, duplicate, and even incorrect data in multiple formats and locations. The results of these data messes are also similar: budget overruns, delays, and even project failures.

“It’s the same problem, no matter the industry,” said Offredi, a customer advisory director at Quickbase who acts as a liaison to large manufacturing, construction, and logistics customers. He’s even come up with a phrase to describe the phenomenon of organizations big and small who conduct the majority of their business in error-prone documents that live mostly on individual desktops: spreadsheet hell.

So what can be done? The key, according to Offredi, is understanding how you got there in the first place.

One of your favorite phrases is “data fragmentation.” What is it, and why is it such a big deal?

Imagine that someone’s dumped a puzzle in front of you. The pieces are turned every which way, and some are even upside down. Someone asks, “Hey, what’s that puzzle?” and so you start matching pieces, figuring out all the colors and lines and patterns. You soon realize that a bunch of pieces are missing. You look on the floor, in the box — they’re not there. You think you see a map of the United States forming, but it’s incomplete. And you’re not sure if you have Kansas — or is that Nebraska? — in the right spot.

Now let’s talk about how that relates to your business. You may have finance data in one location, project data in another, and employee data in yet another. To answer “how’s person X doing on project Y? And is the project on time, and at cost?” you have to pull in pieces from different places into one spot — most likely, an Excel spreadsheet, and then use the collated data to put together a story.

That’s one small example of data fragmentation. In reality, that scenario is happening everywhere, all at once. Each company has its own digital architecture — the way it manages its work. Over time, you get all these different data storage areas. And your data fragmentation gets worse as you accumulate more data.

What happens when data fragmentation becomes pervasive?

When you hire someone for a job, whether a production supervisor, project foreman, construction or financial manager, their job description doesn’t say “data analyst.” But because of data fragmentation issues, they’ll likely be spending a good chunk of time searching for, validating, and correlating data, just so they can do their job. They were hired to make the company successful, but they’re too busy mired in data chaos.

It’s anxiety-inducing, overwhelming, and exhausting when you need 10 systems on average just to get your job done. Now think about the time it takes to onboard anyone new! Even once they’re up to speed, they’ll have to make sure the data they’re using is relevant and valid. They have to become a data analyst just to do their job.

Research done by Quickbase shows that more than half of employees are spending 10+ hours a week chasing information from different people and systems. What do you make of that?

I’m not surprised. But if I hire someone, and only have 75% of their time because the other 25% is spent on hunting for data, that’s insane. Think about the overall effect with multiple people in multiple departments.

So here’s what happens next. I’ve seen a few different scenarios.

Some folks leave that kind of job pretty quickly. I’ve also seen those who stay become very skilled at DIY solutions, which just makes everything worse. They create their own system, in their own Excel file, using a script or pivot table so the data analysis happens more automatically. Now you have all these sheets on desktops, and the data isn’t connected to anything. It’s static, just sitting there. But it’s thanks to such DIY solutions that many workers are able to survive and move forward.

Now, some companies have it figured out. They’ve slimmed down their systems and gotten to a more efficient point, at least around data entry and data analytics. But most companies are still going through this data fragmentation journey.

It’s little wonder that so many projects aren’t delivered on budget or on time.

Exactly. Say you want an overall picture of your company or project health. With disparate internal and external (vendor, supply chain) data sources, you’re not just waiting for information to trickle in. You also have to validate it. That takes time. Meanwhile, you may miss renewing a project permit or purchasing something big because the data you need was delayed.

Now you have time overruns. And to deliver on time, you’ll now have cost overruns. You’ll pay more overtime to ship or build faster.

Some people may shrug and say, “projects always run over budget and over time.”

I’m seeing much less of that attitude, especially in this economy. Companies especially sit up and take notice when they see their numbers. Still, I don’t know if they’re necessarily aware of the hyper-fragmentation until a significant event occurs. You may have all these minor events. People try to make it work with DIY solutions or jumping through hoops, but it’s only when everything snowballs and something big happens that companies start diving into the why.

And it needs to be a deep dive, because it’s never the first layer of the why. I like to use a method called the five-why, where you get to a root cause by asking “Why” five times. That’s how companies will get to the root cause: data fragmentation and what we at Quickbase are calling “gray work.”

That awareness is starting to happen, but it’s not happening nearly as fast as it should.

What will it take to accelerate that awareness?

When I first started working, we had carbon copies. You had to write super hard to go through all the layers. Next, there was Microsoft Office. And then Lotus, Microsoft Access, Oracle, where we could understand relational databases.

We need a better understanding of the purpose of each application. Microsoft Excel is great for desktop financials, analysis, numbers. It’s not meant for corporatewide finances. Microsoft Word is a great word processor. But it’s not a repository for your standard operating procedures.

Everything is mobile now. Not everyone is comfortable with that. But we’re not going back. People are getting the majority of their information on their phone. If it’s not on their phone, they don’t want it. I’d say we need less DIY solutions, and more of that mindset.

There’s so much data in the world. The solution to everything can no longer be, “Oh, I’ll make an Excel sheet.”

Until you have a system in place that keeps track of all the data you need to run your business in one place — employee information, service-level agreements (SLAs), permitting, your entire supply chain, and other critical information — so you can look ahead and see potential risks, you’ll continue having cost and time overruns.

Anthony Offredi joined Quickbase as customer advisory director in January 2023. Hear more from Offredi in this Age of Agility podcast, where he discusses setting and maintaining high standards in your organization.

Matt Lieberson
Written By: Matt Lieberson

Matt Lieberson is a Content Marketing Manager at Quickbase.

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