Death of the spreadsheet

Death of the spreadsheet | Insurance Business Canada

Death of the spreadsheet

“TECHNOLOGY. I don’t get it.” Those were the words of my father, an accountant, many years ago. His mental arithmetic was outstanding, and his understanding of his clients’ issues was excellent.

But his career predated today’s technological world, where we use spreadsheets, software and other technology by default. I watched him resist the shift to computers and spreadsheets, fearing that users would simply accept answers and wouldn’t know how to explain the outcome.

With the launch of Microsoft Excel in 1985, spreadsheets became a staple in the field of finance. But to a large degree, my father’s fears were unfounded. Excel still requires the user to understand the problem and the calculations behind the outcome. My colleagues and I still need to understand the inputs, outputs and the theory behind our calculations.

Recently, I’ve noticed major change once again in the way we use technology. Surprisingly, I’m now that person I described above, because part of me wants to resist the change. Yet I realize I must embrace it. 

Where I work, we have an innovation group that is well on its way to improving and enhancing how we use and leverage technology. We are making huge leaps in the way we work and how we deliver our product, responding to clients’ needs and their user habits.

I sense that, with these changes, we are entering the phase where the spreadsheet will be replaced. But will that take us further away from fully understanding the mechanics of the problem we are dealing with? Will we get to a place where we enter data into a system and blindly accept the outcomes? We hear about drivers who follow GPS technology and end up in a lake (or perhaps that’s just one of my favourite moments from The Office). Are we running full speed down that path in business? 

The way in which we and our clients absorb data has changed: both the how and the when. The speed with which people want updates, revisions and data analysis is driven by our lifestyle habits. Lead times are shrinking as everything is delivered on demand. Within our firm and across the industry, we must meet the new needs of the client.

Delivery is changing, too. No longer will a client request and receive data from the service provider. They want access to it on their time, without the need for interaction. We can tell ourselves that the face-to-face client relationship is still important, but sadly, its significance is shrinking. I watch my younger colleagues IM one another from 10 feet apart. The need for interaction is fading, it seems. That scares me, but they seem happy with life that way.

Our clients want solutions and resolution. We must provide the tools for them to achieve that – quickly, accurately, efficiently and in the way they want. To provide this kind of service level, we will need to look to technology advancements in what we do and how we deliver. The race is on to create the best app, client platform, algorithm or artificial intelligence platform. 

In all sectors, we are looking for apps, software and programs to get us to the answers and help us with decisions. We need to start asking our clients of the future what they would like our deliverables to be. And we need to gather the knowledge of our younger staff, listen to their concepts and ideas, and bring them into the discussion.

We know that our clients want charts, data maps and models, and are happy to place faith in such things to make decisions. They don’t necessarily need to know the mechanics – just that the technology works and the conclusions are accurate. That does concern me. Will we stop fully understanding the work we do? Will our ability to truly understand and explain the problems we are handling lessen? I have to hope not. I do think that a full understanding of the problem will still be needed if we are to explain it.

I don’t have all the answers, but I’m watching for opportunities to embrace the next change. And I’m doing my best to recognize that those around me may have the answers. After all, they are the clients of the future, and we must meet their needs. 

Simon Oddy is a partner in the global forensics practice at accounting firm Baker Tilly Virchow Krause. He specializes in quantifying large, complex losses in insurance, fraud, liability and cyber claims cases.