With technology and its associated benefits advancing so rapidly these days, maybe the old adage has had its day. Certainly that seems to be the case when it comes to software.
Being in regular contact with owners, managers, chartering and SnP brokers around the world, we probably have as good an insight as any into how the maritime sector as a whole manages it business.
It’s probably not surprising that by far the most popular software being used is Office 365, or earlier versions thereof, purchased by companies and individuals unwilling to switch to Microsoft’s subscription service. The combination being used tends to be Outlook for emails with Excel to store data. The majority are small to medium sized businesses, however there are a surprising number of larger organisations, some very well known names in the sector, that are still heavily reliant on this mix of Excel and Outlook.
In the following article we look at the background to this phenomenon, whether or not businesses should start investigating alternatives as a source of added value, and what those alternatives might be.
The advantage of Outlook
It’s easy to see why Outlook remains so popular. For many of us, it will have been one of the first programs we used, and as a consequence making it one of the easiest to use. Undoubtedly it remains probably one of the most suitable and cost effective ways for dealing with low numbers of emails in small organisations. More specifically
• help and guidance is readily available. As well as from friends and colleagues, with such widespread use there are plenty of videos and guides available online. • software integration, from the Microsoft ecosystem, is available and easy to understand, meaning the output of one program can easily be used in conjunction with another. • it’s inexpensive or even free to use, if you happen to be still using pre-Office365 software. • shared mailboxes are available when using Office365, created by an administrator to allow multiple users (each needing their own Office365 licence) to send and receive emails from the same address. There are however limitations and shortcomings when compared to other email applications.
The advantage of Excel
Much like Outlook, the advantages mostly arise from its use being so widespread. Excel is an incredibly valuable, highly flexible tool. Most users know the basics and there is minimal time wasted waiting for support; every organisation seems to have an Excel master, who can answer most of the more difficult questions; a quick search online will often reveal video instructions for the more complicated queries; and it’s great for the basic analysis of data.
Why then look at alternatives?
If you currently use an Excel/Outlook combination, we are not recommending you change if it works for you. Instead, when time allows, do try to investigate the alternatives, including CompassAir. If you haven’t done this for some time, you’ll probably be surprised as to what is now available and what benefits there are, brought about by continuous technological advances, such as the use of AI. Having done the research, we are confident you will find more efficient ways of doing what you do, ways that will make the workflows of you and your colleagues easier to handle, and, importantly, discover ways to improve your bottom line.
Shortcomings of the Excel/Outlook combination
As a business grows, the challenges increase. If growth brings with it an ever increasing email flow, it becomes harder to keep up, update and manage – e.g., a shipbroker dealing with hundreds, increasing to thousands of emails a day will find this to be a frustrating, unproductive distraction, one that wastes time on “admin”, valuable time that should be devoted to more profitable activities.
Older versions of Outlook, i.e. pre Office365, use “.pst” and “.ost” files to store information locally. The more emails sent and received the larger these files become, meaning search speeds deteriorate. Microsoft has also warned of the possibility of “application pauses“, which can occur more frequently when the size of these files exceed 10GB.
Sharing documents in Outlook can also be demanding – it can be done but needs each co-worker to have an account with, e.g. SharePoint or Microsoft OneDrive.
Still on the subject of sharing, as mentioned above, shared mailboxes are possible although they do come with some limitations and shortcomings when compared to other email applications, including caps on mailbox sizes, needing separate Office 365 licences, and the lack of features such as individual flags, seeing who has read emails, and so on, invaluable features that are commonplace in many other email applications for shared mailboxes.
As for Excel, it’s not necessarily the most efficient way to manage workflows and using it, for some businesses at least, again has some major shortcomings together with significant risks.
Excel is not a database despite the similarities – both can contain large amounts of data; both can perform calculations; both can analyse data; and both nowadays frequently have multiple users. But databases are very different: in a spreadsheet each cell can contain different types of values, from names through to formulae, through to numbers, each being formattable. Databases only contain raw data, no fonts or colours, with each field containing only a pre-defined type of data. Trying to insert a name in a number field within a database will flag up as an error. In a spreadsheet there will be no error message. In a spreadsheet, cells can also contain formulae – meaning that cells can contain calculations. A database only contains data and it is on that that calculations and operations are based. Data records and calculations are therefore impossible to be mistaken in a database.
Importantly though, if you are going to make Excel a critical part of how you manage your business, it is essential to know what are the risks being taken. Probably familiarity and ease of use is what increases the risk we rely on them too much, and don’t challenge them enough when it comes to holding critical data, analysing that data and then making projections about the future.
In a 2019 survey by FSN, based on responses from 532 senior finance professionals around the globe, across 23 different industries, the survey found that the current state of finance systems in use by many organizations are unable to support the dynamic environment in which businesses operate. The report concluded that finance systems are failing CFOs in their role as strategist and business partner and are leaving organizations vulnerable by failing to enable businesses to respond quickly to market changes. FSN found that 43% of respondents did not know how many spreadsheets were being used in their organisations, too much time was spent checking numbers after changes were made, in 57% of cases only one person could work on a report at a time, and 97% lost sleep over missing deadlines, making mistakes and the lack of adequate controls.
More specifically, these shortcomings include the following:
• scalability and insufficient memory: as an example, the latest spreadsheets have over a million rows and around 16,000 columns, enough for anyone’s needs? But imagine the capacity required to collect AIS data on the global fleet. Over half a million vessels use AIS to transmit their location, with co-ordinates being recorded every 3 minutes of every day. Excel has to load data into memory before it can be processed, so scalability is limited. Even with not so large spreadsheets, lags can be experienced when performing the most basic calculations. • it is much easier to search for information using a database, data can be organised and sorted based on different queries and, unlike Excel, code is not needed to do it. With a database, data is much more streamlined, using less memory. Instead of multiple spreadsheets, data can be kept in one place, allowing a much better and more complete insight into the information held. • data errors and consistency: one of the advantages of Excel is the ease with which data can be input. Unfortunately that also means errors can be made as there are limited controls in place to check the quality of that data. In 2016 Ventana Research published the results of its survey in which more than 35% of the participants said that data errors are common in the most important spreadsheet they use in their job, 26% that formulae errors were common, with 19% aware of formatting errors. • time consuming to create and maintain: copying and pasting data from one sheet to another, checking formulae, linking sheets. In addition, how a spreadsheet or a series of linked spreadsheets and worksheets is constructed often depends on the expertise and past experience of the individual involved. Most users will be self taught, so there will exist a multitude of different ways to design a spreadsheet that needs to achieve even a relatively simple objective. Initially time is spent constructing the spreadsheet, then when used by a colleague there will also be a learning curve to understand how it works. • lack of an audit trail: an inability to track who changed what and when, as well as spreadsheets being prone to manual input errors, broken links and incorrect formulae, make it difficult for an organisation to be confident the records it keeps are completely free from errors. • connected data and duplication: with multiple linked spreadsheets and workbooks it can be very difficult to understand relationships and hence data flow, especially if they have been constructed by a colleague. One database means one store of information, without duplication, contained within a stable structure that everyone understands. • security: spreadsheets tend to be created by each person in an organisation. Because it takes very little time to create a spreadsheet, to define the cells and to start entering data, an organisation will have not only what can easily amount to thousands of different files, but also there will often be multiple versions of the same file. In other words, there can be simply too many workbooks to be confident an even minimal level of security exists.
• complex workflows: ideal where workflows are straightforward but, when various types of related information are involved, entering, analysing and then displaying becomes that much more difficult. Because spreadsheets do not handle relational data it means that productivity will suffer. For example, one spreadsheet may contain data on a vessel’s fuel consumption, a second about its location. There will not necessarily be a connection between the two and therefore producing a report covering both variables will be time consuming . However, this would not be the case if only one database were used, easy access then being available to all the information held on a particular vessel. • collaboration: spreadsheets were not designed to accommodate multiple users and simultaneous use, and when these do occur, files can be corrupted and cause performance issues. With several users, there is a danger that multiple versions of the same spreadsheet are updated and stored separately, resulting in uncertainty over which is the latest version. The most obvious challenges come from data being duplicated, files being overwritten, and delays occuring whilst waiting for a colleague to finish what they are doing. With inadequate version control, data integrity is easily compromised. When access to a file in a shared location is not available, it means spreadsheets need to be transferred or emailed between users. Not only is this inefficient, it also leads to multiple versions that soon become impossible to track. Several copies of a spreadsheet can co-exist, again with confusion over which is the latest. With a database, multiple people can access and update at the same time, leading to increased efficiency and a reduction in the risk of error when entering and updating data.
What are the alternatives?
Given the multitude of applications that could replace Excel and Outlook individually, it can be a daunting challenge to know where to start your search. To narrow the field of investigation, making it more manageable, it would be advisable to first look at software that combines the advantages of each in one place, and second, to look at industry specific software. Some of the advantages this will bring include
• useful features will be available and those which are not necessary will be eliminated. For example, being a generic product, Outlook aims to be all things to all people and, as such, is crammed with many features that the average user is not even aware of, let alone will use. Too much functionality can sometimes obscure some of the simpler features. • ways of working will be understood, and features will have been designed based on years of industry experience to improve workflows. For example, with the availability of shared mailboxes and the level of transparency required by team members (who has seen emails and who is taking action). CompassAir makes use of AI by scanning messages, extracting information, dropping it into an easily accessible database and making users aware of its existence. • when individuals are given the tools to work together then they will find it much easier to achieve a defined and common purpose. Software designed with an industry in mind will facilitate collaboration and maximise productivity. Not only that, your competitors are probably already using specialised software and so embracing a change may be the only way to stay competitive in the longer term.
It is only fair to say that changing software is not always advisable, a possible move necessitating a detailed investigation, careful thought and planning. It can be time consuming and expensive with a hidden “soft cost” if attention is not given to implementation through a vendor that understands the needs of your employees. Soft costs are generally intangible and represent expenditure not easy to estimate. Training will probably be required in order to avoid these costs and to make best use of, and extract most value from, the new software. A major consideration is cost in terms of time and effort, in moving away from something that is already familiar and apparently inexpensive to use.
You may already be aware of the alternative solutions available in your niche. If not, speaking to others in the industry will soon reveal those providers with the necessary experience and pedigree to make the project a success. Personal recommendations will often be the best way forward. Once you have a shortlist of providers our articles “Changing software: do we really need to change” and “Choosing the right software” should help with your next steps.
Feel free to contact us for an insight into what is available right now to make your organisation more successful. You will also discover how we have incorporated AI into our existing products as well as those in development. At the end of the day, we are certain that, whilst your existing solutions may not be broken and so don’t need to be fixed, you will be surprised by the alternatives that exist, ones that will add real value to your business, make your teams more productive and reduce the risks to which your organisation is currently exposed.
A few words about CompassAir
Creating solutions for the global maritime sector, CompassAir develops state of the art messaging and business application software designed to maximise ROI. Our software is used across the sector, including by Sale and Purchase brokers (S&P/SnP), Chartering brokers, Owners, Managers and Operators.
Through its shipping and shipbroking clients, ranging from recognised World leaders through to the smallest, most dynamic independent companies, CompassAir has a significant presence in the major maritime centres throughout Europe, the US and Asia.
Our flagship solution is designed to simplify collaboration for teams within and across continents, allowing access to group mailboxes at astounding speed using tools that remove the stress from handling thousands of emails a day. It can be cloud based or on premise. To find out more contact email@example.com. If you are new to shipping, or just want to find out more about this exciting and challenging sector, the CompassAirShipping Guide might prove to be an interesting read.
Contact us for more information or a short demonstration on how CompassAir can benefit your business, and find out how we can help your teams improve collaboration and increase productivity.