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Excel Spreadsheet Conversion to SQL Reports

Spreadsheets are flexible, inexpensive and easy to use. They are especially handy when it comes to beating report submission deadlines or making impromptu data computations.

Unfortunately, organisations’ heavy reliance on spreadsheets have made these User Developed Applications (UDA) into high-risk office tools. Simple spreadsheet errors like leaving out a negative sign or a cut-and-paste mistake have already caused million-dollar discrepancies. Also, when a fraudulent employee enters into the picture, the risks become unimaginable.
Think TransAlta’s spreadsheet cut-and-paste glitch (the company later called this a “simple clerical error”) which caused the energy firm a whopping $24 million loss or Fidelity’s overstatement of its earnings owing to the omission of the minus sign on the spreadsheet of a $1.3 billion net capital loss.

Denizon can convert your Excel Spreadsheets to a web based SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS). It does not import Excel data, rather it allows the creation and deployment of reports in a more efficient manner by querying the data.

 

So what’s the problem with Spreadsheets?

  • Plagued with risk issues and vulnerable to fraud
  • Lacking in control features especially when copied, edited and emailed between many users
  • A burden to regulation compliance e.g. SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley)
Moreover:

Accidental copy-paste/Omission of a negative sign/Erroneous range selection
Incorrect data input or unintentional deletion of a character, cell, range, column, or row
Possibility of the user working on the wrong version
Prone to inconsistent company-wide reporting
Often defenceless against unauthorised access

See Top 10 Disadvantages of Spreadsheets

 

What makes SQL Server Reporting Services better than Spreadsheets?

  • Free from spreadsheet risks -equipped with built-in controls that substantially reduce risks to data
  • Less prone to fraud
  • More suitable for regulatory compliance e.g. SOX
  • Designed for an agile business environment

Automatic consolidation eliminates errors and wasted time caused by tedious copy-pasting of data and linking of cells
Better collaboration capabilities allows team members to bring their heads together for planning, budgeting, and reporting even while on the go
Mobility support enables users to input data or retrieve information through their wireless mobile device

Superior sharing features ensures that everyone is exactly on the same page and viewing real-time information
Dashboards provide insightful information at-a-glance through KPIs, graphs, and various metrics
Drill-downs enable users to investigate unusual figures and gain a better understanding of the details that contribute to the big picture
Easy to learn interfaces allow your organisation to cope with fast personnel turnaround or Mergers & Acquisitions

 

Don’t know how to shift from Spreadsheets to SQL Server Reporting Services?

We’ve got the knowledge and expertise to assist you in:

  • Making a smooth and cost-efficient transition from risky spreadsheets to reliable reports
  • Designing and implementing SOX-compliant report-generating methods and procedures
  • Putting exposure to high-risk reporting methods a thing of the past

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Spreadsheet Risks in Banks

No other industry perhaps handles such large volumes of critical financial data more than the banking industry. For decades now, spreadsheets have become permanent fixtures in the front-line reporting tool sets of banks, providing organised information when and where needed.

But as banks enter into a period of heightened credit risks, elevated levels of fraud, and greater regulatory scrutiny, many are wondering if continued reliance on spreadsheets is a wise decision for banks today.

The downfall of Lehman Brothers which eventually led to its filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 15, 2008, served as a wake up call for many institutions across the globe to make a serious examination of their own risk management practices. But would these reforms include evaluating the security of user developed applications (UDAs), the most common of which are spreadsheets, and putting specific guidelines as to when they can – or cannot be – used?

Banks and Spreadsheet Use

Banks have been known to utilise spreadsheets systems for many critical functions because most personnel are well-acquainted with them, and the freedom of being able to develop customised reports without needing to consult with the IT department offers flexibility and convenience. In fact, more than having a way to do financial budgeting and analysing customer profitability, even loan officers and trade managers have become reliant on spreadsheets for risk management reporting and for making underwriting decisions.

But there are more than a few drawbacks to using spreadsheets for these tasks, and the sooner bank executives realise these, the sooner they can adopt better solutions.

General Limitations

Spreadsheets are far from being data base systems and yet more often than not, they are expected to act as such, with figures constantly added and formulas edited to produce the presumably right set of reports.

In addition, data integrity is always a cause for concern as most values in spreadsheets are entered as manual inputs. Even the mere misplacement of a comma or a negative sign, or an inadvertent “edit” to a formula can also be a source of significant changes in the outcome.

Confidentiality risk is also another drawback of the use of spreadsheets in banks as these tools do not have adequate access controls to limit access to only authorised individuals. Pertinent financial information that fall into the wrong hands can lead to a whole new set of problems including the possibility of fraud.

Risks in Trading

For trading transactions, spreadsheets can prove to be of immense use – but only for small market volumes. As trade volumes increase and the types vary, spreadsheets are no longer a viable solution and may likely become more of a hindrance, with calculations taking longer in the face of bigger transaction amounts and growing transaction data.

And in trading, there is always the need for rigorous computational functions. Computing for the Value at Risk (VaR) for large portfolios for instance, is simply way beyond the capabilities of spreadsheets. Banks that persist in using them are increasing the risk of loss on those portfolios. Or, they can be opening up opportunities for fraud as Allied Irish Bank (in the case of John Rusnak – $690 million) learned the hard way.

Risks in Underwriting

Bankers who use spreadsheets as their main source of information for underwriting procedures also face certain limitations. Loan transactions require that borrowers’ financial data be centralised and easily accessible to risk officers and lending officers involved in making decisions. With spreadsheets, there is no simple and secure way of doing that. Information can be pulled from different sources – individual tax returns, corporate tax documents, partnership documents, audited financial statements – hence there is difficulty in verifying that these reports adhere to underwriting policies.

Spreadsheet control and monitoring

Financial institutions which are having difficulty weaning themselves from the convenience and simplicity that spreadsheets offer are looking for possible control solutions. Essentially, they want to find ways that allow them to continue using these UDAs and yet somehow eliminate the spreadsheet risks and limitations involved.

Still, the debate goes back and forth on whether adequate control measures can be implemented on spreadsheets so that that the risks are mitigated. Many services have come forward to herald innovative solutions for better spreadsheet management. But at the end of the day, there really is no guarantee that such solutions would suffice.

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Top 10 Disadvantages of Spreadsheets

Fraudulent manipulations in company Excel files have already resulted in Billion-Dollar losses. The main underlying reason behind this spreadsheet vulnerability is the inherent lack of controls, which makes it so easy to alter either formulas, values, or dependencies without being detected.

Disadvantages of Spreadsheets

Comprehensive information and data your organisation needs, to circumvent the threats posed by spreadsheets.

1. Vulnerable to Fraud

Of all the spreadsheet disadvantages listed here, this is perhaps the most damaging. Fraudulent manipulations in company Excel files have already resulted in Billion-Dollar losses. The main underlying reason behind this spreadsheet vulnerability is the inherent lack of controls, which makes it so easy to alter either formulas, values, or dependencies without being detected.

2. Susceptible to trivial human errors

While fraud will always be a threat to spreadsheet systems, there is a more significant threat that should make you seriously consider getting rid of these outdated systems. And that is its extreme susceptibility to even trivial human errors. Missed negative signs and misaligned rows may sound harmless.

But when they damage investor confidence or cause a considerable loss of opportunity amounting to millions of dollars (Are we serious? Google up “spreadsheet horror stories” to find out), you should understand that it’s time to move on to better alternatives.

3. Difficult to troubleshoot or test

So how about testing spreadsheets to mitigate the risks of items 1 and 2? Good luck. Spreadsheets just aren’t built for that. It’s not uncommon to have interrelated spreadsheet data scattered across different folders, workstations, offices, or even geographical locations.

Worse, even if you are able pinpoint the locations of every related file, tracing the logic of formulas from one related cell to another can take ages. It’s pretty obvious now how you’ll also encounter a similar problem when troubleshooting questionable data.

4. Obstructive to regulatory compliance

Combine items 1, 2, and 3, and what do you get? A big headache impacting regulatory compliance. There are number of regulations that have a serious impact on the use of spreadsheets.

Some of the many regulations that impact spreadsheet systems include:

And to think it looks like regulatory bodies are just getting warmed up. Over the last two decades, we’ve seen a surge in regulations that directly affect spreadsheet-based systems. Now, you tell me that you haven’t wished there was a better way to beat regulatory compliance deadlines. Well, if you’re still using spreadsheets, then there certainly is a better way.

5. Unfit for agile business practices

We’re now in an age when major changes are shaping and reshaping the business landscape. Mergers and Acquisitions, Management Buyouts, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, uprisings, climate change, new technologies, and so on. If your business isn’t agile enough to adapt to such changes, it could easily be left behind or even face extinction.

Spreadsheets are normally created by individuals who have not the slightest know-how regarding software documentation. In the end, spreadsheet files become highly personalised user developed applications. So when it’s time for a new person to take over as part of a large scale business change, the newcomer may have to start from scratch.

Read further about Implementing Large-Scale Business Change

 

6. Not designed for collaborative work

Planning, forecasting, budgeting, and reporting are all collaborative activities. In other words, plans, forecasts, budgets, and reports typically require information from different individuals belonging to different departments. In addition, the final documents are a result of multiple exchanges of data, ideas, and files.

Now, if your company’s offices are scattered throughout the country or if certain team members are separated by large distances, the only way to exchange data stored in spreadsheets is through email.

Experience will tell you that such a method of exchange is susceptible to duplicate and even erroneous data. Team members will tend to find it hard to keep track of similar files going back and forth, and sometimes even end up sending the wrong version.

7. Hard to consolidate

When it comes to simple data entry and quick ad hoc data analysis tasks, spreadsheets are highly favoured by end users. This has made them one of the most ubiquitous office tools on the planet. But as a consequence, data in spreadsheet-based systems are distributed throughout the organisation.

So when it’s time to generate reports, you’ll really have to go through a slow consolidation process. In most cases, end users would have to collect data from different files, summarise them, and submit the same to their department heads through emails, portable storage media (e.g. CDs or USB flash-drives), or by copying to a commonly shared network folder.

Department heads would have to undergo a similar process before submitting them to their own superiors. This has to go on until all the information reaches their organisation’s top decision makers. Throughout the entire consolidation process, data is subjected to numerous error-prone activities such as copy-pasting, cell entry, and range specification.

8. Incapable of supporting quick decision making

In a spreadsheet-based environment, extracting data from different departments, consolidating them, and summarising the information so that it could aid the company’s top brass in making sound decisions can be very time consuming.

And because we know how susceptible spreadsheets are to errors, everyone involved in the information processing has to be ultra careful to keep the integrity of the data intact. Hence it would be prudent to enforce double-checking as much as possible.

This extra but necessary exercise can further delay the process. So, when the final information arrives at the hands of the top executive, he may not have much time to work with. (Read about Business Intelligence)

9. Unsuited for business continuity

As mentioned earlier, data in spreadsheet systems are never kept in a single place. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. The worse thing about it is that they’re always in the hands of non-IT personnel, who are understandably not familiar with storage and backup best practices.

Thus, if a major disaster strikes, full data recovery can be very difficult if not impossible. As a consequence, even if the company has financial reserves, the absence of data (e.g. accounts receivable records, customer records, and inventory) to work on can prevent the company from making a quick restart.

10. Scales poorly

As an organisation grows, data in spreadsheet-based systems get more distributed; subsequently compounding the issues outlined above. It is absolutely not advisable for a large organisation to keep using spreadsheets.

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Disadvantages of Spreadsheets – Obstacles to Compliance in the Healthcare Industry

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Most of the regulatory compliance issues we talked about concerning spreadsheets have been related to financial data. But there are other kinds of data that are stored in spreadsheets which may also cause regulatory problems in the future.

In the US, a legislation known as HIPAA or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is changing the way health care establishments and practitioners handle patient records. The HIPAA Privacy Rule is aimed at protecting the privacy of individually identifiable health information a.k.a. protected health information (PHI).

Examples of PHI include common identifiers like a patient’s name, address, Social Security Number, and so on, which can be used to identify the patient. HIPAA covers a wide range of health care organisations and service providers, including: health plan payers, health care clearing houses, hospitals, doctors, dentists, etc.

To protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PHI, covered entities are required to implement technical policies such as access controls, authentication, and audit controls. These can easily be implemented on server-based systems.

Sad to say, many health care organisations who have started storing data electronically still rely on spreadsheet-based systems. Those policies are hard to implement in spreadsheet-based systems, where files are handled by end-users who are overloaded with their main line of work (i.e. health care) and have very little concern for data security.

In some of these systems, spreadsheet files containing PHI may have multiple versions in different workstations. Chances are, none of these files have any access control or user authentication mechanism whatsoever. Thus, changes can easily be made without proper documentation as to who carried out the changes.

And because the files are normally easily accessible, unauthorised disclosures – whether done intentionally or accidentally – will always be a lingering threat. Remember that HIPAA covered entities who are caught disclosing PHI can be fined from $50,000 up to $500,000 plus jail time.

But that’s not all. Through the HITECH Act of 2009, business associates of covered entities will now have to comply with HIPAA standards as well. Business associates are those companies who are performing functions and services for covered entities.

Examples of business associates are accounting firms, law firms, consultants, and so on. They automatically need to comply with the standards the moment they too deal with PHI.

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How Internal Auditors can win The War against Spreadsheet Fraud

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To prevent another round of million dollar scandals due to fraudulent manipulations on spreadsheets, regulatory bodies have launched major offensives against these well-loved User Developed Applications (UDAs). Naturally, internal auditors are front and center in carrying out these offensives.

While regulations like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Dodd-Frank Act, and Solvency II can only be effective if end users are able to carry out the activities and practices required of them, auditors need to ascertain that they have. Sad to say, when it comes to spreadsheets, that is easier said than done.

Because spreadsheets are loosely distributed by nature, internal auditors always find it hard to: locate them, identify ownership, and trace their relationships with other spreadsheets. Now, we’re still talking about naturally occurring spreadsheets. How much more with files that have been deliberately tampered?

Spreadsheets can be altered in a variety of ways, especially if the purpose is to conceal fraudulent activities. Fraudsters can, for instance:

  • hide columns or rows,
  • perform conditional formatting, which changes the appearance of cells depending on certain values
  • replace cell entries with false values either through direct input or by linking to other spreadsheet sources
  • apply small, incremental changes in multiple cells or even spreadsheets to avoid detection
  • design macros and user defined functions to carry out fraudulent manipulations automatically

Recognising the seemingly insurmountable task ahead, the Institute of Internal Auditors released a guide designed specifically for the task of auditing user-developed applications, which of course includes spreadsheets.

But is this really the weapon internal auditors should be wielding in their quest to bring down spreadsheet fraud? Our answer is no. In fact, we believe no such weapon has to be wielded at all because the only way to get rid of spreadsheet fraud is to eliminate spreadsheets once and for all.

Imagine how easy it would be for internal auditors to conduct their audits if data were kept in a centralised server instead of being scattered throughout the organisation in end-user hard drives.

And that’s not all. Because a server-based solution can be configured to have its own built-in controls, all your data will be under lock and key; unlike spreadsheet-based systems wherein storing a spreadsheet file inside a password-protected workstation does not guarantee equal security for all the other spreadsheets scattered throughout your company.

Learn more about Denizon’s server application solutions and discover a more efficient way for your internal auditors to carry out their jobs.

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Spreadsheet Reporting – No Room in Your Company in an Age of Business Intelligence

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It doesn’t take a genius to understand why spreadsheet reporting still pervades the enterprise despite the rise of a complex but highly effective IT solution known to big shot CIOs as Business Intelligence or BI.

If you’re still in the dark as to what BI is, don’t worry because we’ll enlighten you shortly.

Business decisions from disparate data sources

In the meantime, let’s talk about how you make business decisions. If you’re a top executive, then you make decisions based largely on reports submitted to you by your managers, department heads, and so on. They in turn obtain information from different sources, like the company ERP and CRM as well as other external sources (e.g. market surveys).

Now, before their reports ever reach your desk, a lot of data is extracted, shared, filtered, analysed, consolidated, and summarised so that they become actionable information. In all these activities, one software tool gets to take part in most of the action – the spreadsheet.

The problem with spreadsheet reporting

The problem with spreadsheets is that they have very poor built-in controls. Thus, they are susceptible to human errors and are vulnerable to fraud. What’s more, collecting data and manually consolidating them into spreadsheets can be very laborious and time consuming.

If you don’t get accurate, reliable information, your judgement will be fuzzy and your business decisions compromised. In addition, if you don’t receive the information you need on time, your business will constantly be at risk of breaching critical thresholds, which may even force it to spin out of control.

Business Intelligence – actionable information on time

This is mainly the reason why large companies implement Business Intelligence systems. BI systems are equipped with built-in features like reports, dashboards, and alerts.

Reports consolidate data and present them in a consistent format composed of intuitive text, graphs, and charts. The main purpose of having a consistent format is so that you will know what kind of information to expect and how the information is arranged. That way, you don’t waste time searching or making heads or tails out of the data in front of you.

Dashboards, on the other hand, present information through visual representations composed of graphs and gauges that are aimed at tracking your business metrics and goals. The main function of dashboards is to feed you with actionable information at a glance.

Finally, alerts keep you informed when certain conditions are met or critical thresholds are breached. Because their main purpose is to prompt you at the soonest possible time wherever you are, a typical alert can come in the form of an SMS message or an email.

As you can see, all three features are designed to get you making well-informed decisions as quickly as possible.

The problem with Business Intelligence and the alternative solution

The usual problem with full BI systems is that they can be very costly. Hence, if your organisation does end up implementing one, chances are, not everyone under you will be able to access it. As a result, some departments will be forced to go back to using spreadsheets.

If your company cannot afford a full BI system, then that probably means you don’t need one. What you need is a more affordable alternative. There are actually Software as a Service (SaaS) Business Intelligence solutions that may not be as comprehensive as a full BI system, but which may suffice for small and mid-sized businesses.

The disadvantages of spreadsheets are more damaging than you could have ever expected. Be free of it now.

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The Better Way of Applying Benford’s Law for Fraud Detection

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Applying Benford’s Law on large collections of data is an effective way of detecting fraud. In this article, we’ll introduce you to Benford’s Law, talk about how auditors are employing it in fraud detection, and introduce you to a more effective way of integrating it into an IT solution.

Benford’s Law in a nutshell

Benford’s Law states that certain data sets – including certain accounting numbers – exhibit a non-uniform distribution of first digits. Simply put, if you gather all the first digits (e.g. 8 is the first digit of £814 and 1 is the first digit of £1768) of all the numbers that make up one of these data sets, the smallest digits will appear more frequently than the larger ones.

That is, according to Benford’s Law,

1 should comprise roughly 30.1% of all first digits;
2 should be 17.6%;
3 should be 12.5%;
4 should be 9.7%, and so on.

Notice that the 1s (ones) occur far more frequently than the rest. Those who are not familiar with Benford’s Law tend to assume that all digits should be distributed uniformly. So when fraudulent individuals tinker with accounting data, they may end up putting in more 9s or 8s than there actually should be.

Once an accounting data set is found to show a large deviation from this distribution, then auditors move in to make a closer inspection.

Benford’s Law spreadsheets and templates

Because Benford’s Law has been proven to be effective in discovering unnaturally-behaving data sets (such as those manipulated by fraudsters), many auditors have created simple software solutions that apply this law. Most of these solutions, owing to the fact that a large majority of accounting departments use spreadsheets, come in the form of spreadsheet templates.

You can easily find free downloadable spreadsheet templates that apply Benford’s Law as well as simple How-To articles that can help you to implement the law on your own existing spreadsheets. Just google “benford’s law template” or “benford’s law spreadsheet”.

I suggest you try out some of them yourself to get a feel on how they work.

The problem with Benford’s Law when used on spreadsheets

There’s actually another reason why I wanted you to try those spreadsheet templates and How-To’s yourself. I wanted you to see how susceptible these solutions are to trivial errors. Whenever you work on these spreadsheet templates – or your own spreadsheets for that matter – when implementing Benford’s Law, you can commit mistakes when copy-pasting values, specifying ranges, entering formulas, and so on.

Furthermore, some of the data might be located in different spreadsheets, which can likewise by found in different departments and have to be emailed for consolidation. The departments who own this data will have to extract the needed data from their own spreadsheets, transfer them to another spreadsheet, and send them to the person in-charge of consolidation.

These activities can introduce errors as well. That’s why we think that, while Benford’s Law can be an effective tool for detecting fraud, spreadsheet-based working environments can taint the entire fraud detection process.

There’s actually a better IT solution where you can use Benford’s Law.

Why a server-based solution works better

In order to apply Benford’s Law more effectively, you need to use it in an environment that implements better controls than what spreadsheets can offer. What we propose is a server-based system.

In a server-based system, your data is placed in a secure database. People who want to input data or access existing data will have to go through access controls such as login procedures. These systems also have features that log access history so that you can trace who accessed which and when.

If Benford’s Law is integrated into such a system, there would be no need for any error-prone copy-pasting activities because all the data is stored in one place. Thus, fraud detection initiatives can be much faster and more reliable.

You can get more information on this site regarding the disadvantages of spreadsheets. We can also tell you more about the advantages of server application solutions.

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