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Smurf warns of 'Frankensheet' attacks. By John Stokdyk

20th Aug 2007
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Simon Murphy, also known as the author of the SmurfonSpreadsheets blog, warned recently of the ever-increasing complexity to be found in corporate "Frankensheets".

As a director of the Carlisle-based consultancy Codematic, Murphy has worked on spreadsheets used to manage roughly $1 trillion in assets, he told the audience at the EuSpRIG conference in July. "From what I've seen, as soon as you get spreadsheets into an organisation, you get a serious management overhead," he said.

The focus of much spreadsheet research is on development methods to reduce and identify errors, but in Murphy's experience, the biggest risk lies in the mismanagement of spreadsheets in practical use. "Once you stick a wonderful spreadsheet in a live environment and you get lots of versions, you're still going to get trouble managing them."

The main problem, he added, was "versionitis" - how can you be sure which of several similar workbooks is the right one?

Murphy cited a 2004 survey in which 60% of organisations acknowledged they were suffering from "spreadsheet hell". He commented: "My interpretation is that 40% are mildly deluded. If there are organisations that use spreadsheets extensively but don't have problems, I'd like to meet them."

Beware the Frankensheet
The term Frankensheet was first defined by Rob Bruce, and was described by Murphy as a "a big, ugly spreadsheet monster. It's difficult to build, difficult to work with, difficult to maintain and difficult to test. They're just basically ugly and horrible."

Like the famous man-monster, Frankensheets often take on lives of their own - they takes over and get everyone to work in horrible ways that they set down. When approaching such beasts, Murphy noticed that their authors often become very secretive about their spreadsheet babies - a sign that they were working at the outer limits of their comfort zones. "They become secretive rather than asking for help, and what you end up with is key man dependency. If that person goes on holiday, that process stops until that person gets back," he explained.

In one case, a company's monthly reporting cycle depended on a big spreadsheet macro that took eight hours to process, and usually broke down each month. "If it breaks, the business might have no knowledge of its recent performance for 2-3 days - yet he gets rewarded for working till midnight to get it to work," Murphy noted.

"It would be easy to suggest an element of designed-in job security, were it not for the clear pain the original author experiences when trying to understand their own previous work."

Lying at the root of many of the management issues surrounding Frankensheets was training, Murphy suggested. "How much Excel training have senior managers had? Usually the equivalent of two days - for people who spend 7-8 hours a day working with spreadsheets. It's no surprise that these monsters appear."

So, who owns the spreadsheet problem, Murphy wondered. In common with many members of EuSpRIG, he lobbied for spreadsheets to be viewed and treated as a strategic resource, just like the office network or desktop computers.

"There's a head of network or PC support - but never a head of end-user computing," he commented.

With promptings from auditors and their interpretation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, EuSpRIG and sites like ExcelZone, many organisations are now implementing spreadsheet development guidelines, Murphy noted, but very few seem to have invested in technical infrastructure, either to support the development or the production phase.

To redress the situation, he proposed the adoption of internal management regimes based on the following elements:

Spreadsheet management principles
  • Policies on when to use and when not to use spreadsheets
  • Procedures for safe and effective development of valuable spreadsheets
  • Instructions on features to use and those to avoid - with justifications
  • Adequate training and coaching appropriate to job role
  • Procedures and policies for managing the modification of live systems
  • Policies for safely archiving retired spreadsheets
  • Full consideration of spreadsheet life cycles.

The PowerPoint slides of Murphy's EuSpRIG presentation are available for download from his smurfonspreadsheets blog site, and further information about the 2007 annual conference is available from the EuSpRIG website.

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