Lessons for accountants from Track and Trace lost data

Ian Smith, of Invu, looks at the lessons accountants should learn from the failure of Excel in the Government’s Track and Trace regime.

You, like me, were probably amazed by the now infamous loss of the over 16,000 positive test results in the track and trace system due to an Excel spreadsheet error.

You, like me, probably wondered how the Government could get something so important so wrong?

But perhaps we should ask are we standing in a greenhouse launching stones?

Data risks from software

Today we are spoilt with software offerings that help us with both our personal and our work lives.

Microsoft Excel is a powerful application and offers many functions now that required moderately complex macro writing in the past, seducing all of us into submitting more data for it to analyse. In finance, we tend to solve all those problems our applications cannot address using Excel.

In finance, we also know the risks of formula errors, and if we have relied on it enough, we will have our own war stories to go with these risks. Yet, we often continue to use the tool for operations that make those folks with an information technology background shake their heads.

These Excel files nowadays may find themselves resident on a local file server or one of the many file servers in the cloud (like those from the big three, DropBox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive or other less well-known file sharing applications). Many of us use these in multiple ways.

Vulnerable programmes

Beyond finance and Excel, there are now many applications that we run our data through and leave data stored in the form of documents, comments and notes.

The long-standing example is email. We today receive many documents via email, with content in the body often providing context. Email systems then become the store for that data. While this works from a personal point of view, for a business working at scale, the information stored this way can be lost to the rest of the business. Just like data falling off a spreadsheet when there are not enough rows to capture the results.

More recently, we have seen easy to consume applications develop in many areas like chat and productivity. Take for example task management apps, my own preference being Monday.com (I am sparing you the long list of these). The result of the task and how we got there, in the form of attachments or comments, are often stored in the application. Each application we touch encourages us to leave a bit of data behind in its store.  

Data proliferation

Many of these applications can have a personal use and an initial personal dalliance is what sparks up the motivation to apply the application to a business purpose. Just like the “Track and Trace System”, they can often find themselves being used in an environment where the scale of the operation overwhelms their intended use.

In our business lives, combining the use of applications in this way by liberally sprinkling our data across multiple systems often stored in documents (be they Microsoft Word, email, scans or comments and notes) puts us on the pathway to trouble.

Imagine how Matt Hancock felt explaining to Parliament that the world-class track and trace system depended on a spreadsheet.

Can you imagine a similar situation in your business life? Say, for example, that documents or data in some form was lost because of the use of disparate systems and/or applications that were not really designed for the task you assigned to them.

Who would be your Parliament?

Now you can see yourself in the greenhouse, you may not want to reach for that metaphorical stone.

If these observations create some concerns for you, you may want to consider the information management strategy at your business. You have a strategy, even if it is not addressed specifically in documents, plans or thought processes.  

Action plan

These steps may help figure out where you are and where you want to go.

1. Assess your current environment.

Are you a centraliser, with all the information collected in one place? Or is all your data spread across multiple stores, as identified above? Are you storing your key business information on paper documents, or digitally or a mix of both. 

2. Assess your current processes.

Do your processes run on a limited number of software applications? Or do you enable staff to pick their own tools to get things done? The answer to this question is often a mix of both where staff bridge the gaps in those applications using tools like MS excel. A key application to think about is how the data in email, particularly the attachments, is made available to the business. 

3. Design a pathway for change and implement it.

Start with the end in mind. I suggest the goal is to enable the right people to have the right access to the information they require to do their job in real-time. I believe the way to effectively do this is to go digital. The fork in the road is then whether to centralise your information store or adopt a decentralised approach. 

My own preferred route is to centralise using document management software that enables all your documents to be stored in one place. Applications like email can be integrated with it, significantly reducing the workload required to file and store the data. The data can then be used in business applications using workflows. Thinking these workflows through will help you assess the gaps between your key business applications and consider whether tools like excel are being stretched too far. 

About the author

Ian Smith is General Manager and Finance Director at Invu, a Business Process Automation software provider.

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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