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Anaplan - the cloud-based vendor of business modelling and planning software - wants to eliminate Excel spreadsheet-based business processes within the enterprise.

Speaking at its Hub 16 event in London this week, chief marketing officer Grant Halloran said that Excel is often overlooked as part of an organisation's IT application environment, despite its widespread use. 

"What we don’t see is the smattering of Excel spreadsheets across this landscape on IT diagrams. It is spread through the business like a virus," he said.

He added: "Excel is a phantom system that works in the shadows." 

Excel spreadsheets still form a core part of many business processes in some of the biggest organisations in the world, particularly the financial services and insurance industries.

Anaplan's mission is to eliminate the tedious and error-prone process of teams editing and passing around Excel spreadsheets via email.

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Instead, it's software is built on a Java-based, in-memory calculation engine, which means changes made to core models are updated in real time, regardless of data volume and the number of collaborators.

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The problem Anaplan founder Michael Gould saw with spreadsheets was that they tended to sit within each business function. They aren't linked up, which creates a fragmented view of the business and makes effective planning and decision making more difficult.

What the customers say

Strahan Wilson - CFO at restaurant chain Cote Brasserie - arrived at an organisation with this exact problem two months ago. "Coming to Cote I found that we were stuck in the Excel dark ages," he told Computerworld UK. "We did one budget a year which was done for July and it was essentially a one man operation."

Wilson admits the new budget planning cycle could be done in Excel, but would be too difficult to implement at any scale. "Having 80 restaurants means 80 spreadsheets. So each time you change a variable you need to change it 80 times if you need to change the approach, therefore you never do.

"The migration to Anaplan means we are able to say that's not right and this is a much better approach to do it. By changing master data once you build the module that affects that line and it doesn't care if there are 80 restaurants or a thousand restaurants, it is just elements within your model and takes all of that into consideration."

Read next: Cote Brasserie moves from 'herculean planning' to monthly budgeting cycle with adoption of Anaplan

Matt Jones, CFO at insurers AXA Art said that although Excel will always have a place within organisations like AXA, it falls down when it comes to modern data volumes.

"The status quo within any organisation is Excel spreadsheets," Jones said. "That's the starting point for planning and analysis.

"Excel had a role to play when data was of a certain quantity and complexity, but all organisations now have to look beyond that and find alternative ways to handle that complexity. Also the expectation around analysis and decision making has increased significantly."

Excel won't die

However, Jones says that organisations will never be entirely rid of Excel spreadsheets.

"I think you will never get to zero Excel and nor would I want to," he said. "There are times when as a tool it is absolutely the right thing to use. I think the challenge with Excel is when you need something which is scalable, has user access control based on an individual's role and the ability to reorganise structures, that's where a tool like Anaplan really has its benefits."

As Wilson from Cote put it: "[For] some lines - like uniforms - it just isn't worth building KPIs, we just don't spend enough. Why go to the effort of building something bespoke in Anaplan when you can just take the run-rate based on existing spreadsheets and carry on as you are?"

Changing role of the finance department

Anaplan's customers claimed that the efficiency offered by the cloud tools can help reshape the role of finance teams within an organisation.

Jones from AXA said: "I strongly believe that the office of finance can really enhance business and strategic decision making.

"Historically we have been playing a scorekeeping and gatekeeping role but actually we need to move into a business partnering role and products like Anaplan enable the finance team to move into those higher value activities and add value to executive decision making."

Luke Enock from Provident Financial added: "Tools like Anaplan allow you to have that closeness with the CEO to run scenarios and create those views of the future without having to start a two month process. The role of the CFO will change."