Databases are Rocks, Spreadsheets are Water

Sean McGrath offers a brilliant description of the relationship between spreadsheets and database applications. No commentary required.

"Think of your centralized database applications as a set of large rocks. Their great strength is their solidity. Their great weakness is their lack of flexibility. Think of spreadsheets as the water that flows over and around the rocks. Their great strength is their flexibility. Their great weakness is their lack of solidity. The easiest route to the far side of a rock is to be like water and flow over or around it, rather than to change the nature of the rock."

"Would you mind repeating that more slowly?"

"No problem", said Master Foo. "Database applications have rigid structure and rigid behavior. If a business process exactly matches the structure and behavior then nothing inhibits the flow of business processes. As soon as the rigidity becomes a problem, users will seek to find the quickest way around the rigidity. This often takes the form of spreadsheets that supplement the data and the behavior of the centralized systems. Spreadsheets do not involve getting the IT department to do anything. Nobody even needs to be told. The spreadsheets can be stored locally. Individuals can set up their spreadsheets to model how they themselves work. They have complete control."

A cold sweat formed on the brow of the CIO.

"Over time, more and more key information lives primarily in the spreadsheets rather than in the centralized data stores. In advanced cases of this phenomenon, it is the expense centralized enterprise applications that can be destroyed without causing a noise at board level because individual, local PCs hold the true enterprise data in an amorphous assembly of spreadsheets."

(Via James Webster at The News Before the News)