Google Apps: Almost Ready for Enterprise Finance Departments

I use Google Apps and they’re getting better every day. Lately, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time building spreadsheets in Google Docs and experimenting with Google web forms to compile data. Yes, they have disadvantages, but most of them relate to speed and responsiveness, not functionality, which is heartening.

I do a lot of heavy lifting with spreadsheets and databases. I’m in them all day long so I’m particular about the in-app experience. I know how to get around Excel and Access and I’ve become relatively decent at exploiting them to get things done. So it’s understandable, I guess, when I get frustrated with the spreadsheet experience in Google Docs. It’s not the same. It’s working in the web browser, and it’s just not as efficient as a desktop application.

However, this frustration disappears quickly when the power of working on web apps in the browser slaps you in the face. I’m a positive person (for the most part) so let’s not dwell on the negative. Here are the high points of using Google Apps (many of which are applicable for any cloud-based suite like Zoho or MS Office).

In-App Collaboration

You can be in the same document with another user making real-time changes while watching them happen on-screen. Users can even share real-time highlighting. It’s better, at times, than sitting next to each other collaborating on a document because you both have your hands on a keyboard and don’t have to squint to see the screen.

You may ask, “How do you track changes if you’re constantly stepping on each other?” Well, you’re not really stepping on the other’s toes if you’re a thoughtful collaborator. Even if you’re a bully though, Google Docs constantly saves versions of your spreadsheet, so you can go back and grab whichever one you want. And I have the feeling that change-tracking is right around the corner.

Proximity

Stay with me for this one because it’s not immediately evident. Here it is: Having the spreadsheet in proximity to your email program is invaluable. I use email in the browser 99% of the time; so that means to open a Google spreadsheet, I don’t have to leave the app. It’s right there, I can just click a bookmark or a link. Heck, if I’m in Gmail I can preview a Google Doc right in the email. I can also search docs and email within the same search query and have the results roll up together. It’s powerful.

You may ask, “John, c’mon, how hard is it to open another app?” Well, not hard for us Finance folks. But if you want a non-spreadsheet user to enter some data or look at some information in a spreadsheet, not having to open another app makes things a lot easier. I know a lot of sales people who simply will not open an Excel attachment because double-clicking on it takes a few extra steps, or they hit save and can’t find their downloads folder, or they’re on a different computer (or iPad) without Excel. Having the spreadsheet in the cloud opens a whole new avenue for data collection and distribution when non-Finance people are involved.

Portability

Things are getting more portable, for sure. Most people have moved on from memory keys and are using something like Dropbox, a VPN, or a Sharepoint server. But these are not as portable as just finding a web browser, logging in, and having your docs right there. And unlike Dropbox or VPN, you are working on the live document in the cloud, so there is no syncing.

Additionally, portability does not come at the expense of security. The security risk is mitigated somewhat with an always-on secure connection and by using, in the case of Google at least, two-step verification. I would think of it as comparable to an email level of security

Integration

By integration, I mean that Google Docs can be integrated with other aspects of project collaboration outside of the core productivity suite. Google Apps comes with Google Sites, which is a simple, wiki-style service. Google Sites makes it very easy to embed spreadsheets, presentations, documents, and data forms in a web page right next to to-do lists, internal blogs, robust documentation, and project calendars.

This gets your company down the road towards eliminating email as the de facto project management tool. It also allows the Finance group to more efficiently integrate financial metrics with strategic plans and marketing programs, which usually have huge, non-spreadsheet components. Google Sites is a simple way to bring these disparate forms of media together for collaboration, performance management, and reporting.

For example, picture a world where a sales person finishes their budget and instead of emailing it to everybody, they post it to a website shared with others like the VP of Sales, the Sales Manager, and a Sales Analyst. This is accompanied by a notification of some sort to all parties (probably via RSS). Then questions, answers, and insights flow naturally on that website in the form of comments, notes, and other citations (video, audio). Once finished, it gets shared with Finance and integrated into the next step of the process Рone version, one place to collaborate, a lot of discussion. This eliminates those long, unmanageable email strings. It could even eliminate an excruciating budget review meeting if the collaboration is robust enough. Anything we can do to eliminate burgeoning email inboxes and wasteful meetings usually translates into higher productivity and cost savings.

Conclusion

I’m only talking about the rosy stuff here folks, so don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of drawbacks to using any cloud suite that will frustrate even the most patient spreadsheet jockey. However, I’ve heard far too many people rule out working in the cloud because of a mistaken perception that it isn’t powerful enough.¬†Cloud apps are powerful and under constant development in a competitive market occupied by established superstars like Google and Microsoft and an ever-increasing field of early stage companies.

Here’s the deal, for the reasons above, I start about every document, spreadsheet, presentation, or flowchart in Google Docs. I do this even for many spreadsheets that I know will eventually outstrip the abilities of Google Docs, because when I start bucking up against functional constraints, I’ll just pull it down into Excel and hardly miss a beat.

This will be an ongoing conversation. In fact, you’ll hear from me shortly about more of the negative aspects of web apps. Thanks for reading and please stop back soon.