Uncovering the MESS: A CIO’s Search Reveals 3 Proven Strategies to Eliminate Manual Efforts and Spreadsheets
“Can you tell me about your Manual Efforts and SpreadSheets?” This is an eye-opening question that often leads to a lively discussion. What follows is a list of complications from processes or documents or systems that people in an organization rely upon to get through their workday. So often manual efforts and spreadsheets interfere with productivity but exist because they are ingrained in workflows. The very unwelcome four-letter acronym in all companies: the MESS can be unique to each organization, however through my IT career I have found many common MESS practices no matter the industry or size of the business. I will share my findings based on personal experience and also interviews with IT and other business leaders who are transparent on what it takes to identify and rid workflows of the MESS. Eliminating the MESS allows organizations to connect big technology systems, integrate company departments like HR, operations and IT, and help the healthcare industry tackle patient referrals, physician compensation challenges and more. Stay with me to see how companies have accelerated their business and revenue objectives with simple solutions that make a big impact.
Workflows and Spreadsheets
“I’ve been in many organizations and one of the most common areas where I’ve seen manual efforts and spreadsheets is in the business planning, forecasting, and reporting function. Multiple departments, divisions, etc. consolidate their data through spreadsheets and someone typically manually pulls this information together with Excel reports and pivot tables,” remarks the director of brand strategy from a nationwide travel organization. Once an organization identifies its manual processes and areas of excessive spreadsheet use, it is easy to pinpoint where and how they intersect in work functions and it becomes clear the downstream impact on other people, departments and business outcomes. “When we were moving our organization from Microsoft to Google, our finance and HR department staff had a difficult time letting go of their ‘tried and true’ Excel and Word workaround solutions. These unfortunately exist all over the place,” remarks a senior vice president of a nationwide hospitality services organization.
Workflow-friendly processes to enter, update and access information like employee contact information, departmental data, business documents and global company performance metrics can be the mechanisms that really drive a business forward. When workarounds and individual management of information become the norm, productivity stalls, like the following examples from a prominent healthcare organization in the DFW Metroplex. “The other day I was troubleshooting an Excel issue converting a column of text data to a number format. The end user presented the spreadsheet and I noticed it had 700k rows of patient claim information in it. Unfortunately, Excel errored out when trying to change the entire column of data to a different format. I was able to find a work around to fix their problem, but that was an enormous spreadsheet,” explains the chief technology officer. What I have experienced in my own departments is that programs like Excel become roadblocks to collaboration, especially when multiple spreadsheets, employees and file locations are created with similar or duplicate data. “We have one person who collects monthly Excel metrics from multiple departments and teams, compiles this information into spreadsheets with 500-1,000 rows, and then hand crafts ‘reports’ to send out to the departments and teams,” adds the chief technology officer.
An unmanaged spreadsheet sprawl can lead to data confusion and lack of confidence when business reports are compiled using multiple spreadsheets. A recent interview with a technology executive from a nationwide hospitality services organization uncovered common manual reporting workflows. “Every Friday, I take 2 spreadsheets of data, open the document, create a new tab, merge the documents and data, use various formulas and lookups, and produce a report for my senior leadership,” says the executive.
Connecting the Dots Across the Business
Having led teams from businesses of all sizes and wide-ranging revenues, technical resources and support are stretched thin managing tickets, employee onboarding and offboarding and system support, to name a few tasks. As one senior vice president of a major bank explains, “I have seen a tremendous growth in shadow IT solutions over the last 10+ years. IT has not been able to keep up with the demand and as a result, departments, divisions, and teams have created their own critical processes, technology and data. These include apps in SharePoint, Microsoft Access and Excel and we have found hundreds of them. These have limited documentation and the original people who put them together are many times no longer around. We were getting data requests from investors that we could not answer because the data and information was so scattered and impossible to access.”
Even in the most technologically-advanced organizations, departments can become isolated and lack connectivity into the global business. When that happens, communication channels, employee collaboration and insight into corporate performance diminish. In my experience, the technical expertise of a small group or team can have a lasting impact on productivity for the entire company. Here’s a great example of tapping into internal resources to develop scalable technology solutions that solve an organization’s MESS. “As we grew from $20M in revenue to $100M, we realized our billing systems and processes had various inefficiencies. Given our unique services, there was no ‘off-the-shelf’ system that met our needs. Thankfully, we had a robust business and IT project team that helped us streamline and automate this to support our company growth.” Ron Alvesteffer, CEO, SEI.
In another organization, HR and IT teams relied on fax transmissions to manage employee onboarding and offboarding processes like system access for 5,000 people. Luckily I was able to lead ticketing system integration and connectivity between the IT and HR departments. The ticketing processes are now automated and the IT department has gained many hours back in the week through workflow efficiencies and real-time task ownership and status.(1)
MESS in the Healthcare Industry
In the healthcare industry where I have spent the majority of my IT senior leadership career, technological advancement has been at the forefront of patient care since the 2009 HITECH Act was established to encourage the adoption and utilization of Electronic Medical Records (EMR) systems to store and manage patient data. (2) Still today, many outdated practices like fax communication remain part of standard workflows. “Unfortunately, faxing documents is prevalent and pervasive in healthcare and our organization has this as well. We have challenges with standardizing the formatting for faxed documents because they come from different systems and EMRs, the faxes are often times larger and fax lines are not always reliable. And as a result, the data on these faxes is difficult to read and import into systems without teams of data entry personnel.” says a vice president from a prominent large healthcare organization in the Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) Metroplex.
In addition to faxes, many healthcare organizations rely on Excel and other manual workflows when their EMR, Practice Management, or other operations system falls short on interoperability or information access. Catalyst Health Network Accountable Care Organization (ACO) with 500,000 members was able to establish automated processes and data management tools to manage their physician referral network when the EMR for this ACO fell short in provider identification and tracking. A centralized platform organized this ACO’s referral data for its 300+ participating physicians and became the single source of up to date information so staff can easily identify and refer patients within the cost-effective preferred provider network. (3)
Paving the Way to Success
As I have spent many hours with business leaders across the country, most can agree on the desired state of where they want to be. What does MESS elimination look like and what’s the vision for their company, customers and people? My discussions have uncovered that eliminating the MESS can be categorized into three main initiatives.
Enterprise information access and reporting. The VP of operations and the director of content for a content marketing firm agrees as I am told, “Today we are managing our freelancer and contractor workload information in spreadsheets. We eventually would like to have this data and information in a more robust database, reporting, and dashboard environment.” Also, MLR Tribal Solutions recently announced their initiative to replace SharePoint and other non-integrated systems to centrally manage Medicare member claim payment and status information. (4)
Collaboration without spreadsheets and document sharing. One organization with 10,000 employees, some without company email addresses, was able to eliminate outdated spreadsheets and individual contact lists while implementing a company-wide intranet to publish company performance metrics, videos, reports and customizable messages. All employees became engaged which improved culture, communication and a sense of inclusion throughout the organization. (5)
Commit to scalable solutions that support company growth. “Currently our HR team uses many Excel and Word solutions to manage people and contact information. At some point, these solutions will not scale,” adds the VP of operations and the director of content for a content marketing firm.
One organization was able to solve their own MESS challenges by engaging key stakeholders across their business enterprise. “Unfortunately, the perception of IT in our large organization was not great. We needed to make technology improvements across our large organization with limited resources and dollars. However, this could not be accomplished without great cooperation and collaboration with our internal users and customers. As a result, we implemented a fantastic solution to go out into the field, meet with customers, listen, explain our intentions, budgets and resources and get their input and feedback. Once they became a part of the process, they then became a part of the solution,” adds the CIO and VP of innovations for a large healthcare organization.
If searching outside the organization, choose a partner that completes due diligence in assessing the needs of the entire business enterprise with proven processes, procedures and standardization methods. Unfortunately, my own departments have chosen vendor partners who can address a specific departmental need but when it came time to scale to the business or solve similar problems across the organization the vendor fell short on enterprise connectivity. In a large healthcare organization that sells its services to other business groups, there was a large effort to streamline and automate a key aspect of the sales onboarding processes and steps. “In hindsight, we should have spent more time upfront in the project verifying the process and workflows,” explains the vice president.
My journey to uncover MESS in organizations across the country has just begun and I look forward to sharing more bits of the struggles and successes that can be achieved simply by asking, ‘Can you tell me about your Manual Efforts and Spreadsheets?’
About John Ragsdale
John Ragsdale, president and co-founder of theAppPlace (TAP) Innovations has always had a knack for process improvement and automation. Building applications is second-nature, with an engineering degree and a CIO mindset spanning nearly 25 years. John put his passion to work as he found ways where information can be more accessible and efficiencies can be gained with his own developed solutions.
John has provided technology leadership, vision, strategic planning, to help organizations deliver large-scale project solutions. This vast experience in cost and data management for diverse departmental and organizational needs drove John to create TAP Innovations so anyone can benefit from better data management for staff, customers and partners. John’s experience spans multiple types of healthcare organizations and providers as well as consulting services for aerospace and other industries. Visit https://tapinnov.com/about/ for more information and follow John on social media, @JohnOnIT.