Thursday, August 19, 2004

( Excel + Web ) / Multiple Companies = XLmerge

BadBlue XLmerge - Share Excel worksheets over the webThere is a new BadBlue product called XLmerge out, which lets Excel users all work on the same spreadsheets while still using Excel. The idea was spawned by a business application with which I'd had little familiarity: insurance claims adjustment.

Now here's the crazy thing about sharing Excel worksheets if you're all not on the same LAN: there isn't a way to do it. Period. Short of emailing around a copy, there wasn't a viable option until XLmerge debuted. It used to be as easy to share a spreadsheet as it was for Muqtada al Sadr to buy term life insurance.

Now imagine if you're involved with insurance claims adjustment. As I understand it, there are accountants adding and modifying insurance claims. There are adjustors verifying the claims and... uhmm... adjusting them. There are attorneys and auditors verifying the entire process. And they're all working on the same spreadsheets at the same time. And they love... LOVE... to use Excel, so they won't cede their work to a web application. And with multiple parties involved, emailing a spreadsheet around would be about as effective as a "Michael Moore Diet Plan".

The whole idea of XLmerge boils down to a "version control system" for Excel. Users go to a central, secure web site and download an Excel workbook. The current state of the sheet is saved as a "snapshot" for later comparison purposes. The users work in Excel to analyze and modify the entries. Then they upload the modified workbook to the central site. A process catches the upload operation and compares the new sheet with their snapshot. A list of deletes, inserts and updates are created and, if some safety checks tolerate it, the master copy of the workbook is modified. Not exactly the high drama of a "Saved by the Bell" episode, but close.

So it's basically a version control system... but one that doesn't require an explicit "check-out" operation that would lock the spreadsheet to modifications by other users. Locking out other users in this case would make about as much sense as "MTV Cribs" touring an ex-rap-star's double-wide.

So in this particular insurance claims application, I think there are about 16 users, several different companies, and 300 or so spreadsheets. So far, it seems to be a reasonable solution to a problem that, as far as I know, really had no effective solution. So anyone still emailing spreadsheets around in an error-prone process is kind of like John Kerry eating a Wendy's double. He didn't want to do it... he had to do it. Hopefully, they won't have to do that any longer.

BadBlue XLmerge

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