Written by Brian Donnelly, CEO, Synapse.
‘Even if history holds spreadsheeting entirely blameless for the present mayhem,
The fact that spreadsheeting is so widely used while at the same time so error
prone is a strong indication that if a way could be found to improve reliability, global GNP would step noticeably upwards.’Angus Dunn, European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group
Businesses like spreadsheets. With over 750 million users worldwide, Microsoft Excel™ is the traditional tool of choice for presenting and analysing data and calculations performed using the solution, count for £38 billion of private sector investment decisions per year.
Spreadsheets continue to be the only real, flexible tool that can deliver answers fast and that is one of the reasons why they continue to be so popular. No matter how many systems a company has, how big they are, or how many millions of pounds have been spent on them, the reality is that the majority of data is exported to Excel before decisions of serious consequence are made. There are only a handful of finance departments in the world that don’t run their critical decision making analysis through Excel. And the reason for this is simple – those waiting for an answer, do not have to get the IT team involved and wait weeks for an answer that Excel can deliver in minutes.
So, while Excel continues to be the number one platform when it comes to analysing data, finding information, preparing charts and presenting them to decision makers, there are some issues that are frustrating for users. One very common challenge affects those using spreadsheets in a small– it may only be 5 or so – collaborative team where everyone needs to access and share the same data as they work towards a complex set of business reports. This can be really hard and fraught with massive inefficiency, as any changes made on one spreadsheet cannot be seen by the other members of group. The result is endless hours of copying and pasting to arrive at a ‘single version of the truth’.
In this scenario, the risk of errors increases and as we all know, a slip of a key can result in a high profile disaster. Take for instance the spreadsheet error that left the London Olympics 2012 organising committee highly embarrassed when it was left to confirm that four swimming sessions had been oversold by 10,000 tickets. Entering 20,000 rather than the correct figure of 10,000 caused this mistake and research shows that half of all spreadsheet models used operationally in large businesses have material defects.
Emerging technology paves the way for re-engineering
So, can spreadsheets be re-engineered to deliver a tool that is built for the demands of modern day business? The answer is yes and it’s time for a new way with the help of one of the most dominant technologies in 2018 – the Cloud.
The consensus amongst IT specialists is that the Cloud is set to be the biggest driver of change and certainly, the Cloud has the potential to transform efficiency within organisations that need to work collaboratively and currently, rely on unconnected spreadsheets to formulate management reports.
By employing a radically different approach to an age-old problem, users can now enjoy the simplicity and comfort of using a spreadsheet as the ‘front end’ with a connection to a robust (but well-hidden and transparent to the user) Cloud ‘back end’ that does all the difficult work.
Existing spreadsheets and other disparate data sources (such as MS Access and core ERP) can now be integrated into one solution with none of the large-scale data migration issues once experienced and with minimal disruption. Everyone works right inside Excel, everyone enjoys direct benefit and everyone retains Excel’s legendary flexibility.
By leveraging the power of an industrial database and combining it with the simplicity of a spreadsheet interface, Business UK can be confident that it is has at its fingertips fundamentally, reliable data, backed by full audit trails that help make more strategic decisions, more quickly, with more accuracy.
‘Speed of adoption, ease of use and power is greater than anything I have previously seen or used’
At first glance, the technology looks and feels exactly like working with a set of normal spreadsheets: there are no changes in business processes and no additional training is required. The difference lies in the fact that every spreadsheet is enhanced by a connection to a secure Cloud server so that as each member of the team changes any value in any cell of data in their local spreadsheet, updates are synchronised in the Cloud and one version of the truth is sent back to everyone.
With regulators likely to take an increasing interest in their use over the next two years, this marks an important step forward in finding a way to improve collaboration and efficiency, data quality and validity and eliminate one of the biggest risks associated with spreadsheet use; the lack of an audit trail.
High Street bank cuts FCA and MI reporting time from 15 days to 5 days
A leading high street Bank has been using the technology for some time and has found that connecting its’ spreadsheets to the Cloud has enabled it to streamline its practices without losing time or having to retrain members of the team. Faced with serious financial and time critical pressures from the FCA, the scale of the challenge facing the Bank was daunting as one shared spreadsheet held 80,000 active cases of customers under review and 250 advisors were forced to read and write to it concurrently. Because of the severe performance and system outage problems, the Bank had to find a solution that was innovative and that would not take months to implement.
Advisers now just handle their own cases instead of manipulating 80,000 records at a time. This has reduced the network traffic by a factor of x10 to x100. Each user sees one version of consistent, current data and only what is relevant to them.
This new infrastructure has enabled the programme to meet its commitment to the FCA and reduce the time taken to produce FCA and Executive MI Reporting from 15 days to 5 days and significantly reduce risk of incorrect data in reports.
Difficulties in ad hoc group wide reporting overcome
In the finance operation, the use of spreadsheets, particularly for management accounts and consolidation is still common place but stats show that 75% of effort is wasted rekeying and manually rolling up data, 90% of spreadsheets contain data and formula errors and 90% of users are convinced they are error free
Dealing with a large number of Excel spreadsheets means that there is neither the time or agility to spend analysing performance. It’s also difficult to quickly adjust models to reflect changing assumptions and conditions. One “small” change requires a waterfall of updates consuming hours, days, or even weeks.
Things that should be simple take a long time.
Cobbling together spreadsheets can be a shaky foundation for making strategic decisions. Errors happen along the way due to lack of version control or last-minute updates. Often, no one trusts the numbers and decisions take longer than they should. Using this new technology combined with a finance solution is allowing finance teams to move beyond spreadsheets and aggregate data, track close processes, provide a clear audit trail, and speed up overall internal and external financial disclosure.
Automate pre and post contract multi-project reporting and forecasting
One of the most frustrating aspects has always been the lack of tools and systems available to support project and portfolio leaders. There was little more available than stand-alone Excel™ worksheets emailed between people or systems that are expensive, cumbersome, universally disliked and require an inordinate level of effort to extract real value from. Using the combination of Excel and a flexible PPM application, it is now possible to automate report production, reduce operational costs and eradicate manual copying and pasting processes. Data quality is improved by as much as 80% with comprehensive audit trails that provide the management team with a real-time holistic view of KPIs, dependencies, costs, revenues, risks and issues across the global project portfolio.
Users benefit from an evolution of Excel and no longer have to work with constantly out of date data and collaboration and versioning issues. Everyone sees the same live, up-to-date and clean data on their desktops.
The demand for combining the best of the old with the advanced technology of the new is a trend, which is set to resonate in 2018. Businesses are tired of investing and embracing new, tech that fails to live up to the hype. Why reinvent the wheel when you can simply improve it?
This use of smart technology to deliver next generation Enterprise spreadsheets has the potential to put an end to a problem that has resulted in almost one in five large businesses suffering financial losses and ultimately will put power back in the hands of business users. Businesses have grown tired of inflexible, expensive software packages or accounting software that never completely does what they need. Reverting to spreadsheets, that have been transformed to fit the needs of today’s world, gives them back the control they need.
‘Spooky’ AI tool brings dead relatives’ photos to life
By Umberto Bacchi
(Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Like the animated paintings that adorn the walls of Harry Potter’s school, a new online tool promises to bring portraits of dead relatives to life, stirring debate about the use of technology to impersonate people.
Genealogy company MyHeritage launched its “Deep Nostalgia” feature earlier this week, allowing users to turn stills into short videos showing the person in the photograph smiling, winking and nodding.
“Seeing our beloved ancestors’ faces come to life … lets us imagine how they might have been in reality, and provides a profound new way of connecting to our family history,” MyHeritage founder Gilad Japhet said in a statement.
Developed with Israeli computer vision firm D-ID, Deep Nostalgia uses deep learning algorithms to animate images with facial expressions that were based on those of MyHeritage employees.
Some of the company’s users took to Twitter on Friday to share the animated images of their deceased relatives, as well as moving depictions of historical figures, including Albert Einstein and Ancient Egypt’s lost Queen Nefertiti.
“Takes my breath away. This is my grandfather who died when I was eight. @MyHeritage brought him back to life. Absolutely crazy,” wrote Twitter user Jenny Hawran.
While most expressed amazement, others described the feature as “spooky” and said it raised ethical questions. “The photos are enough. The dead have no say in this,” tweeted user Erica Cervini.
From chatbots to virtual reality, the tool is the latest innovation seeking to bring the dead to life through technology.
Last year U.S. rapper Kanye West famously gifted his wife Kim Kardashian a hologram of her late father congratulating her on her birthday and on marrying “the most, most, most, most, most genius man in the whole world”.
‘ANIMATING THE PAST’
The trend has opened up all sorts of ethical and legal questions, particularly around consent and the opportunity to blur reality by recreating a virtual doppelganger of the living.
Elaine Kasket a psychology professor at the University of Wolverhampton in Britain who authored a book on the “digital afterlife”, said that while Deep Nostalgia was not necessarily “problematic”, it sat “at the top of a slippery slope”.
“When people start overwriting history or sort of animating the past … You wonder where that ends up,” she said.
MyHeritage acknowledges on its website that the technology can be “a bit uncanny” and its use “controversial”, but said steps have been taken to prevent abuses.
“The Deep Nostalgia feature includes hard-coded animations that are intentionally without any speech and therefore cannot be used to fake any content or deliver any message,” MyHeritage public relations director Rafi Mendelsohn said in a statement.
Yet, images alone can convey meaning, said Faheem Hussain, a clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.
“Imagine somebody took a picture of the Last Supper and Judas is now winking at Mary Magdalene – what kind of implications that can have,” Hussain told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Similarly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) animations could be use to make someone appear as though they were doing things they might not be happy about, such as rolling their eyes or smiling at a funeral, he added.
Mendelsohn of MyHeritage said using photos of a living person without their consent was a breach of the company’s terms and conditions, adding that videos were clearly marked with AI symbols to differentiate them from authentic recordings.
“It is our ethical responsibility to mark such synthetic videos clearly and differentiate them from real videos,” he said.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi in Milan; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Does your institution have operational resilience? Testing cyber resilience may be a good way to find out
By Callum Roxan, Head of Threat Intelligence, F-Secure
If ever 2020 had a lesson, it was that no organization can possibly prepare for every conceivable outcome. Yet building one particular skill will make any crisis easier to handle: operational resilience.
Many financial institutions have already devoted resources to building operational resilience. Unfortunately, this often takes what Miles Celic, Chief Executive Officer of TheCityUK, calls a “near death” experience for this conversion to occur. “Recent years have seen a number of cases of loss of reputation, reduced enterprise value and senior executive casualties from operational incidents that have been badly handled,” he wrote.
But it need not take a disaster to learn this vital lesson.
“Operational resilience means not only planning around specific, identified risks,” Charlotte Gerken, the executive director of the Bank of England, said in a 2017 speech on operational resilience. “We want firms to plan on the assumption that any part of their infrastructure could be impacted, whatever the reason.” Gerken noted that firms that had successfully achieved a level of resilience that survives a crisis had established the necessary mechanisms to bring the business together to respond where and when risks materialised, no matter why or how.
We’ll talk about the bit we know best here; by testing for cyber resilience, a company can do more than prepare for the worst sort of attacks it may face. This process can help any business get a clearer view of how it operates, and how well it is prepared for all kinds of surprises.
Assumptions and the mechanisms they should produce are the best way to prepare for the unknown. But, as the boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The aim of cyber resilience is to build an effective security posture that survives that first punch, and the several that are likely to follow. So how can an institution be confident that they’ve achieved genuine operational resilience?
This requires an organization to honestly assess itself through the motto inscribed at the front of the Temple of Delphi: “Know thyself.” And when it comes to cyber security, there is a way for an organization to test just how thoroughly it comprehends its own strengths and weaknesses.
The Bank of England was the first central bank to help develop the framework for institutions to test the integrity of their systems. CBEST is made up of controlled, bespoke, intelligence-led cyber security tests that replicate behaviours of those threat actors, and often have unforeseen or secondary benefits. Gerken notes that the “firms that did best in the testing tended to be those that really understood their organisations. They understood their own needs, strengths and weaknesses, and reflected this in the way they built resilience.”
In short, testing cyber resilience can provide clear insight into an institution’s operational resilience in general.
Gaining that specific knowledge without a “near-death” experience is obviously a significant win for any establishment. And testing for operational resilience throughout the industry can provide some reminders of the steps every organization should take so that testing provides unique insists about their institution, and not just a checklist of cyber defence basics.
The IIF/McKinsey Cyber Resilience Survey of the financial services industry released in March lasy year provided six sets of immediate actions that institutions could take to improve their cyber security posture. The toplines of these recommendations were:
- Do the basics, patch your vulnerabilities.
- Review your cloud architecture and security capabilities.
- Reduce your supply chain risk.
- Practice your incident response and recovery capabilities.
- Set aside a specific cyber security budget and prioritise it
- Build a skilled talent pool and optimize resources through automation.
But let’s be honest: If simply reading a solid list of recommendations created cyber resilience, cyber criminals would be out of business. Unfortunately, cyber crime as a business is booming and threat actors targeting essential financial institutions through cyber attacks are likely earning billions in the trillion dollar industry of financial crime.A list can’t reveal an institution’s unique weaknesses, those security failings and chokepoints that could shudder operations, not just during a successful cyber attack but during various other crises that challenge their operations. And the failings that lead to flaws in an institution’s cyber defence likely reverberate throughout the organization as liabilities that other crises would likely expose.
The best way to get a sense of operational resilience will always be to simulate the worst that attackers can summon. That’s why the time to test yourself is now, before someone else does.
Thomson Reuters to stress AI, machine learning in a post-pandemic world
By Kenneth Li and Nick Zieminski
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Thomson Reuters Corp will streamline technology, close offices and rely more on machines to prepare for a post-pandemic world, the news and information group said on Tuesday, as it reported higher sales and operating profit.
The Toronto-headquartered company will spend $500 million to $600 million over two years to burnish its technology credentials, investing in AI and machine learning to get data faster to professional customers increasingly working from home during the coronavirus crisis.
It will transition from a content provider to a content-driven technology company, and from a holding company to an operational structure.
Thomson Reuters’ New York- and Toronto-listed shares each gained more than 8%.
It aims to cut annual operating expenses by $600 million through eliminating duplicate functions, modernizing and consolidating technology, as well as through attrition and shrinking its real estate footprint. Layoffs are not a focus of the cost cuts and there are no current plans to divest assets as part of this plan, the company said.
“We look at the changing behaviors as a result of COVID … on professionals working from home working remotely being much more reliant on 24-7, digital always-on, sort of real-time always available information, served through software and powered by AI and ML (machine learning),” Chief Executive Steve Hasker said in an interview.
Sales growth is forecast to accelerate in each of the next three years compared with 1.3% reported sales growth for 2020, the company said in its earnings release.
Thomson Reuters, which owns Reuters News, said revenues rose 2% to $1.62 billion, while its operating profit jumped more than 300% to $956 million, reflecting the sale of an investment and other items.
Its three main divisions, Legal Professionals, Tax & Accounting Professionals, and Corporates, all showed higher organic quarterly sales and adjusted profit. As part of the two-year change program, the corporate, legal and tax side will operate more as one customer-facing entity.
Adjusted earnings per share of 54 cents were ahead of the 46 cents expected, based on data from Refinitiv.
The company raised its annual dividend by 10 cents to $1.62 per share.
The Reuters News business showed lower revenue in the fourth quarter. In January, Stephen J. Adler, Reuters’ editor-in-chief for the past decade, said he would retire in April from the world’s largest international news provider.
Thomson Reuters also said its stake in The London Stock Exchange is now worth about $11.2 billion.
The LSE last month completed its $27-billion takeover of data and analytics business Refinitiv, 45%-owned by Thomson Reuters.
(Reporting by Ken Li, writing by Nick Zieminski in New York, editing by Louise Heavens and Jane Merriman)
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