linkedinThis is a post I published on LinkedIn on July 28th related to a discussion around Excel and PLM usage and usability.
Reposted for my blog subscribers.


This post is written in the context of two posts that recently caught my attention. One post from Lionel Grealou – comparing PLM and Excel collaboration and reaction on this post and its comments by Oleg Shilovitsky – PLM Need for speed.

Both posts discuss the difference between Excel (easy to use / easy to deploy ) and a PLM system (complex to use / complicated deployment). And when you read both posts you would believe that it is mainly deployment and usability that are blocking PLM systems to be used instead of Excel.

Then I realized this cannot be the case. If usability and deployment were blocking issues for an enterprise system, how would it be possible that the most infamous system for usability, SAP, it one of the top-selling enterprise applications. Probably SAP is the best-selling enterprise application. In addition, I have never heard about any company mentioning SAP is easy to deploy. So what is the difference?

I assume if Excel had existed in its current state in the early days of MRP, people might be tempted to use Excel for some ERP functions. However they would soon realize that Excel is error prone and when you buy the wrong materials or when make errors in your resource scheduling, soon you would try to solve it in a more secure way. Using an ERP system.

ERP systems have never been sold to the users for their usability. It is more that the management is looking for guarantees that the execution process is under control. Minimize the potential for errors and try to automate all activities as much as possible. As the production process is directly linked to finance, it is crucial to have it under control. Goodbye usability, safety first.

Why is this approach not accepted for PLM?
Why do we talk about usability?

First of all, the roots for PLM come from the engineering department (PDM) and, therefore, their primary data management system was not considered an enterprise system. And when you implement a system for a department, discussions will be at the user level. So user acceptance became necessary for PDM and PLM.

But this is not the main reason. Innovation, Product Development, Sales Engineering, Engineering are all iterative activities. In contrary to ERP, there is no linear process defined how to develop the ultimate product the first time right. Although this believe existed in the nineties by an ERP country manager that I met that time. He told me

“Engineers are resources that do not want to be managed, but we will get them.”

An absurd statement I hope you agree. However, the thoughts behind this statement are correct. How do you make sure product development is done in the most efficient manner?

If you look at large enterprises in the aerospace or automotive industry, they implemented PLM, which for sure was not user-friendly. Why did they implement PLM? As they did not want to fix the errors, an Excel-like implementation would bring.

Using Excel has a lot of hidden costs. How to make sure you work with the right version as multiple copies exist? How do you know if the Excel does not contain any type indicating wrong parts? You will learn this only once it is too late. How do you understand the related information to the Excel (CAD files, specifications, etc., etc.)? All lead to a lot of extra manual work depending on the accuracy and discipline of every employee in the company. Large enterprises do not want to be dependent on individual skills.

Large enterprise have shown that it is not about usability in the first place if you wish to control the data. Like for ERP systems, they are aware of the need for PLM with reduced usability above being (fl)Exel with all its related inconvenience.

I believe when there is a discussion about PLM or Excel, we have not reached the needed conceptual level to implement PLM. PLM is about sharing data and breaking down silos. Sharing allows better and faster collaboration, maintaining quality, and this is what companies want to achieve. Therefore the title: How do you measure collaboration. This is the process you wish to optimize, and I suspect that when you would compare user-friendly collaboration with Excel with less user-friendly PLM, you might discover PLM is more efficient.

Therefore stop comparing Excel and PLM. It is all about enabling collaboration and changing people to work together (the biggest challenge – more than usability).

Conclusion: Once we have agreed on that concept, PLM value is about collaboration, there is always to hope to enhance usability. Even SAP is working on that – it is an enterprise software issue.