Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Meeting with a colleague

It seems that I didn't mention this during October, when I was working heavily on my literature review, but one of the papers on user satisfaction didn't seem to have a journal reference (it turns out that I was looking at a pre-print which has yet to be published). I looked at the list of authors and realised that most (if not all) of them are affiliated with Ben Gurion University in Israel. I contacted one of the authors only to be told that she was abroad and to try again in a few weeks.

Once contact was made, we discussed a few things and made a tentative date to meet. That date got postponed a few times but was kept yesterday. Ben Gurion University is in north Be'er Sheva and has a railway station within easy walking distance. Although there is no direct train from Bet Shemesh to Be'er Sheva, it's very easy to make the journey, which lasts only 80 minutes (including a 15 minute wait between trains). Thus yesterday I worked until lunchtime, drove to the railway station, caught the train and arrived at BGU an hour and a half later. I met the author (who is a part-time lecturer at BGU) and had a riveting one and a half hour conversation. Then it was back to the railway station and home by 5:30pm.

One of the conclusions from the discussion (which was by no means centered around my research) was that almost all research into user satisfaction and/or user resistance has taken place in companies moving from non-ERP to ERP systems. I want to look at more mature implementations, a subject which seems not to have been examined. An interesting point arose when I mentioned that earlier that day I had spoken to a new employee about training: although the ERP implementation in the company may be mature, most new employees normally start with no ERP experience. So this issue of mature implementations is not the only factor at play, here: the user's experience with ERP seems to be more important.

Another interesting issue came up when I mentioned the possibility of researching some British companies and comparing the results to Israeli companies. She thought that this was a very good idea (not necessarily for the doctorate but for a later paper) but suggested that this be carried out by means of a qualitative case study which could require researching only two or three companies in each country. This idea has 'game changing' potential but I think that it should be left aside for the time being.

We were talking about English comprehension and the difficulty that she has in preparing a paper in English, even though she knows exactly what she wants to write (maybe I can help here). Anyway, she mentioned a nice joke (which is funny to the cognoscenti): in her course on ERP implementation, she mentions that one of the important factors is change management (knowing how to manage change). One of her less capable students wrote in an exercise that an important factor in ERP implementation is changing the management - he understood 'change' to be the imperative form of the verb 'to change' and not the noun 'change'. It would seem that the lecture in which this topic arose was held in Hebrew but that the concept appeared in English, for otherwise it's difficult to understand how the student misunderstood. OK: it's not a funny joke.

[SO: 3693; 3, 15, 36
MPP: 574; 1, 1, 6]

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Enron's spreadsheets

Remember Enron, the American oil company which cooked its books for several years, showing profits which didn't exist in reality, etc? Well, it transpires that as part of the court case against them, all the company's emails were sub poena'd. This material has formed the basis of a study of their spreadsheets.

I wrote seven months ago (it seems like a lifetime ago) about discovering the European Spreadsheets Risks Interest Group and being in contact with one of their number (Dr Felienne Hermans). Yesterday I was looking at her blog and read her account of discovering the 'Enron Corpus'. Apart from the blog itself, there is also a link to an academic paper which I found fascinating.

Following is data extracted from Dr Hermans' analysis with regard to formulas:

Description number
Number of spreadsheets analyzed 15,770
Number of worksheets 79,983
Number of non-empty cells 97,636,511
Average number of non-empty cells per spreadsheet 6,191
Number of formulas 20,277,835
Average of formulas per spreadsheet with formulas 2,223
Number of unique formulas 913,472
Number of unique formulas per spreadsheet with formulas 100

and with regard to functions:

Rank Function # Spreadsheets Percentage
1 SUM 6493 72.0
2 + 5571 61.8
3 - 4866 54.0
4 * 3527 39.1
5 / 3112 34.5
6 IF 1827 20.3
7 NOW 1501 16.7
8 AVERAGE 879 9.8
9 VLOOKUP 763 8.5
10 ROUND 606 6.7
11 TODAY 537 6.0
12 SUBTOTAL 385 4.3
13 MONTH 325 3.6
14 CELL 321 3.6
12 YEAR 287 3.2

In case this table isn't clear, it means that 72.0% of the spreadsheets which used functions contained the 'SUM' function. The insight that I derive from this information is that the part of my research questionnaire which deals with spreadsheet competence needs to ask about the 'SUM', 'IF', 'AVERAGE' and 'VLOOKUP' functions in order to cover the most highly used functions. I looked at the questionnaire over the weekend and there are questions about the first three; I should add a question about VLOOKUP to cover myself.

The second insight from the analysis is that employees of Enron were sending spreadsheets back and forth, or as Dr Hermans puts it, about 100 emails with spreadsheets attached were sent each day, so we can safely conclude that emailing spreadsheets was common practice at Enron. This practice is known to result in serious problems in terms of accountability and errors, as people do not have access to the latest version of a spreadsheet, but need to be updated of changes via email. Presumably I will have to ask a question such as "How frequently do you work on spreadsheets which are passed back and forth between your colleagues?" in order to quantify this behaviour.

I also found yesterday an interesting paper on measuring cognitive style in students of accountancy; the authors note that cognitive style influences how information is acquired and utilised during problem solving whereas cognitive ability determines how well an individual performs. The authors determine on a sample of 138 accounting students that students’ cognitive ability had a higher impact on their performance than cognitive style. There is a significant interaction between students’ cognitive styles and the cognitive strategy demanded by the accounting task: students with both global and sequential styles performed better when the cognitive demands of the task matched their cognitive style. It is not clear how these findings can be extrapolated to ERP users.

[SO: 3683; 2,15,36
MPP: 574; 1,1,6]