Everyone has that Excel spreadsheet on their hard drive, you know, the final, final, document. But is it really final? No one really knows. And if not, who has the latest version? Alas, these are common questions that bring frustration and confusion to construction processes that don’t have to be that difficult. Excel is a great tool, but has its limitations. And the good news is that there’s a more modern approach to data management— low code apps— and it’s not any more difficult than putting together an Excel spreadsheet.
Two Hitachi Solutions experts, Jon Loring, senior industry director, and Em D’Arcy, director of low-code technologies, recently unraveled the Excel vs. low code landscape in an enlightening webinar. You can read about that discussion in this article, or watch it on demand for some great demos on how to quickly build a low-code web app that takes advantage of Excel functionality in a more user-friendly and easier-to-update way.
Why Consider Low Code?
As we alluded to above, version control and an audit trail may be reason enough. With web apps, like Microsoft Power Apps, everybody gets a notification when you make an update. “The notification says, click, refresh, and you have the brand new version. So, everybody’s singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak,” D’Arcy said.
If you need your application to be accessible on mobile devices, a low-code web app may be a better choice. Excel files don’t always display or function properly on smaller screens, while a web app can be optimized for mobile output. In addition, if an internet connection isn’t available, data can still be captured, and then synced with the back office when the connection is available. That’s an important feature for those working in construction.
Everyone wants to do more with data. They want to visualize it, use it for predictions, and feed it into other back office systems for analysis and reporting. Excel is limited in its capabilities to handle large datasets and perform intricate calculations, whereas a web app can be designed to handle more complex data manipulation and analysis tasks, and can be easily integrated with back office data warehousing solutions.
“Construction and architecture companies are very project driven,” Loring said. “We have that project data and multiple vendor applications and multiple sources, and we struggle to make a better understanding of it. The best part (about using web apps) that I found was that if you have an enterprise architecture, and you have the data from other systems, and you’re able to re-use it.”
Low-code web apps provide a centralized platform for better collaboration. Multiple users can access and interact with the app simultaneously, enabling real-time collaboration on data, processes, and workflows. It’s far more effective than sending Excel files back and forth, which can lead to version control issues and data inconsistencies.
Web apps are far more flexible for creating custom user interfaces. Excel’s predefined grid-like interface might not be optimal for all types of applications, particularly those involving any type of approval automation— web apps allow you to create an interface that’s designed to match the workflow of your process.
The Right Use Cases
Every company has an endless amount of Excel spreadsheets. Loring suggested looking at the larger list, prioritizing it, and then, most importantly, defining what equals success. “Low code often fills a bunch of different business problems. It’s not just the replacement of Excel. It’s able to take on something bigger,” Loring said.
An Excel-based estimation process is a prime candidate for low-code technology. A construction company may generate multiple estimates a day to bring in new business, but if it’s a manual process involving many steps for approval, it can be inefficient and error prone, preventing a company from pushing out more bids and closing new business.
Another common Excel scenario, D’Arcy said, is using it for inspection checklists or safety checklists. Many construction companies are using Excel for daily inspection processes such as safety walks, quality checks, issue tracking, punch lists, and daily reports. Low-code apps can be used tailor the capture of that data in an elegant interface and automate the approval process if need be.
Here’s an example of how you can take an Excel estimation spreadsheet and turn it into a user-friendly web app using automated workflows for approval—the UI differences are negligible, even for the most discerning of Excel users:
Can you tell the difference?
“So, as you can see, using low-code web apps instead of Excel is a really great fit. You can still go just as fast, but you have this beautiful UI. I have all of the information in one single location. And I can even update those line items in real time,” D’Arcy said.
Get a Low-Code Plan
Microsoft’s Power Platform provides the tools to create Power Apps with minimal hand coding and a visual drag-and-drop interface, and are designed to make it easier for both professional developers and business users with limited programming experience. When planning for a low-code web app, Loring gave this advice:
“It’s all about user experience and adoption,” he said. Because low-code applications are easy to develop and cost-effective, you can prototype, share with end users, and iterate at an accelerated pace to ensure you’re providing the right user experience.”
Without early and frequent iteration, there’s little to prevent users from going back to Excel, or the previous process they were comfortable using. “Share your app with those who will actually use it. If you get it right, they will champion it, sell it, and train other users,” he added.
The good news is that if you have made previous investments in Microsoft cloud technologies like Dynamics 365 or Microsoft 365, you probably already have the Power Platform licenses in place. Whether you choose to explore Power Apps for moving off Excel, or want to explore it for other development activities, Hitachi Solutions can provide expert guidance.
We have an entire advisory practice, that is focused on two things: business value, and a company’s internal readiness. The service can be a great fit for companies looking to dip their toes in the low-code lake. “We want to make sure that companies are successful, first and foremost, and make sure they have what it takes internally to be successful,” Loring said. Our modern assessment, will give you the jumpstart you need to start prioritizing processes and applications and develop a move-forward strategy to optimize TCO.
If none of that is quite what you’re looking for – contact us here for additional options, or to schedule a call with our experts to discuss your unique situation.