Eliminating shadow spreadsheets is IT’s own game of Whack-a-Mole: You knock out one, only to find more pop up elsewhere.
Often, the solution is a comprehensive overhaul of data management practices that, frankly, go against business users’ fear of tinkering on enterprise systems.
A recent TechRepublic column proposes a simple solution that strikes me as a pretty darn workable option: APIs.
Don’t be turned off by its imposing title, “SOA vs. APIs to Deliver IT Services: Is There a Difference, and Does It Matter?” Yes, it does talk about that, but some disagree with important parts of the discussion. At any rate, there are more succinct, business-relevant discussions elsewhere. For instance, ZDNet’s Joe Mckendrick offered a nice summary on the topic.
For my money, the meat of this piece is in the second paragraph under “Angels dancing on a pin.” That’s where author Patrick Gray pinpoints a useful philosophical difference between APIs and SOA.
Traditional SOA services, he writes, are more tightly controlled and planned by IT, where APIs “offer more of an ‘if you build it, they will come’ philosophy of creating relatively open services.” By using APIs within the enterprise, you can replicate the advantages we’ve seen with open APIs: IT offers the API and business users (or their technology consultants) figure out what to do with it.
“While fundamentally and technically similar, the open nature of APIs is intriguing, precisely since IT relinquishes some control over how its services are used,” writes Gray. “Providing a more robust and potentially bidirectional flow to that process ultimately keeps data in a curated IT environment rather than ‘off the books" spreadsheets, all while taking the best of service-oriented IT strategy combined with end-user accessibility.”
APIs can open that data up as a service, without the cost of a full shift to a service-oriented architecture. You’ll need to manage those APIs, of course, particularly if the data falls under legal regulations.
So what’s the one reason that CIOs and IT should seriously consider this? Scroll past the article and you’ll find this comment from business user Ralph95:
I have to side with the API view of data. When users are asked what types of services they need, they frequently can't predict what will be useful in even the near future. The less rigid the structures, the more diverse purposes the data can fill going forward. …I can't count the number of spreadsheets, graphs, separate databases that I have seen created ‘off the books.’ If they can be made part of the shared enterprise assets it would add much more value to the corporate conversation about the meaning of things.
If CIOs and IT are serious about enabling business, then maybe it’s time to consider serving up the data in an internal, business-friendly way with APIs.