In my earlier corporate career, like many of my peers, I made substantial use of Excel and VBA macros to create comprehensive simulation models of complex, multi-phased business processes. The general idea is that analytical business processes typically have many inner-connected moving parts. For example, building an annual marketing plan may involve specialized analytical protocols for marketing budget allocations, product mix decisions, manufacturing and distribution logistics, and financial management implications. Each of these departments may have their own specialized spreadsheet models to do analysis, and the planning process can be overwhelming and dysfunctional if these interdependent components are not easily integrated.
Business Simulation Models
This Excel/ macro approach can be quite effective in building management-friendly, comprehensive simulations to enable what-if testing of alternative strategy assumptions, and enable an efficient tool to converge of good overall plans. Typically, these models have a graphical UI with a home screen capturing the big picture of the overall process. Here’s a client example:
This was the home screen, where navigation simply involved clicking on the appropriate box in the process, and then returning to move to the next step.
Here’s an example of a sub-process, residing deep in a drill-down section of the process…
These conventional, desktop-bound simulation models have scratched many management itches over the years and continue to show up in corporate enterprises. But this approach is beginning to get a bit long in the tooth in the increasingly web-centric environment we have today. First, workers are increasingly more focused on cloud-based tools versus desktop installed software. Also more and more people require collaboration capabilities among geographically-dispersed workers.
This leads to an uptick in client requests for web-based incarnations of such management simulation models. In my experience, the Microsoft toolset to address this has been less than satisfying. For example, one can build a Sharepoint site and employ Excel Services on top of that to attempt to serve up an interactive model remotely. I have found that technology stack to be very difficult and cumbersome to work with, not particularly reliable, and prohibitively costly for most applications.
WordPress and Google Apps APIs to the Rescue
I recently encountered a project requirement for such an online, interactive simulation process. The client was The Department of Defense (Airforce) and we had a very challenging delivery schedule to meet. This led me on a journey of discovery for ways to integrate robust spreadsheet functionality and graphical data visualizations into my go-to platform: Wordpress.
I found a particularly powerful combination of tools in: Wordpress, website-integrated Google spreadsheets, and the Google’s charts & graphs API. It allowed the realization of a complex, interactive business process simulation tool, and it opened up an entirely different, powerful way in which we WordPress-o-philes can leverage our favorite platform. This may be a bit of a fringe case application compared to the typical, mainstream marketing-focused small business website, but I found the learning curve to be a rewarding journey. The next few posts following this one will peel this process apart in bite-sized pieces. I hope that you will find useful information in this process. It may trigger some ideas for how the combination of tools can deal with some challenging assignments that you might have otherwise ignored.