F9 and Other Excel Add-in Report Writers

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After decades of providing a simple Excel-based report writer, F9 might be seeing a resurgence of sorts.  But before you rush out to snag this product to replace FRx or Management Reporter, let’s put it to a basic features test.

Originally released in the late 1980s, F9 was initially developed as a DOS add-in and was soon built for Microsoft Windows.  It is a simple Excel add-in financial report writer, and I have heard from a handful of partners that its popularity might be picking up lately.  If you go to their web site like I did, you will see that they position Excel’s popularity as their key sales pitch.  And they’re right on the money.

Excel has arguably been the most popular program from finance teams around the globe for decades.  Part of that has to do with Microsoft’s ubiquity and consistent success, but another significant part of Excel’s popularity is directly related to the easy-to-use interface, formulas, and formatting.  Excel has continued to evolve in ways that continue to gain fans of the veteran program.  Meanwhile, financial teams around the world have been using Excel to track and calculate transactional data, produce homegrown budgets and forecasts, and organize organizational figures for analysis.  Now in the age of Business Intelligence (BI), analytics, and big data, Excel continues to remain relevant as Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) build BI tools as add-ins to the spreadsheet platform.
For the past couple of decades, one of those products has been F9.  There have been mentions of a product resurgence, despite its maturity and related antiquated simplicity.  The reason for this popularity spike is rumored to be a direct result of Management Reporter’s (MR) underperformance.  I have written about disappointment in Microsoft’s FRx replacement before, specifically in regard to alternatives to MR.  In this article, I am going to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of F9 in the context of what to look for in financial report writers.
In terms of what to seek in a reporting tool, I usually employ a simple feature differentiation test.  If you are going to the trouble of looking for an alternative to Management Reporter, it should be an upgrade.  If you have moved from FRx to MR, you have already jumped through the hoops of migrating to a new system, despite how disappointingly similar they are.  The feature test I would suggest asking of an Excel add-in product involves the following features: is it live on the ERP database or does it report off of a warehouse or OLAP cube; does it have a web portal and a mobile application; does it offer a fully built, configurable data warehouse that can gather data from various data sources; and is it positioned within a full BI suite?  Let’s put F9 to the test.
We already know that F9 is an Excel add-in that does not require a manual export of data from the ERP because it is linked directly.  In terms of ease of use, Excel formulas, formatting and generally functionalities are common to most finance teams, starting back in college usually.  However, F9 is a first generation Excel add-in, meaning that it is older and more static in nature, without the capability to utilize dynamic coding of rows and columns.  An example of the latter would be the ability to list twenty-four month across columns in the report with a wimple range formula in ONE column, without actually have to hard code all the twenty-four columns in Excel.  Later report writer generations employ business and accounting logic with dynamic rows and columns, can report on both GL and sub-ledger data, and drill-through to detail everywhere in the report.  More modern reporting tools allow you to get right up close to your data for easy analysis, and that relates to data integration as well.
Data integrations, live or from a data source, can make a big difference in how reports are generated.  F9 integrates live to the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, reporting on the GL.  Running live on the ERP means that you will get real-time analysis of data input into the ERP your company is using.  However, depending on the number of users querying the ERP for data and the size of the query, the ERP server can slow down substantially, perhaps defeating the purpose of a reporting tool that is supposed to make things faster and easier to manage.  On the flip side, data warehouse-based reporting requires replication of information to the source before the user can run reports from the BI database.  Integrating to a data warehouse is great for stability and high performance, but it is better for things like daily, weekly, monthly or scheduled analysis.  However, while there are pros and cons to both, F9 only offers GL reporting and a simple GL reporting data mart – and some products offer GL and sub-ledger reporting as well as reporting on full data warehouse databases.
F9 can only integrate live to the ERP, and with around 150 integrations, it is no surprise to me that analysis is exclusively for the GL.  With that breadth of ERP integrations, it would be a timely endeavor to go deeper than just the GL.  More specifically, F9 only focuses on financial reporting, without an ad hoc query functionality.  There are few Excel add-in products that can offer both types of functionality, but again, depending on your reporting and analysis needs, why not truly upgrade to both methods of data reporting?  Why not seek out the solution that has the capability to report beyond the GL – to the sub-ledger and other data sources?  F9 is a fine tool, but there’s more to consider nowadays.
The next two features are perfect examples of today’s key features.  A web portal and a mobile application are two excellent responses to the around-the-clock, global nature of the business world these days.  With a web portal, the finance team can analyze company data anywhere they can connect to the internet.  Similarly, with a mobile application, analytics can be run anywhere that you carry your smartphone.  F9 does offer GL reporting in a web reporting portal, with an emphasis on data visualizations, and it does appear to be Excel-powered, but not with the full, live F9 report writer.  They have yet to add a mobile application, which is limiting for the road warrior executive, but perhaps they will in the future, as this feature will become increasingly more important to the business world.
The final two aspects are interrelated: a fully built, configurable data warehouse and positioning within a full BI suite.  In terms of data storage, most reporting tools integrate from an Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) cube, which requires personnel with the IT skills to manage the cube.  On the other hand, data warehouses used to be development projects, but are now being offered as a complete product.  F9 only integrates live and with a simple GL reporting database, so data warehousing with multiple data sources is not even addressed, but it should be in this age of big data, which brings us to the concept of a full BI suite.  F9 offers GL reporting and simple budgeting at the GL level, but they are missing features you will likely need –different integration methodologies, beyond-the-GL reporting and budgeting, a data warehouse, and a mobile application.
There’s a lot to consider when choosing an Excel add-in BI tool, but I recommend employing my features test.  F9 is a simple tool that offers some basic features, but it appears to be a little too simple and it was designed in the 1990’s as a first generation Excel add-in without dynamic ranges in rows and columns.   If you are looking to replace FRx or MR with a true upgrade, Solver would be happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s easy-to-use Excel add-in reporting solution positioned within a full suite of BI tools for collaborative, streamlined decision-making capabilities.