Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Socialtext has made another major product announcement: SocialCalc, the first truly wiki-integrated spreadsheet.
SocialCalc has one really big, really obvious benefit over traditional spreadsheets like Excel: it’s distributed. In other words, more than one person can work on it at a time. But as ZDNet’s David Greenfield and others have pointed out, we’re not the first ones to have delivered distributed spreadsheeting.
What’s different about SocialCalc–and I think it’s really fundamental–is that SocialCalc is integrated into a wiki. You can drop a spreadsheet into a wiki page. You can drop wiki text into a spreadsheet. You can link from a spreadsheet to a wiki page that explains where the numbers came from. In short, you can talk about the numbers.
What a concept…talk about the numbers. If you’ve done a lot of modeling, you know that the hard part isn’t the mechanics of the model; it’s the reasonableness and consistency of the assumptions, the accuracy of the inputs, and the strength of the modeling logic. And for all of those things, you need to talk: to your teammates, your colleagues, your data providers, your analysts, etc. A spreadsheet is rarely a one-person affair. Even if one person builds the spreadsheet, the data and thinking that goes into it almost always comes from a broader team of contributors. If those contributors aren’t talking about what they’re doing, it’s just garbage going in. And we all know what garbage in leads to. Talking is also the single best way to spot the spreadsheet errors that Dennis Howlett has so artfully documented.
Our traditional analytical tools–whether Visicalc, Lotus 1-2-3, Excel, or even Google spreadsheets–have done a great job enabling us to crunch the numbers. But they’ve made it really really hard to talk about the numbers we were crunching. There’s no good way in Excel to explain where the figure in Cell I-57 came from. There’s no good way to ask whether the growth projection in Y-163 feels reasonable to the rest of the team.
Those of us who have done a lot of modeling come up with our own workarounds. We flag assumptions in a special color. We make cryptic annotations on those little yellow stickies you can add to cells. But those workarounds don’t really shed much light. They may serve as useful personal reminders to the model-builder, but they don’t usually do much for the rest of the team. If you really want to understand my model, let’s face it: I have to walk you through it. If I’m a good and careful modeler, the process is painful and time-consuming. If I’m a sloppy modeler, well…let’s not think about that scenario.
SocialCalc enables teams to have conversations about the models they are building. If I want to explain where I got the number in I-57, I can write it in a wiki page. A teammate can question my logic on that same page. If the teammate owns that input, she can change the number, and she can explain her reasoning so I understand it.
Realizing these benefits will, of course, require some new spreadsheet hygene. Modelers will have to start explaining the assumptions behind their models (gasp!). Teammates will have to pay attention to those explanations (double-gasp!). In short, teams will have to start talking about the numbers. With SocialCalc, they finally have a good way to do it.