An accounting manager at a mid-sized bank recently wondered aloud to us how to approach implementing end-user computing controls (EUC).  She had recently become responsible for identifying and overseeing her institution’s unknown number of EUC applications and had obviously given a lot of thought to the types of applications that needed to be identified and what the review process ought to look like. She recognized that a comprehensive inventory would need to be built, but, like so many others in her position, was uncertain of how to go about it.

We reasoned together that her options fell into two broad categories—each of which has benefits and drawbacks.

The first category of inventory-building options we classified as a top-down approach. This begins with identifying all data contained in financial statements or mission-critical management reports and then working backward from there to identify every model, database, spreadsheet, or other application that is used to generate these reports. The second category is a bottom-up approach, which first identifies every single spreadsheet in use at the bank and then determines which of those rise to the level of EUCs and need to be formally and independently reviewed.


Top-Down EUC Inventory Building

The primary advantage of a top-down approach is the comfort of knowing that everything important has been accounted for. An EUC inventory that is built systematically by tracing every figure on every balance sheet, income statement, and footnote back to every spreadsheet that contributed to it is not likely to miss much. Top-down approaches have the added benefit of placing the EUC inventory coordinator firmly in control of the exercise because she knows precisely what she is looking for. “We’re forecasting $23 million in retail deposit runoff next month,” she might observe. “Someone needs to show me the system that generated that figure. And if it’s a spreadsheet, then it needs an EUC review.”

The downside is that this exercise usually turns out to be more complicated than it sounds. One problem with requests that begin with “Somebody needs to show me…” is that “somebody” can often be hard to track down. Also, “somebody” many times is “somebodies.” Individual financial statement line items are often supported by multiple spreadsheets, and those spreadsheets may have data-feed issues of their own. What begins looking like it should be a straightforward exercise quickly evolves into one of those dreaded “spaghetti bowl” problems where attempting to extract a single strand leads to a tangled mess. A single required line item—say, cash required for loan originations in the next 90 days—would likely require input from a half-dozen or more EUCs tracking everything from economic forecasts to pipeline reports for any number of different loan types and origination channels. Before long, the person in charge of end-user computing controls can begin to feel like she’s been placed in charge of auditing not just EUCs, but the entire bank.


Bottom-Up EUC Inventory Building

A more common means to building an EUC inventory is a bottom-up approach that identifies every spreadsheet on the network and then relies on a combination of manual and automated methods to sort them into one of three bins:

  1. Models (which have hopefully already been tagged and classified during a separate model-inventory-building process)
  2. Non-computational/non-relevant spreadsheets (spreadsheets that either contain data only and do not perform calculations or spreadsheets that do not contribute to a quantitative business purpose—e.g., leave schedules, org charts, and fantasy football standings)
  3. EUCs (pretty much everything that does not get filtered into the first two bins)

Identifying all the spreadsheets can be done manually or using an automated “discovery” tool. Even in the very smallest institutions, manual discovery is too big a job for a single person. Typically, individual business unit heads will be tasked with identifying all of the EUCs in use within their various realms and reporting them to a central EUC oversight coordinator. The advantage of this approach is that it enables non-EUC spreadsheets to be filtered out before they get to the central EUC oversight coordinator, which makes that person’s job easier. The disadvantage is that it is unlikely to capture every EUC. Business unit heads are incentivized to apply a sub-optimal set of criteria when determining whether a spreadsheet should be classified as an EUC. They are likely to overlook files that an impartial EUC coordinator might wish to review.

An automated discovery tool avoids this problem by grabbing everything—every spreadsheet in a given shared drive or folder structure and then scanning and evaluating them for formulas and levels of complexity that contribute to an EUC’s risk rating. Automated scanning tools have the dual benefit of enabling central EUC coordinators to peer into how individual business units are using spreadsheets without having to rely on the judgment of business unit heads to determine what is worthy of review. The downside is that, even with all the automated filtering discovery tools are capable of, they are likely to result in the “discovery” of a lot of spreadsheets that ultimately do not need to go through an EUC review. Paradoxically, the more automated the discovery process is, the more manual the winnowing needs to be.


A Hybrid Approach to End-User Computing Controls

As with many things, the best solution probably lies somewhere in the middle—drawing from the benefits of both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

While a pure top-down approach is usually too involved to be practical on its own, elements of a top-down approach can enlighten and facilitate a bottom-up process. For example, a bottom-up process may identify several spreadsheets whose complexity and perceived importance to the departments that use them make them appear to be high-risk EUCs in need of review. However, a top-down review may reveal that these spreadsheets ultimately do not contribute to financial or enterprise-wise management reporting. It could be that the importance of some spreadsheets does not extend far enough beyond the business unit that owns them to require an independent review. Furthermore, being able to connect the dots between spreadsheets that are identified using a bottom-up approach and individual financial statement/management report entries can help ensure that all important entries are accounted for.

A hybrid approach—one that is informed both by an understanding of critical reporting items and a series of comprehensive, automated discovery scans—introduces the virtues of both methods and is most likely to yield an EUC inventory that is both comprehensive and aligned with an institution’s risk profile.