Excel, the peoples champion?
Pervasive, omnipresent and everywhere. Three words that could be used to sum up (no pun intended) Excel. From business analytics to financial planning. From inventory management to the simple to do list, Excel is one of the most popular applications in daily use and with good reason. It is an affordable, powerful and extremely versatile application that the majority of people are familiar with. So what makes Excel the ‘People’s Champ’ and what areas do you need to consider when evaluating its use within your organisation?
Accessibility – Excel is readily available on the desktop of most employees without the need for additional financial outlay. It requires no special configuration or setup.
Ease of Use – The learning curve for Excel is not overly steep. It provides quick returns for the novice and allows advanced users to perform powerful computations. Furthermore, search the internet and you will find a myriad of free, self-help videos and classes to aid personal development. Within every organisation there lies at least one self styled Excel guru, a master in the art of VLOOKUPs, Pivot tables and Scatter graphs.
Empowerment – Employees as individuals are motivated by working in a dynamic environment where they are allowed to create and effect change. As a tool, Excel does a great job in allowing employees to create their own unique, tailored systems. Excel is also a great leveller, with users speaking a common language that is understood throughout every department within every company and at every level, globally.
Flexibility – Excel is a veritable Swiss Army knife when it comes to the manipulation of numerical data and the way the data can be represented. When confronted with a legacy ‘canned’ software application that offers little or no option for change, Excel tends to be the go-to application. Rapid results are attainable by even the most casual of users without the need for authorisation or verification.
THE NOT SO GOOD
Scalability – As spreadsheets grow in size and complexity the data within becomes increasingly difficult to manage. Have you ever tried to print from a spreadsheet with thousands of rows? Spreadsheets are great for manipulating numerical data but they are not designed to store large amounts of data.
Concurrent Access – Spreadsheets do not lend themselves to simultaneous access by multiple users leading to the dreaded ‘excel.xlsx is locked for editing’ message when a second user tries to access the file. This leads to data silos being formed as it is easier to generate your own spreadsheet rather than try to access another employee’s.
Data Silos – Are people saving independent copies of each spreadsheet resulting in duplicate information and outdated versions? I would hazard a guess that most companies do not realise the number of spreadsheets utilised by each employee or the company as a whole. The problem is the sheer number of spreadsheets can in itself prove counterproductive as data silos are formed and the mass duplication of data becomes inevitable.
Error Prone – As the number of spreadsheets grows and the volume of information held within each increases, so the risk of errors appearing is greater, even for the most experienced of Excel users. A minor error within one cell can have disastrous results. Cutting and pasting data is a risk and there have been many, well publicised horror stories concerning such errors, a recent example being JP Morgan Chase & Co and the ‘London Whale’.
Many of the disadvantages associated with Excel can be alleviated by the use of a database. Specifically, a custom database design can offer many of the advantages associated with Excel and whilst the initial cost may be higher the return can far exceed that which was evident using Excel.
The ‘Empowerment’ section above is a key factor in the take up of Excel. With the right custom database you can engage departments and individuals in the areas of design, layout and workflow – the areas that affect their daily work routines. The nature of a custom database should also allow for dynamic changes in a similar fashion to Excel but with a greater level of control.
Spreadsheets and databases are not mutually exclusive and most organisations will benefit from using both. But ask yourself this with regard to your organisation: “How many spreadsheets are in use, what is their purpose and what information lies within?”