Is the world ready for the end of Excel?

Is the world ready for the end of Excel?

Spreadsheets have been around for as long as people have needed to keep records and make calculations. In ancient times, wax tablets were used to keep records.

When the computer came along, Visicalc and Lotus 1-2-3 were the ‘killer applications’ that spurred sales of Personal Computers and took the idea of computers from the realm of geeks and academics and into the world of business.

Today there are dozens of different spreadsheet applications available. But over the years the basics of spreadsheets and how people use them have remained static. Isn’t it about time things changed so people can work smarter?


What’s wrong with Excel?

Excel is ingrained in business. It’s ubiquitous on computers running Windows – and more than a few Mac-based devices as well – everyone knows how to at least do the basics, and people can often be reluctant to change.

But it has become a victim of its own success. Entire businesses – even incredibly large ones – often rely on doing everything within Excel, Sheets, and the like.As great as they are for many things, corporate empires were not meant to be built on Excel tables.

“Developers created spreadsheets for number crunching—not to manage collaborative projects, processes, or reporting,” says Gene Farrell SVP of Product at SmartSheet, a SaaS-based productivity management tool. “While there’s nothing wrong with traditional spreadsheets, they have tremendous limitations when applied to today’s collaborative work.”

“When the volume of work grows and more stakeholders begin to contribute, it’s like lighting a match to kerosene. Spreadsheet sprawl takes over, and team members lose certainty around what data is most current as new versions continue to crop up and formats change.”

Aside from the kind of errors - some 88% of spreadsheets contain errors - which can literally cost companies millions of dollars, there’s a lot wrong with a company relying entirely on simple spreadsheets with which to run the business. The ever-present issue of security is one; it is possible to password protect an Excel document, but in reality few are likely to make the effort to do this manually. And while you can probably IFTTT a bunch of data to automatically go into Excel, automating tasks once it’s there is difficult. Plus, given the data is static, getting real-time information is almost impossible.

Another major problem is silos. Spreadsheets often remain hidden away on people’s desktops when it should be open and accessible to all.

“Excel has its uses for a single person, and not for collaboration. I don't think you should ever be passing reports from one person to another in Excel,” says Jeff Brobst, Vice President, Finance, Seagate Technology.

This lack of sharing and collaboration results in all manner of issues. A lack of oversight means people can use the data in the wrong way and reach incorrect conclusions. Multiple people can be working independently of one another despite the fact they are meant to working from the same data set, which can lead to delays as a result of rectifying the differences – trying to work out who was working on which version of a data set can be a nightmare - if not outright actual errors and problems if the disparity is not spotted soon enough.

 “We still go to organizations where they're still running on spreadsheets,” says Karen Clarke, Regional Vice President Northern Europe at Anaplan, a Cloud-based provider of planning software and known as an ‘Excel Killer’ in the press. “Hundreds of spreadsheets sometimes, trying to make things work, being sent around by email.”

She says teams working this way can spend up to 90% of their time consolidating data from these disparate spreadsheets, and just 10% of their time actually looking at what the data told them, making decisions, and doing things that actually create value.

At the very least, you should probably consider a SaaS-variant of what you currently use in order to reduce issues with versioning and collaboration. No matter what you use basic spreadsheets for – whether budgeting, sales, HR, project management, scheduling – there’s probably a new, better alternative with more options and greater flexibility.  

Host Analytics, SugarCRM, Salesforce, Coda, Anaplan, SmartSheet, Asana and a host of others have taken specific use cases for how people use Excel and its ilk and expanded themselves into powerful, flexible tools.

One example of a company that has ditched Excel is Autodesk. Nick Hanson, Director of Sales Finance tells IDG Connect the company had numerous problems with trying to work entirely within Excel; ‘size, files corrupting, seemingly simple questions not being able to be answered because data was across hundreds of Excel files in multiple geographies.’

It replaced its reliance on Excel for planning start up Anaplan.  But he doesn’t see the company’s move away from Excel as ‘killing’ so much as ‘crippling’ its dominance in the company.

“Companies do lots on Excel that it’s not good for. It limits out. You need to get away from that Excel mindset.”


Culture change matters more than technology

Often, getting rid of spreadsheets isn’t really about the spreadsheets or the technology at all. It’s about changing company cultures and processes. Shiny news tools are no good to a business if everyone still hoards data on personal .xls files.

“People are open to new tools, but they often default back to spreadsheets after realizing whatever new, spreadsheet-alternative tool they’re using is too rigid,” says SmartSheet’s Farrell. “To increase adoption and add value to the business, there needs to be a balance of giving workers a familiar platform that supports different workstyles and use cases with the appropriate functionality, visibility, security, and compliance requirements of the business.”

Hanson says Autodesk was able to switch from spreadsheets to something more efficient through a ‘change management mindset’. He admits there were some challenges, but these were more akin to people ‘going on a diet’ in that people can be reluctant to change even though they know they should.

“People want to work smarter, you just have to help people see the use cases and finding that ‘Ah-Ha’ moment.”

Frank Calderoni, CEO at Anaplan, says getting rid of over-reliance on siloed spreadsheets is about overcoming individual ‘me’ culture.

“I'm if I'm a financial analyst and I've had a spreadsheet for a year or two, that data becomes power for them; they show net worth by saying 'can I show you this analysis?’”

“And what I try to tell them is don't let the data be what describes what your value. The data should be there, your value needs to come from something else, otherwise you can easily become disrupted and dispensable.”

“Data should not be your identity. Share the data; if everybody has the same set of data, great. Do something more that can demonstrate you’re bringing value.”



Also read:
The iPhone of Spreadsheets is Coming Through the Back Door
How big is the market for solving pointless “work about work”?


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect. Writes about all manner of tech from driverless cars, AI, and Green IT to Cloudy stuff, security, and IoT. Dislikes autoplay ads/videos and garbage written about 'milliennials'.  

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