Our love/hate relationship with Excel

Spreadsheet use is familiar, easier than mining ERP. But some think about when they'll drive a car, rather than ride a horse

CFOworld –

As much as I write about analytics and reporting, it never ceases to amaze me how -- with all the new, targeted tools on the market -- finance teams still love their spreadsheets.

I recently discussed this phenomenon with Steven Bailey, director of finance at Dynasplint Systems Inc., a durable medical equipment company, and Rich Block, CFO at Terascala Inc., a manufacturer of high-performance parallel file system storage products. Both attribute their peers' affection for the Excel spreadsheet to familiarity, and the difficulty of getting data out of complex systems such as those for enterprise resource planning.

"It generally takes a higher level of expertise to manipulate data directly within ERP systems. Users require a good deal of knowledge about database structure and access," Bailey says, adding most finance workers don't have these skills.

Another stumbling block: The more sophisticated reporting tools tend to require more training. "Some companies don't have the resources to teach users how to build a report that does correct analysis and computations. That's pretty labor-intensive," Bailey adds.

Even more important is the need to protect data. Giving users widespread, direct access to ERP systems jeopardizes the integrity of data. Instead, companies create data warehouses as a safety measure for their production databases.

"Users are more apt to pull data from the data warehouse into a spreadsheet, because that's what they know and feel comfortable doing," according to Bailey. With this approach, finance, sales and other teams can perform common activities such as adding columns, grouping and analyzing data, and creating charts and graphs.

The Simpler Alternative

Excel's simplicity makes it an attractive alternative to BI tools that are laden with feature sets, according to Block, who is a member of CFOworld.com's advisory board. "Using Excel to storyboard and prototype a set of management reports [from ERP systems] works well because it doesn't take very long. And once management sees the reports, they often want to change them, which is easy to do with Excel," he says.

Prototyping with Excel also highlights how much effort and data collection are required to create and sustain a management report. "This step is often overlooked when a management reporting package is purchased, and is a reason why management reporting projects fail or are significantly delayed," Block says.

On the flip side, spreadsheets certainly have their worrisome issues. They are low on version control and data quality control and are subject to human error. "Anyone can put whatever data they want into the spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are full of subjectivity and have varying quality and validity," Bailey says. For instance, if someone pulls data into a spreadsheet for a sales presentation and an attendee points out a ratio error, then "your credibility plummets," Bailey illustrates.

Unwieldy for Reviews

Spreadsheets make it difficult for supervisor review, and peer review, because they are so unwieldy. "Who is going to give a 15-worksheet workbook with thousands of calculations a thorough look?" Bailey asks.

The drawbacks of spreadsheets have led him to be a fervent user of more sophisticated BI and reporting tools. A former employee of Quantrix, he prefers its software for its validation and versioning features. "You can look at one formula and validate more than 30% of calculations. It's a more efficient way of reviewing models," he says.

Bailey believes that Excel will be unseated someday as the tool of choice. "What made folks say, 'I'm done with horses, I think I'll drive a car'?" he asks. "That's the kind of change it will take."

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