Don't Toss Excel Out Just Yet


Microsoft Excel has been one of those products to which professionals have grown accustomed in the workplace, like paperclips and the pencil sharpener. Despite inroads from alternatives such as Google Docs, OpenOffice, and Zoho, Excel continues to be a widespread standard of business documentation software.

Yet Excel usage may be changing, making me wonder if we need to rethink the increasingly common belief that, in this day of advanced analytics, spreadsheet use should be deleted like a useless file. A renewed value of spreadsheets has been stirring and cultivating lately, thanks to the intensity of analytics demand in business. As companies look to compile data in a presentable format, we've seen new ways to import data into Excel. Much of this changes how we use spreadsheets, a tool which may have grown more desirable because of its familiarity in business settings.

Excel owes its swagger to two factors: the competitive environment and improved plugins for feature enhancement.

With the rise of competitive office suites from the likes of Google, OpenOffice.org, and Zoho, Microsoft has had to step up with similar features. Office365, an online collaborative version of Microsoft’s email, Web conferencing, documents, and calendar software is the result. Spreadsheets now provide more collaborative features among multiple users, removing concerns of maintaining “that one sheet” containing the right financial model or the correct data for a chart.

Meantime, Excel has long been able to import data from external sources, though essentially Microsoft Access and SQL. Yet new plugin programs have permitted additional data integration from sources such as Web analytics solutions. For example, Excellent Analytics, a free plugin, imports Google Analytics data while GA Data Grabber provides additional data import from paid search platforms AdWords and AdCenter.

Even Microsoft has provided further plugin program development. For example, its Advertising Intelligence plugin links Excel to Microsoft AdCenter paid search manager -- users can easily download Bing paid search data and perform keyword research outside of an AdCenter. And Microsoft Business Intelligence released a fuzzy search plugin that cleans dirty data through cell searches for user-specified text string arguments.

The end result is that critics should update their data management advice with respect to the spreadsheet. Separate, ad-hoc analysis is being replaced with the opportunity for presentational analysis of unstructured data. Plugin developers have a clear understanding of this potential refresh of spreadsheet value.

As Lars Johansson, one of the developers of Excellent Analytics, noted: “Well, at the end of the day, data usually end up in Excel at some point anyhow. Excel is adopted by a wide range of users, even the less technically inclined. Therefore Excel is a tool for data democracy.”

The new means to collaborate can encourage teams to discuss what data needs to be presented. There is also a better chance at managing the main copy instead a sole copy on a laptop.

Some general liabilities in using a spreadsheet remain, but most are linked to use-related causes. Databases are still the best places for storing data long term, and, even with cloud capabilities increasing their convenience, spreadsheets maintain a limited capacity for large datasets. Maintaining secure access to data in a spreadsheet also can be problematic, as companies grapple with how to keep data proprietary while still convenient to present.

Nonetheless, my point is that as we begin to reexamine our tools, it may be high time to give props to the lowly spreadsheet. It has come a long way since Visicalc, the first commercial spreadsheet software, and for many companies it will go a long way to meeting the data management challenges that lie ahead.

Pierre DeBois, Founder, Zimana

Pierre DeBois is the founder of Zimana, a small business analytics consultancy that reviews data from Web analytics and social media dashboard solutions, then provides recommendations and Web development action that improves marketing strategy and business profitability. He has conducted analysis for various small businesses and has also provided his business and engineering acumen at various corporations such as Ford Motor Co. He writes analytics articles for AllBusiness.com and Pitney Bowes Smart Essentials and contributes business book reviews for Small Business Trends. Pierre looks forward to providing All Analytics readers tips and insights tailored to small businesses as well as new insights from Web analytics practitioners around the world.

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Re: Long live Excel
  • 1/12/2012 10:12:31 AM
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aaphril and Louis,

 

Thanks for the comments - it was probably a while before an Excel API could be considered.  Think about Microsoft and VBA as an example - they pulled VBA out of the Mac version for Excel, but placed it back again in the latest version. VBA is stilled used, but there were some limits in seeing its value.  Given that some businesses were storing data in Excel is revealing - it means that any sort of programming, VBA or API, was not given a due consideration.

Re: Long live Excel
  • 1/12/2012 8:27:48 AM
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@aaphil; @Louis Exactly!

Re: Long live Excel
  • 1/12/2012 12:59:28 AM
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No question Excel will continue to be vital to analyst of all skill sets and experience. As well it should be, it is a very powerful tool and still well worth learning.  

I agree with Ariella when she says that those who complain about Excel obviously don't know much about it.

Re: Long live Excel
  • 1/11/2012 11:37:34 PM
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Not to mention that many 'custom' solutions are built using the Excel API. So the native functionalities of the platform works for alot things, it's just a matter of knowing how to use it.

A question of flexibility
  • 1/11/2012 10:19:24 PM
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Pierre,

Excel remains a useful enough tool for working with data even if presentation and modeling tools change. In the end, I think it is a question of flexibility. If Excel remains easy to use in conjunction with other tools, I think it will remain an important tool in the foreseeable future.

Re: Long live Excel
  • 1/11/2012 2:13:42 PM
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Beth,

Per usual you get to core of it - cost can be a driver if something is familar and seems to be a nofix.  But what is slippery for many businesses is that they can become numbe to changes that could enhance a tool already used.  I mention Excel because it really was an eye openner as to how many analytic app for ti have been created, even for Excel for Mac.  And many small businesses are still learning how having familar software like accounting applications, project management applications, and email are on the cloud, so there is a convenience in delivering services not avialable before

Re: Long live Excel
  • 1/11/2012 2:05:43 PM
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Ariella,

Thanks for the post. Much of the difficult stems from using Excel as a data storage in some firms early on. I think most by know understand that there's Access. let along other databases that are better equipped for long-term data management.  But as I wrote, much of that overlook comes from misuse of what a spreadsheet can do.

Re: Long live Excel
  • 1/11/2012 12:15:12 PM
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On another board I participate in, I've seen many negative views of Excel. The posters indicate that the only way to go is to get custom software. But I question if they really know what Excel is capable of. Sure, if you buy the software specialized for your industry, it will seem to be the best choice, but many of the functions built into such programs are already available on Excel.

Long live Excel
  • 1/11/2012 8:25:29 AM
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Yesterday I posted a blog that talked, among other things, about the mainframe's lasting stature in the enterprise -- despite repeated doomsday predictions. Now I know Excel and mainframes are two highly different animals, but I think the point remains the same. I don't expect to see the end of the venerable spreadsheet any time soon in the enterprise. Yes, other business tools and more advanced analytics capabilities will supplement and complement Excel's use -- but from some folks, especially within companies creating a culture of data-driven decision-making, Excel will be a hanger-on. 

 

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