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.