Excel is Still Not an Enterprise Reporting Solution


At a recent conference, I had a frustrating conversation. The person I was speaking with was frustrated also. Her manager was an avid MS Excel user. Even with better tools readily available, he insisted on storing data and reports in Excel. Even worse, he forced his employees into the same low standard.

My "Excel victim" related how many data issues occurred could have been easily avoided. A co-worker did not understand how to use the formulas correctly, which resulted in the wrong totals being reported. The list continued and most of it was related to lack of skill or attention to detail. Even when my Excel victim would plead with her manager to use the better tools freely available within the organization for an automated and accurate process, he refused. Instead he clings to MS Excel as if it were some savior -- using it as an excuse to avoid learning or just feel some level of control. At this point, I was rolling my eyes because I thought everyone knew that Excel was not an enterprise reporting solution.

(Image: echoevg/Shutterstock)

(Image: echoevg/Shutterstock)

I fantasized about phoning the manager to enlighten him about Excel. Scold him for not trusting his employee's advice. Clarify how he could improve his organization -- this month! In my mind, it ends with him apologizing and shedding remorseful tears. Aren't all criminals sorry when they are caught?

I suspect the real conversation would end differently. Many smaller organizations or departments within larger organizations do not understand the issues surrounding Excel. It is flexible, powerful, and readily available. However, if you want to make a data issue worse - give users Excel for tracking. Suddenly everyone in the department is tasked with managing a tiny database. The data accuracy depends on the creator's skill and attention to detail. I get it -- some things can be managed by a spreadsheet. But even I agree that list is so short it could be tracked with Excel.

If everyone has a personal database, then how do you know which one is the truth? Who in the office has the most accurate count of widget sales or complaints? If you are keeping a running total of something, then how do you manage change? Say you sell 1,000 widgets and a third are returned. How do you investigate that? How do you prevent the AUTOSUM being in the wrong column? When does the data become too much to manage? And talk about duplication of effort.

When organizations do get serious about data and want to treat it as a managed asset, the fun begins. As a consultant, I witness "how the sausage is made" a lot. I am privy to internal discussions that range from compelling to exhausting. A common one is how do we measure <blank>. When individuals or departments have been autonomous for too long, different rules develop. Their counting rules show a lack of skill and aren't based on real business reasoning. "Just don't count x because we don't always see the email about it." If another department finds x crucial or did solve the issue, then you have an epic argument. It's not fun to watch the passions collide in a meeting.

When asked to settle a dispute, I am always on the same side. Have a repeatable process that produces an accurate answer and serves your end user. Departments must agree on counting rules and data item names. It is that simple. Spreadsheets then are used for their intended purpose of tracking short term situations or ad hoc analysis.

Tricia Aanderud, Senior SAS Consultant for Zencos

Tricia Aanderud, President of And Data Inc., regularly shares information-design tips, programming tricks, and other SAS programming knowledge through her blog: www.bi-notes.com. She has co-authored two books this year, Building Business Intelligence Using SAS: Content Development Examples and The 50 Keys to Learning SAS Stored Processes, and is working on a third on the use of SAS Visual Analytics. When not writing books, Aanderud busies herself by spreading the SAS gospel to corporations that need help understanding how to transform their data into meaningful charts, reports, and dashboards using the SAS BI solution. Tricia has a background in technical writing, process engineering, and customer service. She has been an enthusiastic SAS user since 2002 and has presented papers at the SAS Global Forum and other industry conferences. She has a BA in mass communications from Eastern Kentucky University. Born in Kentucky, she now lives in Raleigh, N.C., with her husband and two bratty Siamese cats.

Essential Component of All Good Data Visualization: Simplicity

Choosing the right data visualization for your information is the key to letting your data tell a story.

Persuading with Data: Mistakes to Avoid, Tips for Success

How you present your data can make the difference between whether your recommended action is accepted and executed or not. Here's how to improve your rate of success.


Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/30/2017 12:04:19 PM
NO RATINGS

Not unusual for directors to not know how to use the software that employees are suppose to know and be SME on.  You touch upon a critical aspect - that small business is really impacted by leadership with limited practical knowledge on software essential for tactics and strategy.

Re: Change resistant
  • 1/30/2017 11:31:46 AM
NO RATINGS

Good point Joe about misuse. It speaks to the idea about how tools can be misused by being mistrained on their usage. Excel is not for every situation, but like many spreadsheets, its value depends on the user intent and information contained in the file. It is possible to poorly train people on how to use the full capabilities of a software and extract value. 

Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/30/2017 1:01:31 AM
NO RATINGS

When  I worked for major tech company the scenior director who was in charge of user experience and had been with the company for 25 years did not even have the basic understanding of Excel.  

Now let's talk about smaller companies where that is just the norm.  Sadly, the most advance analytical solution is the lowest common demonitor of expertise. 

Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/29/2017 12:40:13 PM
NO RATINGS

Now that you mention it, Joe, I realize that learning how to draw ERDs might actually be more valuable than learning program logic. Tools like Airtable make it easier to build databases for practically anything, but what use would the tool be if the user can't design a database structure? On the other hand, while I love the intellectual rigor of programming, it's hardly ever useful to a person who doesn't do it for a living.

Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/29/2017 12:30:28 PM
NO RATINGS

@Tricia In my experience, it's the boss's boss who calls him out. Not learning technology that the company has decided to use is a perfirmance issue.

Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/28/2017 12:31:13 AM
NO RATINGS

Hey @Joe, how about we just not load Excel onto people's computers from day 1. If they don't have it, they can't use it, no?

Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/26/2017 4:10:28 PM
NO RATINGS

@Joe. I wonder if it's the company that clings to Excel as a reporting tool or the individuals who have used for everything over the years and can't let go.

Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/26/2017 11:14:45 AM
NO RATINGS

@TriciaAA: At the end of the day, I believe that you'll inherently have more trouble getting companies to switch to a different tool -- which will require added investment and training -- than in getting companies to implement more/better training on the tools they're already using.

And then, if you're especially clever, assuming you do a good job on the training, you can drop hints in that training process and the planning and post-mortem processes as to how other tools can do even more and/or do things better...and then get interest that way.

Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/25/2017 10:45:46 AM
NO RATINGS

@Broadway: As the old saying goes, leave it to man to blame the problems of his feet on his shoes.

Pardon me for saying so, but it seems to me that, by that logic, whenever somebody does something stupid and isn't paying attention and accidentally hurts themselves in a workshop with a bandsaw or other power tool, we should start seriously discussing a ban on power tools in workshops.

Tools of any kind require knowledge and a certain degree of training (even if it's just a few minutes of "DO IT LIKE THAT" and "NEVER DO THIS").  If you don't have training on, say, R (which is super powerful and nifty and open source and all that fun stuff, but also is--I'm sorry--NOT intuitive to use) or SAS or whatever, you're gonna screw that up too.

FWIW, I remember being taught how to use Excel in high school.  The teacher, walking behind us once, stopped behind me, looked at my screen and what I was doing, and marveled at how far I had gotten in an assignment -- and by doing things that he had not taught us yet.

He asked me how I knew how to do what I had just done.

I said, somewhat sheepishly, "I didn't.  I just clicked on Help."

At that point, he stopped the entire class, got everyone's attention, and spent the next minute or two emphasizing the importance of what I had just done -- clicking on Help.

Sorry, but you won't convince me that this stuff is hard.

And Microsoft Office is ubiquitous.  So there's really no excuse for not learning the fundamentals if you're going to work in an office environment.

Moreover, MSFT Office technology hasn't changed too much since my high school days.  On a side note, therefore, I'd humbly suggest that we'd do better to have better computer and technology training in the public-school classroom than spend so much time focusing on the standard stuff that nobody ever needs to know (absent it being a key part of their profession) and everybody forgets in a year anyway.

Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/22/2017 9:21:03 AM
NO RATINGS

But Joe, if users commonly have problems with a tool, isn't it an indication that the tool isn't easy to use, and if so, not such a good tool? If a tool is meant to be used widespread --- and Excel is on nearly every computer at work --- shouldn't it be designed for ease of use?

Page 1 / 3   >   >>
INFORMATION RESOURCES
ANALYTICS IN ACTION
CARTERTOONS
VIEW ALL +
QUICK POLL
VIEW ALL +