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, Director, Data Visualization Practice at Zencos Consulting, provides SAS Consulting services to organizations that need assistance understanding how to transform their data into meaningful reports and dashboards. She has co-authored three books with her most recent title "Introduction to SAS Visual Analytics". She regularly shares data visualization tips and SAS knowledge through her BI Notes blog (http://www.bi-notes.com). 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.

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Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/14/2017 2:58:02 PM

@SaneIT: Without championing Excel, there are some problems with this argument.

For instance, Tricia writes:

"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."

So...the problem was other people's stupidity, poor training, and inattention.  Let's not blame the hammer because the carpenter bashed it against his head instead of the 2x4.

And to your point: "it's working, stop messing with it" -- well, if I was an Excel-using manager watching my employees constantly screw it up, I'd take that attitude too!

> " In this case what the manager probably needs is a handful of examples that show how often the data is wrong and the problems that it causes."

That certainly works for some people, but let's remember, of course, that anecdotal evidence is not the plural of science.

Excel is a tool with its uses.  There are far more advanced tools that can do really nifty things and are more user-friendly, to be sure, but let's not dump all over Excel simply because certain people don't know how to read a formula.

Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/14/2017 10:42:01 AM

Habit and attempts to save money are not easy to overcome even when shown it's fighting against us. The managers who keep the old ways even when in the case of Excel, will eventually see the real problems in getting accruracy around the department and among departments when everyone has there own data collecting and recording favorite method.

Re: Change resistant
  • 1/11/2017 11:59:18 AM

> Misusing Excel

There's the key in all of this.  Misuse.

Excel certainly isn't the best tool for everything, or even most things, but it can be a darn useful tool at times.  Additionally, all those tales of woe of people misunderstanding or screwing something up can be fixed by training and even by technology solutions (for instance, there are many ways to lock formulas and prevent editing).

For the sake of argument, I would posit that *one* advantage Excel offers (other than the obvious: being ubiquitous and low cost) is that -- unless you're lazy or not paying attention (which, unfortunately, is most people a lot of the time) -- it tends to compel understanding if you want to do anything useful with it or glean anything insightful from it (albeit not necessarily in the most efficient or effective way).

Conversely, a lot of GUI-based, "plug-and-play" solutions tend to impede true understanding when it comes to the "behind the scenes" of data reporting and data analysis -- as I've written about for A2 previously, here: allanalytics.com/author.asp?section_id=1408&doc_id=241161

Re: Change resistant
  • 1/10/2017 10:12:47 AM

@Tricia. Misusing Excel in terms of collecting numerical data, customer names and the like is bad enough. Where I've developed headaches over the years is when someone uses Excel to collect just text-based forms data. So there might be 200 or more rows, each with columns for name, address, company, but then longer-form text entries of several hundred words. So, you end up reading what amounts to articles as someone describes a learning experience, an issue with their manager, or a problem with a product, etc.

When people are completing qualitative surveys some of those rows extend from "A" and "B" to "ZZ". They expect us to read that way!

Re: Change resistant
  • 1/9/2017 4:15:16 PM


I'm frustrated just reading about this manager!  My first approach would have been to do the actual analysis is a better tool and drop the results out for presentation in a set of XLS charts.

Sounds like the manager was not only ignorant, but a micro-manager and would not have been happy to find out that Excel wasn't the actual source of the analysis.

Time to look for another position elsewhere. Given that the organization already has better tools, you might not have to go too far.

Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/9/2017 9:03:31 AM

I run into this not only as comfort but as "it's not broke, don't fix it" which is a tad bit short sighted because it's broken, they just don't realize it until way down the line.  In this case what the manager probably needs is a handful of examples that show how often the data is wrong and the problems that it causes.  These examples need to be brought along with the system/processes to prevent these errors.  Without those pieces the manager will likely continue down the path of "it's working, stop messing with it."

Re: Change resistant
  • 1/9/2017 8:41:36 AM

IN this case the organization had some extremely advanced tools  and could have bypassed anyone doing work in the spreadsheet and simply had the end result output to XLS format.  It would have resolved the issues of calculating in the wrong columns, bad formulas, etc.

I guess it is resistance to change because why would you drink the magic elixer over continuing to suffer. 

Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/9/2017 8:27:27 AM

You make a good point @Jessica Davis.   The person describing this situation had pleaded with him to make the right decision. She was asking my advise on how to pull him toward a better tool. Every arguement we brainstormed she had already tried.

I believe the guy is stubborn. The only way you combat that situation is with upper management issuing a directive.  I don't think the person I spoke with thought that would provide any career enhancement for her.


Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/8/2017 9:41:59 AM

I think that is the main problem - how do you move managers in particular out of their comfort zone? It is amazing to me that the person doesn't hold himself accountable for having accurate data. 

I feel like some kind of zealot.  Lol!

Re: Cultural resistance
  • 1/6/2017 4:33:42 PM

I am guessing that this was all that was in his comfort zone. No amount of logic will move someone who just doesn't understand the technology. A move could only make him look bad ( or worse, ignorant).This is a real barrier in some organizations.

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