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EXCEL Overload: How much is too much?

By Logi Analytics | January 3, 2013
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The following is a guest blog post from John Freeze, Director of Business Consulting at C5insight.

After 25 years in business, I have developed what I believe to be a very valid hypothesis. Are you ready for it? No one has ever started their day with the intentions of building a 3,000 line EXCEL spreadsheet with 13 tabs.

While I am fairly confident that my hypothesis is true, the business world is fraught with enormous, complex, and cumbersome EXCEL spreadsheets, many of which are at the core of the operations  of a firm.  Below are some of the scenarios I’ve personally witnessed:

  • A large manufacturing firm that could only do a business forecast once per quarter because it took so long to combine all the individual EXCEL spreadsheets from the divisions .  It took them two months to manually build their forecast each quarter.
  • A large utility company that has a business intelligence department that is comprised of five highly paid business analysts, who spend the majority of their day importing data from multiple enterprise systems into EXCEL to provide the reporting needed by the company executives.  They spend all of their time preparing the data and none of their time actually analyzing.
  • A VP of Sales making well in excess of $100,000/year spending hours a month building the spreadsheets he needs to be able to effectively manage the sales force. (I’ve actually seen this exact scenario in no less than six firms)
  • I once asked a major university, “What is your primary business intelligence platform?” The answer they gave was “Wayne.”  When I asked them to explain, they told me that Wayne “knows where all the information is and gets us what we need.”  When I asked “What happens when he leaves?”, they responded with “We don’t like to think about that.”
  • One of the top financial institutions in the world when analyzing financials for one division constantly has “mistakes” in the forecast because “different people are using different versions of the EXCEL spreadsheet and are sometimes making decisions on data that’s months old.”
  • A key strategic leader in a large technology distributor spends the majority of his time “running spreadsheets” instead of spending time with clients.  When I asked why they had such a valuable resource doing that, the response was, “He’s good at it, and we can’t afford to hire someone else just to do EXCEL.”
  • An international firm that paid one of their vendors $150/hour for multiple weeks to “fix the EXCEL spreadsheet we use for forecasting.”

Any of these sound familiar? Why is EXCEL so prevalent in these complex scenarios? There are two main reasons:

  • It’s “free”
  • Everyone knows how to use it

What are the major reasons EXCEL may not be the best tool for complex analysis with large amounts of dynamic data?

  • It is very easy for any user to accidentally make a change that corrupts the integrity of the report.  An EXCEL spreadsheet, especially a very large one is very prone to having errors introduced any time changes are made or data is entered.
  • There tend to be multiple versions floating around the same organization with different data in each one.  There is often no “One version of the truth” for the organization.
  • When a new view of the data or new report is needed, there is often a bottleneck that occurs while you wait on the “EXCEL Guru” to have time to make it happen.
  • Especially with larger, more complex spreadsheets, it takes a lot of time to make changes, while ensuring that the changes don’t impact the integrity of another part of the spreadsheet.  Changes that are seemingly simple, can in fact take hours or days, including lots of troubleshooting to identify issues.

So now that I’ve presented all these challenges, I’d like to recommend a next step for you.   Think about how you and your firm are using EXCEL and determine if it is really the best solution for your particular situation or if it was chosen simply because it was the most readily available tool. There are many platforms that are flexible, secure, efficient and effective for providing an enterprise with the reports and analysis needed to run a competitive business.

You may be asking why I dislike EXCEL. I don’t. I use it nearly every day and will continue to. On the other hand, I also use my toothbrush daily, and while I could, I don’t try to wash my car with it.

___________

John Freeze is the Director of Business Consulting at C5 Insight. John holds an MBA from UNC Charlotte, and a BS in Electrical Engineering from NC State University. For almost 25 years he has served as a change agent for numerous cross-functional business imperatives in accounting, information technology, human resources, sales and marketing functions. His approach to business is centered on the alignment of strategy and actions. Prior to joining C5 Insight John was most recently the General Manager for the Southeast for one of Avaya’s largest business partners, where his team drove more than 200% growth during the difficult economy of 2007-2010. John has managed teams and projects in firms ranging from 15 employees to the Fortune 100. As a certified HelixPLAN™ facilitator, John ensures that the C5 Insight team does an unparalleled job of listening to the needs of our clients and never guesses about expectations.

 

About the Author

Logi Analytics is the leader in embedded analytics. We help team put business intelligence at the core of their organizations and products.

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