Is your business stuck in Excel hell?

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Ever since corporate computing was in its infancy, the humble spreadsheet has been a business intelligence stalwart. Early interpretations of the concept were the domain of financial analysts and strategists through the 60s and 70s, while the later introduction of the personal computer spelled the beginning an age in which primitive productivity suites were all the rage in offices worldwide.

By the mid-90s, Microsoft Excel had ascended the throne. It remains the de facto industry standard for spreadsheets, coming pre-installed on practically every business machine that ships today.

Excel is useful and ubiquitous, and everyone knows how to use it. As a result, it’s most workers’ go-to software tool for quick-fix business intelligence. Populating an Excel spreadsheet takes seconds, formulae are simple to write, and you can produce a report in a single click – in theory.

As it happens, though, even the staunchest Excel supporter is eventually forced to admit that it has its limitations. This typically involves a light-bulb moment in which they realise they’re spending more time on data entry, consolidating files and fixing awry calculations than actually coming up with valuable business intelligence.

Back in 1993, when Microsoft’s programmers hid an easter egg dubbed the Hall of Tortured Souls in Excel 5.0, one has to wonder – were they aware of the grim irony that even today, many users end up stuck in Excel hell?

The tell-tale signs you’re stuck in Excel hell

  • You’re spending forever on data entry. It’s very easy to embark on a business intelligence project without reflecting on the overheads involved. If you’re going to spend hours crunching numbers, the subsequent insights had better be worth it – it’s no good if the end result is an unimpressive report that tells the business nothing new. If you’re working with an enormous data set, it’s also important to ask whether or not Excel is the best place for the consolidated version to reside – wouldn’t it be better off in an SQL server, so you can go on to run queries for a wide variety of applications?
  • You suspect you’ve made an error at some point. Errors are the bane of existence for any business intelligence project, rendering all insights null and void. They’re also particularly hard to identify in Excel – an incorrect formula in a single cell can cause a chain reaction of bad data. If you’re working with dozens of interconnected worksheets, good luck finding the culprit.
  • You need to consolidate your workbooks from different versions. Let’s say you’re responsible for a master spreadsheet that contains data on a number of different departments and teams. You go on to email this document to all the relevant stakeholders, maybe stripping out some of the worksheets and formulae that don’t apply to all the recipients. In turn, everyone emails you back, and they’ve all attached new copies of the spreadsheet with their own additions, deletions and amendments. Is this what you’d call an efficient system?
  • All your data is out of date. Beyond accuracy, one of the other factors that spells success or failure for a business intelligence project is the relevance of the source data. Unfortunately, the issues outlined above often conspire to ensure that by the time you’re actually sending the final report out, its insights are a month or two out of date and no use to anyone.
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