The Trouble with Excel

Kachina Shaw

Admit it: You love Excel. The application inspires devotion in the hearts of everyone from your financial folks to your interns. And why not? It's readily available, it's easy to get started with, even if you're not a techie, and when you get stuck, you can ask your fellow Excel lovers for help.


Plus, it's just darned useful. It's a productivity tool that actually increases productivity. Or so we like to tell ourselves. Our love blinds us to the reality that Excel can bite us in the butt -- or in the bottom line -- all too easily.


Do you believe everything you read in a spreadsheet? Break yourself of that habit right now. Too many haven't, even though they may not know who created it, modified it or made it look so dazzling. Just like Googling yourself doesn't make you a techie, knowing a bit about how to use a spreadsheet doesn't make you a proficient spreadsheet designer.


Excel bugs like this one, discovered last fall in Excel 2007, aren't nearly the half of it. As with most applications, when trouble arises, it's not because of the technology, it's what users do with it. And what users are doing with Excel is not pretty.


Take, for example, the recent findings of Grenville Croll, chairman of the European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group, spreadsheet management and compliance specialist for Trintech, and self-described as the UK's "leading specialist in spreadsheets, spreadsheet applications, research relating to spreadsheets, and the tools and techniques required to identify, remediate, and control organizational spreadsheets." The man knows what's going on with spreadsheets.


Examining operational spreadsheets submitted by a small number of companies in a variety of industries, Croll found that one company's submissions were well constructed and error-free. Now, that was quite an achievement, considering that the remaining 20 spreadsheets examined contained 79 errors that caused no financial impact, and 98 errors with a financial impact of more than $259 million. These spreadsheets were created at companies within the past year and are being used in daily operations.


As a suggested plan of action, Croll has devised what he calls the Clean Sheet Test, which involves discovery, risk assessment, remediation and control processes in pursuit of accurate spreadsheets and financial data.


"Organizations which pass the Clean Sheet Test," his study report concludes, "could be said to be exhibiting Spreadsheet Excellence."


In other words, these organizations could be said to be in control of their operational spreadsheets (setting aside the hundreds or thousands of rogue spreadsheets also floating around the organization for a moment).


The road to spreadsheet excellence is a bumpy one, however. This CFO.com piece outlines many of the most common abuses of Excel by financial executives and their staff, from lumping together both data and algorithms, to structures that make it too difficult to make changes -- and too easy to make mistakes. The article led to this piece, which includes only a handful of the many reader e-mails and comments about the Excel problems that they've encountered at work.


Not surprisingly, most readers wrote in about how everyone else is doing everything wrong in Excel (while the readers are doing everything right, presumably). A bit of Excel etiquette training, perhaps, seems to be in order to eliminate at least some of the most basic mistakes, though it's clear from this article that differences between departments and companies will remain and drive everyone up the wall.


If your organization is dedicated to working internally to beef up training, standardization, testing and control processes to keep errors out of Excel spreadsheets and productivity high, that will go a long way toward reducing mistakes. Indeed, they will be necessary to get value out of the tools available to root out human error. Regulatory compliance efforts, in particular, have brought about more organized oversight and risk assessments for spreadsheets, some of which can certainly be used by staff other than assigned auditors.


Red Rover Software, for instance, offers auditing, detection and navigation solutions, and Lyquidity's ComplyXL offers versions of its software package specifically tailored for power users.


Sadly, at least according to research at the University of Hawaii, anywhere from 20 percent to 90 percent of examined spreadsheets -- which is quite an error rate in itself, I will admit -- contain errors of various magnitudes. Since Excel isn't going away any time soon, it seems it's way past time to clean it up.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jun 28, 2008 1:14 PM Patrick O'Beirne Patrick O'Beirne  says:
To discuss these very topics, the ninth annual conference of the European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group, of which Grenville Croll is the current chair, will be held in Greenwich, London, on 10-11 July. See http://www.eusprig.org for the programme Reply
Jul 2, 2008 6:07 PM Rich Rich  says:
Sheesh, this typifies the ignorance of organisations when it comes to spreadsheets. Spreadsheet users - you are wasting time, creating data silos, perpetuating manual errors and manual data collection systems. You might think you're really clever developing a completely unsupportable beast to feed, but frankly, you're not, you're an idiot. There is a marvellous invention called the relational database, if you design your user interface correctly your input errors will be at most 5%, you can use this data to analyse your business, you can use it to cross reference your information with everyone else's. Yes, in a spreadheet if you must...I thought this magazine was called IT business Edge? What is this, the 1990's????? Trailing edge journalism at its worst..... Reply
Jan 7, 2009 6:50 PM Dale Lanz Dale Lanz  says:
We are hip deep in spreadsheets that report data from other spreadsheets. I've begun automating one or two, but each spreadsheet requires writing a custom app to automate which is time consuming by itself, though worthwhile in the long run. I agree we need to clean this up but how? Reply
Oct 28, 2010 9:07 AM Dan Vega Dan Vega  says:

RedRover Software is now Incisive.  See http://www.incisive.com for more information and to download trials of Incisive software.  Incisive products like Xcellerator and Validate allows you to continue working in Excel.  


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