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Excel, we need to talk, it’s not us, it’s you

Matthew Smith

We have all had our up’s and down’s with Excel and although this may sound like a break-up, it is more of an evaluation of the relationship. Excel has undoubtedly served many of us well and it is continuing to do so. However, have we become too reliant on its familiar layout and easy set-up? Is the prospect of upgrading to a more complex software delaying teams from making the switch? As with most technology and software, it is a question of utility, not usability.  

The elephant in the room

Excel took to the headlines in 2020 for the error that saw 16,000 Covid-19 cases go unreported in the UK. The error was caused by the row limit on old .XLS file types truncating the additional records. On a smaller scale, storing the data in multiple spreadsheets to then be collated might have worked. However, this was not the scenario for a UK wide track and trace programme.  

"Excel was always meant for people with a bunch of data for their small company to see what it looked like," commented Prof Jon Crowcroft from the University of Cambridge. "And then when you need to do something more serious, you build something bespoke that works - there's dozens of other things you could do.”  

Functionality is not the problem 

Excel and other common Shadow IT are regularly scaled up beyond intended use scenarios and employed to support critical business activities. Why – because it is cheap, quick to use and takes minimal training to get set up. It also has a quick delivery value that is too convenient to ignore. The use of Excel can grow so much out of control that it is soon fed into business critical decisions within an organisation. 

Do you really know how dependant on Excel your critical operations and decisions are?


It is important to say – Excel is and always will be an excellent tool. It is easy to use, quick to create solutions and accessible to all functions within an organisation. Nevertheless, with any software, errors occur when it is used inappropriately. Excel was not built to be the primary pillar for data collection or to be prioritised in key strategic decisions. 

"Think about a single person in your organisation who monitors and updates your business-critical spreadsheets. What happens when that individual can’t show up to work or leaves the business? Their knowledge, awareness, information and process goes with them and just like that, an organisation is scrambling to figure out where the right data is.” 

Let Sysdoc make it easier for you

Understanding where this over-reliance occurs is the first and most difficult step to establishing effective governance. Clear governance of where Excel ends and business process/systems start empowers people to be creative and solve their local challenges without creating risk to the organisation. 

Our approach to identifying these scenarios focuses on where people are consuming data to ensure they can do so with confidence. We prioritise small step changes that limit the need for Excel and Shadow IT without relying on daunting large-scale transformation. Building cross-functional data literacy is also important so people know the downstream impact of their actions. 

We believe in a Just Culture at Sysdoc which encourages and rewards openness and honesty, rather than picking apart mistakes. Confident Data Enabled Decisions need to be instilled across the organisation to ensure high quality results and a newfound confidence in the data being collected. How else can an organisation be expected to produce Process Excellence, without a process that is fit for purpose? 

 

Let’s sit down (you on your side of the screen, and us on ours), and walk through how you can use your data to make better business decisions. 

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