I recently came across an interesting blog post from Adrian Reed. In his post, he argues that spreadsheets are evil and that they should not be used for any serious analysis in an organization (well, he’s not painting them as bad as this, but this explanation helps me to support my own post 🙂 ).
Although I agree with some of his ideas, I think that spreadsheets, when they are well used, are a really poweful tool to help organizations succeed. When they create problems, they are often only a symptom of a bigger problem. Even if they sometimes create some, why are spreadsheets so common in organizations? And what can we do to prevent these problems?
Why are spreadsheets so popular?
Spreadsheets popularity can be summarized with these two words: control & flexibility.
Spreadsheets are almost as used in organizations as PowerPoint presentations, although they are probably less deadly. In my opinion, people use spreadsheets for one main reason: they give them control over information, and allow them to take decisions based on facts instead of only their intuition. In a world where information overload sounds more and more like a professional sickness, spreadsheets can help people to get their head out of the water.
Moreover, spreadsheets are flexible and allow users to work with the data the way they want. Should anything happen, they can remodel their spreadsheets on-the-go and get the information they need almost in real time. They are not limited by preformatted reports, nor they have to wait for changes to be implemented to their systems before performing their analysis.
A good example of this can be found even in larger organizations with multi-million dollars systems implemented to support data analysis and decision process. In many of these organizations, people indeed rely on these systems to interpret data. However, in many cases, they will also export some of the data into a spreadsheet to get a better grip on it, and perform ad-hoc analysis.
In my mind, this illustrates very well that spreadsheets do answer some users’ needs. Spreadsheet eradication will not be an easy task.
How to make them work?
So much flexibility & control over data can lead to many problems; Adrian described some of the pitfalls associated to spreadsheets in his post. But the problem here aren’t the spreadsheets; spreadsheets are only there because they answer these users’ needs. If we want to prevent these problems, we need to provide some guidelines to spreadsheets users (since we can’t wait for our big systems to answer every ad-hoc needs from every user).
I’m not a business intelligence expert, but from my experience working in both small and large entreprises, these best practices should help you get the best from spreadsheets while minimizing their problems.
1. Learn how to use your spreadsheet application, for real
Everyone knows how to use Microsoft Excel, yet many Excel experts still don’t have a clue how to use pivot tables, one of its most powerful function.
In order to use spreadsheets efficiently, you need to know basic and advanced functions of your application (like Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc). Ask your colleagues about their own spreadsheets, ask them if you want to know how to do something specific, and share your work and knowledge with them. Google your spreadsheets questions, and you’ll get thousands of tips & answers.
In other words, become a spreadsheet ninja.
2. Standardize your data sources and create data dictionaries
One of the major issues with spreadsheets is when people give data a wrong meaning. This can lead to bad decisions, leading to more or less important consequences. Like with any information, context is the key to provide meaningful insight from data.
In order to achieve this, a centralized source of data (or many unique sources) is essential. To make this source even more useful, a good data dictionary describing each piece of data will allow a standardized understanding of the same information by various people.
This will ensure the integrity of data knowledge without reducing the flexibility of your users.
3. Monitor spreadsheet usage and look for recurring trends
By providing a good framework to your now spreadsheet-knowledgeable users, you should prevent problems brought by democratizing access and analysis of data.
However, having so much data lovers around your organization can lead to some inefficiencies. For example, you might find out that many people will perform the same analysis in different departments. In this situation, creating a standardized automated report distributed among these users would increase their productivity.
In order to deal with these inefficiencies, you need to proactively monitor what’s done by spreadsheets users, and capture any common reporting and analysis needs. This can easily be done by business analysts in your organization, through their various contacts with users.
By implementing those tips, you are creating an environment where data-driven decisions can be made easily and where transition to more advanced business intelligence system is facilitated, whether you’re a small enterprise or a multinational company.
Do you like what you’re reading?
Do you use spreadsheets instead of corporate systems to analyze data? Have you seen problems (or successes) related to spreadsheets use? Please share your experience with us in the comments below, or in the social medias (Facebook, Twitter, or Google+)!
Image credits: Stepri2003 @ Wikimedia Commons