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Is Excel the Bane of Our Existance?

March 8, 2010

Dilbert.com

Microsoft office is mine.

Before I get to Excel, let me say how much of a time waster PowerPoint is. The executives I work with obsess over the charts ad nauseum only to have the analysts tear them apart. Some of our execs can only think in .ppt which in itself is a disease.

Now to excel.

It has many flaws, especially in very complicated or linked spreadsheets. Unfortunately, many company’s run their business off of it and I wonder how many have made fatal mistakes?

Gartner of all companies sums it up:

Excel hell is not an evil Microsoft plot, or some sort of madness that descends upon otherwise sane managers and knowledge workers when they open the PC.  It is the fault of enterprise software failing to provide an alternative.

Most of the users who use your software for a significant part of their day do so because they have to if they want to get paid: accounts payable experts, call centre agents, payroll administrators and returns clerks, for instance. They can’t get up in the morning and say, “Today, I’ll use Lawson or Oracle, because I didn’t really like the feel of the SAP application I used to process those invoices yesterday.”  Admin users are in an arranged marriage. On some rare occasions, love blossoms, especially in the payroll department. Most of the time though, they seethe with quiet loathing.

Most employees in an organization are voluntary users for the vast majority of processes. They don’t have to log onto the employee skills dashboard every week to check if their team is on track for their development goals. If once a year they log on to the HR application, complete the appraisals as fast as they can, and get out of there, they will. Many top sales people spend as little time as they possibility can in CRM systems. Many poor salespeople spend considerable time logged onto CRM applications.

Now you can draw up long valid lists of reasons why enterprise applications are better for business processes than Excel (an ideal use for Excel). You can deliver fire and brimstone warnings about the damnation that is Excel hell (use Facebook to attract others to your cause).

Gary Barnett of Bathwick makes an even stronger case

Excel-madness

We’ve all seen this – that faintly crazed look in a colleague’s eyes when they’re challenged on a point of data – You can see that they just want to shout “The number is 54.56% because the @$%$ spreadsheet says so!”. Who the hell are you to challenge the contents of cell 4987MP, What sort of messed up anarchist would challenge 4987MP?

If you look closer – into that person’s eyes – you will see their hidden desire to stab you in yours with their biro.

Question this number at your perilQuestion this number at your peril

And let’s face it – who the hell are you to challenge  this – Did you spend 110 hours over the last 7 days rushing to produce this analysis for the meeting? Did you grapple with the two dozen spreadsheets that have been linked and interlinked in order to get to this number?

This number is the truth, because the spreadsheet (which as the dweebs amongst you will have noted is OpenOffice Calc) says it is.

As John Mihalec tweeted to me in response to my tweet about writing this blog:

@thinkovation Because 2 + 2 is so obviously 4 that it lulls us into complacency re whether either 2 is even 2 at all.

Many key decisions (many of which have a profound effect on our lives) are made on the basis of data that is simply garbage

Computer Science 101 taught us “Garbage in, Garbage out” – and we’ve been collecting, polishing and re-packaging garbage ever since. But this stuff is different – Our retirement funds, savings, economic stability, even our understanding of climate change all depend on knowing the right things.

The financial crisis was caused by many many things – and I’m not discounting either “greed” or “stupidity” as major causal factors – but the absolutely tippy-top of the list cause of the crisis was the failure of pretty much everyone (except Warren Buffet and a small number of others) to appreciate the level of risk that was associated with all of the various financial instruments that were flying about.

The reason for that failure to understand the true level of risk lies in the way in which both the instruments themselves, and the tools people used to assess their risk, wrapped and wrapped the risk under layers and layers of complexity – It was a giant game of pass the parcel – with the outer wrappings  so numerous and shiny and neat,that the smell from the final parcel of dog do0-do0 was completely overlooked.

If you allow something to become en-mired in many layers of obfuscation, you have to accept that the “system” you create is going to become increasingly chaotic. If you can’t track the journey taken by a simple number through the myriad sections, tabs and linked files – You have to be prepared to factor in “chaos”.

The image below is hypothetical – but it’s not an exaggeration – there really are figures sloshing around that are derived from inter-linked hierarchies of spreadsheets that are a lot more complex than this one.

A simplified map of the spreadsheets involved in an analysisA simplified map of the spreadsheets involved in an analysis

Take this image as an example. Item A is the output spreadsheet – which combines the results from B, C and D – which each in turn depend on one or more “child” spreadsheets. Here are some boring questions one might ask –

  • How long ago was the data in J refreshed?
  • Has anyone audited the assumptions made in H?
  • Is there anyone in the organisation who could explain to an Actuary how come the number is 54.56%?

If you can’t provide sensible answers to these questions – then, it’s time to take your life in your hands and tell your excel-crazed, sleep deprived colleague that they may as well have arrived at that number using a lab-rat and a roulette wheel.

Incidentally – someone has trained rats to trade, and reckons his rodents can do at least as well as the majority of the top fund managers – check it out here

To sum it up, they are good tools for simple applications, but they have done more to ruin productivity and correctness than most other softwared.

Disclaimer: I hate powerpoint presentations more than a root canal.  It is time for a new paradigm of software that works better and stinks less.

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From → Analyst, microsoft

One Comment
  1. Ann Smith permalink

    Now I know what is wrong with my coworkers “If you can’t provide sensible answers to these questions – then, it’s time to take your life in your hands and tell your excel-crazed, sleep deprived colleague that they may as well have arrived at that number using a lab-rat and a roulette wheel.” They all need to get more sleep.

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