The hell of Excel, or why you need to future proof your data strategy


This summer, I had several interesting sessions with customers and prospects. Much to my surprise, two of them, both multinational organizations, were doing most of their data related tasks in Excel.

This happens every now and then -- I come across organizations (like yours?) where people are manipulating and ‘analysing’ data in Excel. In many cases, they’re doing this even though other, much better, tools are available.

When I see what some of them have accomplished, I must admit it’s astonishing. They build extremely complex Excel sheets full of formulas, v-lookups and macros that do their tricks.

But when I start asking questions, it quickly becomes clear that even though Excel does the things they want it to do, the time and effort it takes far outweighs the business value they get in return.

This is what I like to call ‘the hell of Excel’ -- a lot of people are experiencing it (and some don’t even know they’re in it).

Using Excel might have worked in the past, but it won’t suffice in the future. Here are some of the Excel problems companies are facing:

  1. Team members who aren’t as Excel proficient as they say (or think) they are.
  2. Complex, fragile spreadsheets that no one dares to touch.
  3. No version control - multiple versions of the truth.
  4. Performance issues, errors and unexpected ‘stopped working’ alerts.
  5. Fear and uncertainty caused by hidden issues popping up, delaying critical reports and mucking up your team’s reputation.

And when things go wrong with your Excel reports, the potential losses are huge, both internally and externally: Monetary loss (loss of share value, investor confidence and, possibly, your career).

  1. Low motivation and high stress.
  2. Loss of scarce and precious time.
  3. Lost credibility.
  4. Exposure to a public audit.
  5. Regulatory sanctions.

I’m sure you can think of many more items to add to either list, but if you’re still not convinced, check out EuSpRiG (the European Spreadsheet Risks Interests Group). On their website, you’ll find a running list of spreadsheet horror stories.

If you’re using Excel, you’re using your data, which is good start. But if you’re not looking beyond Excel to creating a true data strategy, it’s costing your organization now – and will have a devastating impact on your company’s future. To ensure that your business is here to stay and will survive the digital disruption (and even use it to your advantage), you must build a future proof data strategy.

In the next part of this series, I’ll discuss the ‘how’ of building and executing a data strategy in more detail, and give some examples of quick wins. So stay tuned!

In the meantime, please share your ideas and experience -- we can start a mini-forum for anyone stuck in Excel hell. To see other posts in this series, use the tag data strategy series


About Author

Natan Meekers

Sr Associate Systems Engineer

Natan is a Digital Spearhead Data Discovery & Reporting. He's a passionate Business Analytics Expert who's always up for a challenge! Natan is eager to solve business pains and to help companies become more data-driven.


  1. I don't know where to begin on spreadsheet stories:

    The blank look you get if you ask "has this been validated or subjected to qc" Maybe the response will be what is validation?, or what does qc stand for?

    "So what if I put 0's in the fields with missing data? They all add up the same so they must be the same thing"

    "I like this because it makes me look like a hero to the department head every week I run it."

    "Why do I need a database when I can put everything in rows and columns here? And besides, I can just copy the old one and modify it -- oh I did get in a little trouble once for not deleting a customer who went out of business when he died -- but that only happened once (that I know off)!

    "Oh I guess that method of doing the calculations does double the economic benefits of our products. Our salesmen just love this spreadsheet"

    And so it goes on and on. One thing I did learn is be very careful on criticizing these efforts. There is a lot of "territorial pride" and you can very easily burn bridges by telling the truth

  2. I had to learn how to use excel 'the hard way'. When I started work I was faced with analysing data that seemed strange. So I took an online course in excel. Knowing that theres an easier way to do this Is comforting

  3. would prefer excel "prison" as the title - one can get out of prison ...
    I too am amazed at the effort that goes into using xl beyond its practical limitations - happy to be a SAS user! I find it odd that the newest xl horror story on European Spreadsheet Risks Interests Group id from 2006. Surely there are more recent situations, e.g. last week

    • Natan Meekers

      Yes, that would suit as well Bill! Luckily you can get out if you're stuck with Excel.
      I liked the rhyme, that's why I chose hell.
      The latest story dates from 2013 indeed, not sure why they stopped updating the list. Maybe because they made their point. 🙂

    • Natan Meekers

      Hi Loren,

      That depends on the maturity of what you are doing now with your data and what it is that you want to do with your data. I'm happy to discuss this further with you. Is it OK that I send you an email ?


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