The spreadsheet: Friend or foe?


For many years the humble spreadsheet has held many different roles and responsibilities supporting finance, marketing, sales -- pretty much every department in your business. There's always someone with a “magic spreadsheet,” but how effective is this culture that always uses the same format to consume data?

My view of Excel changed dramatically at university when my professor of Advanced Mechanics showed the class how to visually represent a combustion engine in Excel, and asked the automotive guys to help him with his timing equations for his injectors. There's no doubt that Excel is a powerful tool with a depth and capability most of us will never use.

But why do we rely on it so heavily? Easy to use? You’re in control? Common format for everyone? All the above. We are creatures of habit and find comfort in using technology we know and love, especially if helps us in our jobs.

The trouble is that the speed, scale and complexity of what we do today is changing beyond recognition, with adoption rates to new methods of ‘doing business’ still being quite mixed. I frequently see comments like, “give the data to ‘Bob’; he’s great with Excel and will find the answer.” Unfortunately, ‘Bob’ will be limited in what he can do as, believe it or not, Excel has its limits. One client I spoke to recently had 10 standalone PCs running Excel macros to generate weekly reports, which sounds crazy to me.

Likewise, most business intelligence or visualisation vendors have started to change their story. If you go back five years, it was all about how pretty the report was, HTML 5, responsive design, flexible dashboards, etc. Now the same vendors say they’ve cracked predictive analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Wow, that’s a quick R&D cycle. To put it in perspective, IBM has invested over $1billion into Watson and is still trying to crack the advanced analytics commercial market. In other words, you can’t just pop up and say, ‘yep we do that!'

Consuming large amounts of data, gaining insight, personally adding value, validating your input (i.e. collaborating with your colleagues), putting your input back into the mix, re-analysis … these are basic steps, but how efficiently can you do all these with a spreadsheet?

The answer is: You can’t. You need the right tools to see the power of genuinely validating big data, conducting vigorous data discovery and executing collaborative deployment across a large enterprise.

It’s not an easy job -- no one would ever say it was, but you need to start your journey with the right long-term tools. SAS has been doing this for more than 40 years, with plans to continue for many years to come.

But back to the question, is the spreadsheet a friend or foe? If my business took Excel away how would I cope? I would probably buy my own copy, such is the power of the Microsoft Office suite. But it’s horses for courses -- use the right tools for the job. And what of the end output? Use what you want, as you’re free to do!

I know the spreadsheet is my friend, and will be for a long time to come. But I’m a sociable kind of guy, and like to have more than just one friend. I think there’s plenty of room for more technology to make my life easier, provided the technology does exactly what it promises to do.

If you're ready to get started, here’s a checklist for moving beyond spreadsheets to get insights from data.


About Author

Tim Clark

IoT Commercial Analytics Lead – Global Practice

Tim joined SAS UK & Ireland in the middle of 2015 as an Industry Solution Specialist for the commercial team covering retail and manufacturing. Having worked with the solution software business since 2002 he brings with him wealth of experience. Prior to joining the company, Tim worked at IBM as an Industry Solution Specialist focused on the B2B and manufacturing markets for eCommerce, order management and supply chain optimisation. Over the years Tim has worked in many different markets for previous employers like Micros Systems and Torex but started his professional career at Rolls Royce aerospace (civil) as a Mechanical Design Engineer. This really was ‘rocket science’.


  1. A related point: many enterprises do in-depth audits and rigorous quality checks on their databases. At the same time, spreadsheets at these enterprises usually have no audits or QA checks, and a very high error rate. Unfortunately, even the most basic QA checks are not a part of the "spreadsheet culture". Excel and similar spreadsheets are a good tool for certain applications, but they are not very good for analytics.

  2. It is beyond a doubt that Excel is among the most important computer software programs used in offices these days and there is a reason behind that. Excel has plenty of benefits: it helps identify, trends and bring data together, also is relatively easy to use. But sticking to a habit, no matter how pleasant and convenient it is, never leads to advancing in anything. So I believe that changes and innovative approached should be embraced.

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