Yesterday I read this post called “Why Excel is costing you millions” by Gayle Ryan. I have never seen a more misleading and ill informed post about Excel, and I was motivated to provide a response to this article here.
Ryan starts out by talking about static reporting, and how that is no longer enough for business – this is definitely true. She correctly points out that businesses need more data discovery, user focused, dynamic reports. But from that point on, Ryan completely fails to recognise Excel for its strengths, and she is completely misleading in attributing problem after problem to Excel. Let me share just a few of these incorrect statements along with my experience.
Ryan incorrect statement: “… spreadsheets don’t allow decision makers to see the big picture as effectively as a dashboard”.
What a load of rubbish. Excel is a very powerful tool with fantastic dashboard capabilities built in, specifically PowerPivot, Pivot Tables, Slicers and conditional formatting. Excel has an enviable suite of visualisation capabilities and can easily be combined with tools like SharePoint Enterprise to provide an enterprise strength dashboard tool at a fraction of the cost of many other tools. I personally built such a solution at Coca-Cola when I worked there. Excel has a distinct advantage over many other dashboard tools – that is most business users know how to use Excel, and they can participate in the development of the dashboards themselves without having to rely solely on user requirements and specifications handed over to a developer.
Ryan incorrect statement: “Excel reports are static, and take time to produce”.
Absolute garbage! Of course some reports are static, but to attribute Excel as being a tool that can only be used for static reporting is so wrong that I wonder what her motivation is for making such a statement. Modern Excel has a powerful suite of capabilities including PowerPivot, Power Query and Power View that allow users to connect to almost any data source, produce a data model, and then analyse the data using discovery techniques. When the user has created a report that has the potential for longevity, it can be polished into a user friendly reusable report with drill, slice and dice capabilities using Pivot Tables, Slicers and conditional formatting. All this at a fraction of the cost to to the same with many other data visualisation tools. And much of this capability is not new – Pivot Tables have been included in Excel since 2000.
Ryan incorrect statement: “Dashboards are also interactive, unlike Excel, which means that if a certain data point is troubling, dashboard users can drill down to get more information”.
Excel is a very powerful desktop or dashboard interactive tool using standard Pivot Tables, Slicers and Conditional Formatting. Excel has taken further big steps forward with the release of PowerPivot and Power View (although in my opinion Microsoft has a lot of work to do to make Power View a real competitor to other more developed BI visualisation tools).
Ryan incorrect statement: “Excel spreadsheets … are actually hindering our ability to understand critical information by being difficult to read”.
You have got to be joking – are you real!? Excel is the most ubiquitous data analysis tool in use today, and probably over the last 20 years. Excel is a flexible, cheap and agile tool that can present your data almost any way you want to see it. If Excel is difficult to read, then it has more to do with the report developer than Excel itself.
Why Excel will save you millions
In my view, one of the best ways to burn money is to believe that your problems are all about your tools, and that if you could just buy “a shiny new tool” that all your problems will go away. Nothing is further from the truth. My experience is that problems with existing BI solutions are related to “how” the tools are used and deployed as well as problems with master data standards and reporting processes. Any business that reads Ryan’s article may be tempted to think that they should abandon Excel as a BI tool and instead go out and buy some new BI “discovery” tool. It is definitely true that high end BI tools have a significant and growing role in business, but they are not the only tools. My formula for how Excel will save you millions is as follows:
- Understand your business needs of data and reporting. If you don’t know this, then you need to work it out BEFORE you spend a bucket of money on a new tool.
- Determine why your current tools/processes are not delivering on those needs. Is it really the tools, or is it the way the tools are used, the process and the lack of data standards?
- Use Excel as a prototyping tool and determine “how” you can make your data work for you – learn by doing. If you have a data warehouse, use PowerPivot to build on the fly data models that deliver real time, dynamic reporting that you can slice and dice to provide insights into your business operations.
- Iteratively improve your PowerPivot Excel tools until you get to a point that you can do no more.
- Then and only then should you ask yourself “do I need to replace what I have got with something better”. In many cases the answer will be no.
The prototyping process will force you to think about your real problems (eg availability and cleanliness of data, knowing what you really need) and help you solve these problems as part of the prototyping process. The further you go through the journey, the better your data and tools will become, and the more you will learn about what you actually need. At the end of this journey you are highly likely to discover that you know what you need, and that you already have robust tools that can be published in the organisation using tools like SharePoint Enterprise (Excel Services, PowerPivot Galleries etc).
Compared with the risk of failure by believing that somehow some new shiny BI tool will solve your data woes, my approach above using Excel with PowerPivot is highly likely to save you many millions of dollars.