Oct 10, 2013

Signs You Need to Abandon An Excel Solution

Love it or hate it but MS Excel is an organic part of the business landscape. Tons of spreadsheets cross the space from one user to another to deliver data, information, dashboards and everything else that might come to mind. Excel is convenient, available, affordable and versatile. However, mindlessly sticking to it does not always pays back and hampers operations, information flow and decision making not to mention the timeliness and accuracy of data.

MS Excel is usually the first stop for solution of various needs and problems in business. Most of spreadsheets developed to meet these do a good job. Some of them keep evolving with the ever growing and renewing challenges and problems we face. As a rule, these spreadsheet are increasingly complex and incorporate growing various of elements of all sorts - formulas, macros, components, etc. They become organic part of organizations that use them. There comes the side effect that their shortcomings are somehow accepted as natural and planned and considerable efforts are not invested in reviewing their effectiveness in meeting business needs they have been designed to meet. Another class is the spreadsheet solutions that from their creation were not the best solution for the purpose. Both classes of Excel solutions need to be replaced at a point of time by something better suited for the tasks or at least go through total redesign. I have tried to put together some of the most common signs to consider that.

Bad performance
This is probably the most common scenario. Workbooks growth and implementation of functionality reach a point of a nightmarish performance. Among these are the slow loading and unloading and recalculation of formulas that drive the user crazy. Sure, the reason for that could be just a bad design and lack of constant investments in improvements, which is quite common. If best efforts are invested in improvement and the performance is still bellow the expectations, then you need a new approach.

Large size
Size on its own is not a problem. It becomes one when causes deterioration in performance. File size is also crucial with Excel used to transport data and information between users - by email, ftp or other means. Corporate email clients allow large attachments and connection speeds are quite high but still there is a point where getting the spreadsheet is a problem and it seems to be reached much faster that one might expect.

Too much complexity
Complexity in spreadsheet solutions reflects the requirements for functionality they have to address.  Examples for that include some charts could be extensively difficult and demanding to create with the means of Excel, a good user-level access functionality, managing some PC resources, etc. Not that it is not possible but there are many application and user requirements that are very difficult to create and maintain in Excel - it is not a software development platform after all, despite the continuing efforts to use it as one. Add to that the difficulty and even impossibility for implementation of good QA practices. Again, complexity is not bad on its own. It a thing to consider when the costs to extract data, implement a feature and the maintenance exceed some level. I believe organizations should keep track on that and compare with the cost of alternatives.

Data is not up-to-date
As mentioned earlier, Excel solutions are often used as mean to transport data and information. Beside the size issues that come with this, there is the issue of the data - how up-to-date it is. The popular solutions that hold data in its file are probably the best ways to create a total mess and generate a stream of emails to ensure the correct and latest data is in the file. Most of these spreadsheets are not critical and the worst that could happen is one to get embarrassed on a meeting but there are still many solutions that need very up-to-date to deliver value.

Spreadsheet has to be available to many people
Another classic case for Excel solution that needs to be replaced by something else. Many users also mean different devices, OS, connection speeds, access rights, etc. Microsoft offers some solutions for exposing Excel to web but they have their limitations and cannot cover all the user requirements and preferences.

Typical Excel application that expose these shortcomings
This is a large list. Let mention first the dashboards of all types and purposes. Due to their nature and purpose they seems expose most of the signs above. Close to them are the spreadsheet solutions that perform extensive calculations over large data sets - despite the obvious benefits of using Excel for that at some point the performance and maintenance would suffer. Similar are the data processing solutions with Excel - at some point it just gives up. Spreadsheet as data container are another example. The list could be extended with many other examples but I would leave it to your experience.

The alternatives
The specific alternatives of Excel solutions could be put in few greater groups corresponding to the demonstrated problems and applications. Excel dashboards and spreadsheets for data and information share are best replaced by online solutions as online dashboards or data feeds. Another great alternative are the BI solutions that put immense analytical power to the fingertips of the user. Databases are the obvious choice for data-related problems with the virtually unlimited storage, speed of access and power of data-processing tools as SQL. Some more specific tasks could be addressed with a software development package where possibilities are unlimited. Of course, there is always the question for the price. Maybe the preconceptions about the high prices of the alternatives stop looking deeper at them. I am not bringing any news but prices are probably lower than ever - market is abundant of fiercely competing IT companies with a large cohort of freelancers, the tools are also at affordable prices with a great variety of versions to suit any need plus there are very good free and open-source tools.

Sometimes even the best experts cannot fix problems with an Excel solution. Instead of settling for under-delivering tool entailing growing costs, take a look at alternative solution. It will pay back.

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