Oct 15, 2013

There is More Than Just Knowing the Formulas

Sometimes I get "You did that because you know the Excel formulas". I beg to disagree. Excel formulas knowledge alone does not make a good solution in the same way as the guitar does not make Clapton or the painting techniques alone did not make Van Gogh. There is something more.

Take for example a good dashboard in Excel. The quality of being good is not simply in the formulas that extract and aggregate the data and nice charts to display it graphically. It starts with the understanding the dashboard purpose, users and its place in the overall process of decision making, management or else. It goes through designing the layout, choosing the best forms for presenting the information, deciding on user interaction and engineering the data extraction, aggregation, storage, etc. Formula knowledge is a part of the whole process but it is not the one that defines the product dashboard as good. Of course, the overall quality is affected by the selection of formulas and other Excel specifics to an extent (provided enormous inadequacies do not take place - then it could be detrimental). Good knowledge of building dashboards will produce good dashboards in any environment and with any tool and vice versa.

Another example - calculating stuff. Recent example - a co-worker needed to generate thousand rows of ten random percentages that add up to 100%. Easy 5-minute task indeed. But what made it simple - the combination of basic formulas or the simple algorithm that they materialized?  Without the math and problem solving skills all the formulas would be useless.

Poor knowledge of Excel formulas does not mean bad calculations. Take the compound interest calculation - although Excel does not include a formula for that, it could be calculated in few ways very similar to the ways to perform the calculation with a calculator. What is behind all the methods you could use? It is the knowledge of what a compound interest is and how it is calculated. Or take the forecasting methods - if you know their applicability, logic and calculation process, then performing the specific calculations in Excel should not be difficult.

Do not get me wrong - knowing the tools well is a must for any professional. Better skills with the tools means working faster and greater quality product and I do encourage investing in it.The knowledge beyond the tools distinguishes the professional, good professional and the expert. Sometimes it seems people are getting paralyzed by the feeling they do not know Excel (or any other tool) well enough to solve a problem and give up easily. I would advice them to focusing on what needs to be done and the specific formulas and methods are relatively easy to find. Know the whats, the whys and the hows in your business and the specifics will come.

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