In these days of cloud computing, online databases, Salesforce.com and tablet PCs, the humble excel spreadsheet seems to have fallen somewhat out of fashion. During a recent project requirements gathering session, the IT expert in the room was telling people almost constantly that they had “too many spreadsheets”, and that he wanted to move everything possible into a database.
In some cases, this was understandable, as there really were a huge number of over-complicated, under-used spreadsheets on the network. However, it’s easy to forget how powerful spreadsheets are in a business environment. Downloading from an online database to a spreadsheet for detailed analysis is still a very common exercise, and the analysis which can be done in a spreadsheet completely out-classes that which can be done within the database itself.
From analysing buying patterns to sorting marketing lists to creating interactive client proposals, spreadsheets still form a vital link between many business functions. Unfortunately, just as Einstein suggested we use only 10% of our brains, many people only use 10% of a spreadsheet’s power in the business environment.
The problem isn’t that Excel is a particularly complicated piece of software, or that it’s difficult to master. The problem is ignorance. It’s people not knowing the capabilities of the software, so being oblivious to the possibilities for the business. And this wastes an enormous amount of time.
An example comes from a recent participant on one of my training courses, who spent one afternoon a week un-hiding columns, dragging things down a list, re-hiding columns and pasting data. He had no idea why he was doing it – he just following instructions. The spreadsheet could have been simplified and the task removed completely. One afternoon a week is 24 working days a year – quite a time-saver.
Excel is not just for layouts
For example, many people see Excel as a tool for laying things out nicely. To an extent it is, but when I was asked recently to do some customer analysis from spreadsheet data, I was appalled to find 150 weeks’ data arranged across a spreadsheet in a completely disorganised, if rather pretty, manner. A 30-minute job took the whole day. Most of this was taken up copying and pasting data into the correct places.
Excel skills are needed
You see, it’s not just the analysts who need strong Excel skills – the whole organisation should have at least a basic awareness of data, formulae and reporting, because their work will ultimately save other people time, if the sheets are put together properly.
Hugely powerful information can be pulled from good-quality data with the right skills, enabling companies to analyse everything from survey responses to buying patterns to the spread of mobile communications across Africa, and everything in between. But ensuring that data quality is good to start with is the responsibility of everyone.
It’s not difficult to learn
The best thing is, that spreadsheets aren’t difficult to learn. I always encourage people to use trial-and-error as the best learning tool, closely followed by searching Google or YouTube for tutorials. There are many good-quality courses available for those who want more formal learning. I’m always surprised at how many Microsoft Excel e-learning sessions I’m asked to do.
How you do it is up to you, but please, take my advice, and ensure that you and your colleagues have a suitable degree of Excel skills to prevent your business from being held back.
Give it a go… you might be surprised how powerful it is.