I spoke to one organization this evening, who took the decision to make business users ask for special permission to have Excel installed on their laptop. Why Excel specifically? They felt that Excel usage simply encouraged laziness and inefficient processes, and they had managed to tear it out of most of the whole organization.
What's so attractive about Excel?
For me, that’s pretty impressive. Excel normally has legs, and it weaves its way around organizations, both large and small. It ends up in email, hiding on hard drives, or even escaping the building altogether on a USB stick. Worse, it can end up pretty much anywhere. My jaw dropped when they said they’d achieved something that I always thought impossible; eradicating Excel.
So what's the problem with Excel?
Everyone thinks that they are a great driver. Same with Excel skills; everyone thinks that they are a great Excel user, the master of spreadsheets.
Excel’s deceptive ease of use lulls people into a sense of security, to the point that they sometimes do not test their spreadsheets properly.
Excel’s strengths are also it’s weaknesses.
To be fair, Excel can be pretty frustrating sometimes!
Let’s take a quick example. Here’s a cheery little spreadsheet with a date on it. Or is it?
So, cell A1 has a Date format, and you can see the format in the drop-down list on the Number pane. What if we want to change the date format to a General format, or Text?
In this example, the cell has been switched to the General format. The date has been switched to a number. How do we switch it back again?
The answer is quite simple. We can convert it to text using the following formula, which turns the cell into the General format:
Here is an example:
What happens if you want to simply have the date in the General format? You can copy and paste the using ‘Paste Values’ option in Excel, giving you the result in cell C1 in General format.
You can then Paste Values in cell C1. Since the values have been pasted, you can then delete column B so that you get the values in the right format. Here is the result:
To summarise, one of the pain points of Excel are these quirks which, to most users, should be easy. Users want to get straight to the heart of doing an activity without additional steps.
Here, all the user wants is the date in the General format. It took more steps than I’d like. It’s a simple example of having to work with Excel and around it.
Excel's place in a modern business
As a former Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) and Microsoft Regional Director, my world was full of people using Microsoft products. I used to stand on stages, and tell the world that people could not get rid of Excel.
I handed back the Microsoft MVP ‘award’ after extensive bullying and hassle from other MVPs and community people directed at me over a period of years. I decided that I could not take any more; my complaints were not dealt with, although I did complain to Microsoft I could no longer align myself with people who behaved in that way. I realized their complicity in the bullying I was experiencing because they could have done something about it, but did not do anything other than give me false hope.
After that, I started to use my experience to work with GCP and AWS, and I have become familiar with Snowflake, Google Data Studio and Big Query along with Looker, and, as always, Tableau with the Salesforce crew. So I have had to rethink my original stance as I’ve gravitated towards non-Microsoft products, and it has opened my eyes to other ways of ’empowering every person’ with non-Microsoft technology.
I’ve come to the conclusion that organizations want ‘easy’ and Excel is often the easy, quick fix. I still think that ripping it out completely and blocking people from using it is a very brave step, but also an insightful one about the choices that businesses make, every day, about whether they take the ‘long view’ or the ‘short view’ about their data.
What do you think? Does Excel make people lazy? Does it make businesses lazy about long-term solutions? When is Excel the best option? I’d love to know what you think. Please leave a message in the comments.