I think I am sick of spreadsheets. Maybe it’s because I write a story about them every three months or so. Love ‘em, hate ‘em, rogue spreadsheets, get rid of them, get used to them, somebody came up with a better one - you name it, I’ve heard it.


Without a doubt, Excel is the mother of all productivity tools when it comes to simple data quests. ‘We can’t do without our spreadsheets because we can’t manage what we can’t scrutinize.’ We all get it. But we also know that a little knowledge and an Access database can be a dangerous thing.


Lately I’ve come to believe that a chunk of our fixation on these ubiquitous rows and columns that take up so much time and attention stems from the fact that spreadsheets tend to either validate or indict people. Thusly can a simple XLS document turn into an 800-pound gorilla - and hot fodder for the water cooler. This is not an argument you’ll find in a product review or magic quadrant; I’m basing it on observations and countless chats with peers, managers and executives over the last dozen years.


To me, there are two distinct problems with spreadsheets, the distinction being that one problem is usually unintentional while the other is often not.


The first problem arises from acting ignorantly or too cleverly by using the tool beyond its purpose, through the use of bad or irrelevant data or by combining and/or linking tables from multiple sources and time frames. There’s no better way to bollix an output and breed a false belief that we’ve solved the unknown than to casually dump numbers into Excel. That is usually an error of omission, yet those who insinuate such results into management policy or daily processes can extend much misery to their peers.


The second and more pernicious problem – an error of commission, even if subconsciously – comes from using Excel as a surrogate for hard evidence, as if it were an expert witness and not merely a tool for herding the parameters of business. I know a few people who regularly create and solve their own spreadsheet puzzles with extrapolated answers that meet their plans. Perhaps you’ve seen this and maybe you’ve done it yourself: If you can manage your own way, why not measure your own way and see who salutes it when you run it up the flagpole?


Spreadsheets can fatten your performance or be used to motivate, reward or cudgel someone else. It’s counterintuitive to the notion of business intelligence, really a more personal or political way of extending misery to your peers. You know the sinking feeling, the email from your boss saying, “I thought we were here; why am I seeing this number?” A quick scrabble through your notes and dates triumphantly shows that your latest plan or audit confirms your figures. This doesn’t appease the boss but it gives you a sense of validation. Again it’s the spreadsheet as surrogate, and I’ve seen such events serve as a straw man for conflict resolution or as a vehicle for acting out in a bad working relationship.


There is an element of self-preservation at work, and though the second problem is often blamed on the first, no number of audit trails or controls will eliminate the political pressure of numbers. There is widespread desire among managers to reduce complexity to a measurement or two, but it’s no fun to be judged so reductively, especially from the outside.


Still, we have to judge performance by various measures, and while numbers often do lie when it comes to qualitative performance, I’ll agree that most Excel exercises illuminate simple truths about business. The trick might be to not conflate such things with complex observations so that everyone can remain emotionally detached and accept the productivity of Excel for what it’s worth. That gets more difficult as you move up the managerial chain where short-term performance has everyone behaving reflexively, especially when business is less than rosy.


Though they tend to focus on problem one, many others are observing the dysfunction of spreadsheet abuse, as this quote illustrates:


“What’s one way to destroy a finance department’s productivity? Get rid of spreadsheets. Or one way to immediately improve the finance department’s productivity? Get rid of spreadsheets.”


That’s the very first observation from a brand new Ventana Research report, “Requirements for 21st Century Spreadsheets,” which chronicles “the uses and misuses of a critical business technology.” The respondents to the survey for this report are largely readers of BI Review and DM Review. And while it does put faith in newer technologies and provides constructive ideas for businesses hoping to avoid Excel-Anon (my term), the paper is loaded with thoughts that would be right at home in a support group, e.g., “Your company cannot fix the problem until it sees it has one.”


I spoke to the author of this report, Robert Kugel of Ventana Research, who is admittedly more concerned with the error-prone, audit-resistant and time-consuming nature of spreadsheets than political abuse. Spreadsheets are fine for individual productivity and ad hoc analysis, he told me. But for a collaborative, repetitive or iterative process, he says it would be wise to think about using an application.


“Things that require no money and no training take a while to be used correctly, and spreadsheets are the crack cocaine of analytical tools,” Kugel says, “They are ridiculously easy to set up and use to translate your thoughts.”


Product reviews and surveys end where the workplace begins. Perhaps resolving problem number one will help fix problem number two. Spreadsheets are more like the view from a carousel than the view from your desk; the perspective keeps changing even if you eventually come back around to where you started. In my own world I’ll be looking for spreadsheet exercises that build a consensus of focus and improvement and will keep an eye on those that only deliver self-validation or repudiation.

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