Don’t Default to Excel

I’m a big fan of Excel. Heck, I’m such a fan I’ve written a couple of books around it. I have a tool built on it. It is unequivocally the glue that holds financial departments, and in some cases organizations, together. Sometimes though, people take that too far. All too often users lean into Excel because it’s familiar. Instead of learning the application sending data to Excel, they simply export to Excel. Why is this bad? Let me count the ways.

  1. Excel isn’t as good as a dedicated tool. I see this where systems have tools dedicated to a task and instead of using those tools users choose Excel. A great example of this is bank reconciliations. ERP systems have dedicated bank rec modules. They are designed with appropriate controls, imports from bank records, and math that always works. Still, a fair number of people choose to skip using bank rec modules and do it via Excel. It’s always messy. It’s easy to get the math wrong. It’s also not something that auditors are a fan of because Excel sheets are more prone to manipulation. I’ve seen at least one person fired for this when flaws in their Excel sheet were exposed.
  2. Excel may add work. This happens when users reflexively export to Excel without understanding the core system. Many times I’ve seen users export data and build a big report from scratch in Excel. This process gets repeated month after month. Later, sometimes years later, they realize that the system actually has the report they needed and they could have avoided all the wasted effort.
  3. Excel can add complexity. Similar to the last item, I see users export data from multiple reports and pull data together with vlookups. In the process, they build a mess because they don’t understand the underlying data. Just because data can be connected a certain way, doesn’t mean it is connected that way. There may other elements required for an appropriate connection. Explaining the mess tends to be hard on the ego of folks who created the mess. It’s exhausting convincing them that their Excel model is wrong. Excel is not always the best choice for connecting data, that’s why databases exist. There’s a second part to this as well. If you’ve ever inherited someone else’s Excel sheet, you understand how difficult it can be to simply understand, not mention untangle, what they’ve done.
  4. Excel can include errors. This one is pretty obvious. We’ve all made an Excel math error, formula error, something, heck multiple somethings. Experienced folks build checks and balances into their sheets and that adds another level of complexity. Sometimes this gets overblown, but it takes a lot of work to protect a sheet against errors.

I have absolutely nothing against Excel. I use it a lot, but I don’t default to it. Excel shouldn’t be a primary tool. It should be a fallback when a primary tool falls short. Take the time and energy to figure out primary systems and use Excel to fill in the gaps.

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