Spreadsheets are silent killers

by Keith Anderson, Trinity CEO

I’m a huge fan of Microsoft Excel. It is an extremely powerful business tool. It is a great application for quickly and easily crunching, transforming or sorting large amounts of data. Pushing simple data into spreadsheets can quickly become habit, a way to show “productivity” and output, and also – a crutch to circumvent using (or learning) existing company systems. Can you think of a moment within your business process where information is moved from your system, into a spreadsheet, and then manipulated for a given purpose?

All too often employees use spreadsheets to organize and perform work that would be better suited to systems already in place. This type of exception processing spread over the totality of the enterprise can be deadly. Exactly what are the dangers of extensive use of spreadsheet within your workforce?

Individual Inefficiency

When a team member exports a data set that is produced and managed within an existing system (like a CRM) and loads it into a spreadsheet to manipulate it — for example, to track the status of a list of project tasks — they are doing work that is better accomplished via the system the data was already in. Employees need to be trained to use the system that was intended to manage the data in the first place. “But wait,” I hear you cry, “the system cannot transform the data in the way I want it done.” This is true in some cases, an excuse for not understanding the system, in others. More often than not, unless you are using a pivot table on that data, you should be able to use the managing system to do what you need.

Lack of Transparency

Data removed from, or created outside of, existing systems (especially online systems) is no longer readily available to your team or the greater company. Without knowledge of the siloed data’s existence, decisions can be made without key information. How many times have you been in a meeting where someone referenced data that you never knew was being tracked, and it turned out that the reason you never heard of it was that it was sitting in a spreadsheet on someone’s desktop. Wouldn’t it have been great to know about all that data last week, when you were preparing that big presentation?

Decreased Accuracy of Data

Take one set of data and enter it over time into a spreadsheet, and errors are bound to occur. With online systems, a single point of data can be shared and referenced by multiple people for multiple uses. Within individual spreadsheets, that single point of real data can become fractured and inaccurate. What’s more, there is no process or method to check the accuracy of the spreadsheet.

Loss of Data

When data is stored in a spreadsheet file, it can be lost or misplaced easily. Often I hear things like, “We lost that report when he left” or “It was on the shared drive and overwritten for several months by someone in accounting.”

Fake Business Processes

Business processes are systems whose accuracy of outcomes can be verified and replicated. Time and time again, I’ve seen spreadsheets that act as a key business process within a company — we enter the data and then we have our forecast. But there is no way to verify the spreadsheet is using the right data or producing the correct results. What if someone got a formula wrong? What if the data entered is incorrect? This is difficult to flag immediately and effectively, because the only way to test that process is to use the spreadsheet that generates the results.

So what can you as a leader or business do encourage the correct use of business systems versus spreadsheets? Train your team to ask questions:

Is this a report? If so, can I generate that report within the CRM or ERP system? If I can’t, why? Missing data? I don’t know how to use it correctly? The answers to these questions will help you know what to change.

Is this information actually a database? A database is a collection of structured, related, information organized to provide efficient retrieval and can access that data in a variety of ways. Could this information be bettered stored in an existing system? If not, why? If the answer is that you do not have a system for that, is it time to create or purchase on online system to manage this information?

Does this information need to be updated by more than one person? If that is the case, then you need to start looking for a new way of managing that data.

There are, of course, many valid and effective uses for spreadsheets. I’m certainly not advocating eliminating them entirely, but overusing them to the detriment of the powerful databases you are paying license fees for or purchasing does not make good business sense. Being mindful of when, and why, you are reaching for that spreadsheet will make you more conscious of the tasks you are performing, and the overall goal of what you are trying to accomplish. This mindfulness will help you accurately chose the right tool for each task.