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31. March 2019

The business world’s love/hate relationship with spreadsheets

Spreadsheets are knowledge workers’ answer to the question: “How can I get this done NOW?”, where “this” can be anything from creating a small database to modeling and analysis to standing up a new business process (see “The three types of spreadsheets”).

Business people need to get stuff done, and they don’t have the time to stand up a project involving the IT department or go search for purpose-built software that meets their needs.

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It is a testament to the power of spreadsheets that they are accessible and versatile enough for “normal” business people to solve many — if not most — of their custom IT needs without any formal training in software development, data modeling or other things normally a pre-requisite to building software.

However, these software creations also have many short-comings, including:

  1. Management: Spreadsheets are typically shared in their entirety — still mostly as Excel files via email. This leads to version proliferation, but also makes access control difficult. There are no audit trails, and it is hard for anyone to gain an overview of all the different — and often mission critical — ways spreadsheets are used in their organizations.

  2. User interface: The user interface for any spreadsheet is spreadsheet software. In short: Anything created in Excel needs to be opened in Excel. Control over the look and feel of the interface is limited and difficult — and mobile support is slim to none.

  3. Opaque and error-prone: Spreadsheet models are opaque and hard to gain an understanding of for anyone other than the author of the document. Also, as a lot of these solutions are created by people that are not used to develop software, quality control is usually limited and errors easily go undetected.

These three reasons — and several smaller ones — are the reason spreadsheets have gotten a bad reputation in some circles, IT in particular.

The solution — however — is not to eliminate spreadsheets (good luck anyways!), but to give spreadsheet users new tools and “superpowers” to overcome these issues. That way, knowledge workers can keep solving their domain-specific needs themselves and maintain their high level of productivity without IT breathing down the back of their neck.

This article has also been published on Medium.

Written by Hjalmar Gislason

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