Stop the “Stop Using Excel” stories

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Three threads, one conclusion:

Thread #1: In a recent advertorial (“Stop Using Excel, Finance Chiefs Tell Staffs,” Tatyana Shumsky, 3/31/2018), The Wall Street Journal proved once again that, as someone once said, if you ignore the lessons of history you’re doomed to repeat the 7th grade.

Dan Bricklin first invented the electronic spreadsheet back in 1979. It was immediately and wildly popular, for some very simple reasons: It was incredibly versatile; you could use it to think something through by literally visualizing it; and, when IT responded as it usually does to requests for small solutions — not a good enough business case — users could ignore IT and solve their own problems, right now.

The Wall Street Journal’s story tells the usual tales of spreadsheets gone wild, with their high error rates and difficulties in consolidating information. What were those fools thinking, using Excel for <insert Excel-nightmare-case here>!?!

I was nowhere near the place and I can tell you exactly what they were thinking. They were thinking they had a job to do and the alternatives were (1) Excel, and (2) … uh, Excel.

The business case for the solutions extolled in The Wall Street Journal story was that the Excel-based solutions caused problems. Had users not solved their problems with Excel first, they’d still have no business case.

When Excel is the problem you can be sure the pre-Excel problem was much bigger.

Thread #2: One of my current consulting areas is application portfolio rationalization. It’s usually about enterprise applications that number in the hundreds, but sometimes clients want to consolidate desktop applications that, in large enterprises, easily number in the thousands, not including all of the applications masquerading as Excel spreadsheets.

It’s a shocking statistic, and a support nightmare!

Only it isn’t a shocking statistic at all. A typical Fortune 500 corporation might have 50,000 or more employees. With 50,000 employees, what are the odds there aren’t at least a couple of thousand different processes that might be improved through automation IT will never get around to?

It isn’t a support nightmare either. For the most part the applications in question are used by a dozen or fewer employees who are almost entirely self-supporting.

Support isn’t the problem. Lack of control is the problem. And, in highly regulated industries, lack of control is a real problem corporate compliance needs to solve. It needs to document not only that a given business function’s outputs are correct, but that its processes and supporting tools ensure they’re correct.

On top of which, information security needs to ensure applications with gaping holes are kept off the network, and that applications stay properly patched so that as new vulnerabilities are detected, new vulnerabilities are addressed.

All of this is certainly harder when each business function solves its own problems, but it’s hardly impossible.

And it’s much easier when IT is an active partner that helps business functions solve their own problems.

Thread #3: Once upon a time I was part of a team that redesigned our company’s CapEx governance process. We hit upon a novel idea: that our job wasn’t to prevent bad ideas from leaking through. It was to recognize good ideas and help them succeed.

It turned out we were on target. What we found was that bad ideas that needed screening out were few and far between. Good ideas explained badly? We saw plenty of those.

Tying the threads together: Large enterprises have lots of moving parts, which means small problems are real, worth solving, and too numerous for IT to handle on its own. Users engage in “rogue IT” to make their part of the business more effective, because they can and they should. IT ought to find a way to help their good ideas succeed instead of assuming they’re all pursuing bad ideas that have to be stopped.

The KJR solution: create a Certified Power User program (CPU — catchy, isn’t it?). Certified Power Users will understand the basics of normalized design so they can use MS Access instead of spreadsheets when they have a database problem to solve. They’ll know how to evaluate solutions professionally, so they don’t buy whatever looked flashy at a trade show. They’ll also know how to keep solutions patched, to minimize vulnerabilities.

And, they’ll keep an inventory of the small solutions they create and share it with IT.

In exchange, they’ll have administrative privileges for their PCs, and those of the users they support.

When you’re trying to persuade, “Let us help” is a more powerful message than “No you can’t.”

Comments (5)

  • 1. One minor quibble: Dan Bricklin issued VisiCalc for Apple computers and, yes, indeed, did a version of it for PCs. However, from what I can quickly find, Microsoft did Excel.
    2. Regarding your first thread, sometimes having a programmer do a separate program is better and, with a quick skim of the article you referenced, that’s what I would lean towards in at least the first examples. Sometimes, yes, people need a quick and dirty solution right now and reach for the tool that they know — but, it’s not necessarily the best tool for a long term solution to the problem. Also, sometimes, as I’m sure that you’re aware, things change over time. Companies start out small and an Excel solution is fine, but then the company grows and the Excel solution doesn’t work as well. For example, the Adobe executive cited should have his IT group write a program to pull the data needed from the financial and human resources systems — it’s already there, why re-key it?

    • Hey, I was careful. Dan Bricklin gets credit for inventing the electronic spreadsheet. Everything that followed VisiCalc was derivative – Dan came up with most of the ideas that matter.

      • I agree — you were careful, but (to me) mentioning it in an article about Excel kind of clouded the issue.

  • Oh my that takes me back and I totally agree with you. I used Excel. I got pretty good – vlookup was one of my favorite functions. Many of the larger applications could dump out data in flat files. As long as they had some unique field in common, I would link them up. Then I could quickly answer my manager’s questions with more detail than she wanted, using pivot tables. I could easily add new fields to my records. Then along came a departmental IT person who said I really should be using Access. Trouble was that Access was a black box. When things went one way but didn’t come out the expected way, it was harder to debug. Fortunately, there wasn’t much energy behind the ‘move to Access’ movement, so I kept playing in my Excel sandbox until I left!

  • I’m going to tie in another topic Bob has talked about repeatedly over the years. As defined by Bob:
    Quality = Accuracy and reducing/eliminating errors.
    Excellence = Customization and flexibility.

    Big IT solutions are all about Quality, and do that well. But the world isn’t static, so employees also need Excellence. If IT won’t provide it, or can’t do so in a cost-effective manner, we’ll find another way. Such as, Excel.

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