My inaugural experience of living in Excel hell happened in 1993 when I did my first piece of paid-for data analysis. The client had our consultancy company create a market research survey, manually collect a couple of thousand responses in the streets of several towns (no Internet in those days), analyse the results and present the insight in charts. We used linked Excel spreadsheets to consolidate the responses from each town, run the analysis and create simple charts, which I copied into Word, along with supporting narrative.
This was a highly manual, laborious exercise and I had to rigorously check for and correct errors. It certainly was not a scalable approach, so if another client had asked for something similar at the same time we would not have been able to accommodate them. After the project I vowed never to use Excel for that purpose again. That was over 25 years ago and I am very happy to say that I stuck to my vow as I have since found much better ways to organise, analyse and visualise data.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, to discover on a daily basis that, for many companies, Excel is STILLthe data analysis environment of choice! Not only that, but in most cases these companies are undertaking the sort of laborious, manual, error-prone processing that I subjected myself to in 1993.
Add to this the fact that the appetite for the analysis of data has sky-rocketed since 1993 and expectations, from internal staff and external clients alike, for rich, visual presentation has risen significantly, then it is not too difficult to understand why most of these companies tell us that they are living in Excel hell.
There are several reasons that people give for using Excel for corporate reporting: they already have it, it doesn’t take a great deal of skill to use it (questionable) and, most worryingly, it allows people to “make adjustments” to the figures before presenting them.
I have long been an advocate of the principle that if something is wrong with your figures then they should either be adjusted at source, or the processing logic should be re-examined, not simply “corrected” further down the line. As data explodes and simultaneously takes a more important role with companies seeking to become data-driven organisations, governance and confidence in the data becomes key.
The other major issue with using Excel in this way is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to simultaneously view information from different perspectives and to overlay those perspectives to get a wider view. Interactive dashboards, built on top of well organised and managed data allow users to get a view of the business from many perspectives at the same time, as well as making filtering and drill-down to detail available, without creating a science-project.
The most commonly asked question when a company is considering adopting a dashboarding tool is “can it export data to Excel?”. Old paradigms are hard to shift but, in our experience, once users are given access to well-designed, interactive dashboards they rarely use that “Export to Excel” function because they are happy to have escaped from Excel hell.