Keep Calm, Carry On With Microsoft Excel

This article partly picks up from a post by iAfrikan exploring how Tech Salesmen use Digital Disruption as a Finance Industry threat, in order to sell IT replacement products.

'Digital Disruption' Is Abused To Persuade CFOs

I recently read a FinExtra article by Steve Winder titled CFOs: It’s Time to Say Goodbye to the Spreadsheet. These are the types of articles that just get me going. The research material that is referenced is actually quite good, but Steve's views are a bit out of touch with the modern progression and features available in Microsoft Excel.

Here’s my view: Everyone, it’s time to remain calm and carry on with Excel.

Excel is the world’s number one business tool. In the twenty years that I’ve been in business I have never come across any company or person that said “we don’t use Excel.” IT Professionals, especially those in Business Intelligence (BI), speak about Self-Service BI (SSBI) like it's something new, but business users have been gathering and analysing information since the dawn of data. The tool they've been using? You guessed it, Excel.

Some of the most common arguments that people make are around governance and mismanagement of information. While these matters are important, especially in larger companies, Excel isn't the problem.

Let's examine my three top reasons why business users continue to use Excel.

  1. Usability and Learning Curve
    The learning curve is low because they've probably been using Excel and spreadsheets since college or high school.

  2. Flexibility
    As humans we have this annoying characteristic called choice. We almost always change our minds and have new ideas. With Excel, users are able to change their point of view, apply new formulas and try things. It's normally with this flexibility that corporate governance has its biggest argument.

  3. Collaboration
    Collaboration isn't about a computer system, it's about sharing information with someone else and getting their point of view. This is done either by walking over to someone's desk or sending them an email with the information.

Steve Winder writes:

“Excel has been the finance person’s companion for many years, but much like a security blanket or pacifier, at some point we outgrow the need for these things, or rather our needs outgrow the thing. Such is the case with the Spreadsheet. To support smart financial strategies for innovation and growth, organisations must be able to access information and analyse it quickly to aid smart, agile decision making. The solution is to have a modern financial IT infrastructure in place that delivers the right data to the right people at the right time in the right way – providing a solid data decision framework.”

The problem with this statement is that Steve is ignoring the fact that most of the companies he is referring to already have mature financial IT infrastructure and systems, but still the use of Excel persists.

When last did you come across a modern business information tool that did not have the capability to export information to Excel?

I’ve been in IT focusing on Business Analytics for almost two decades and whenever there is a need to acquire a new business information management tool, one of the key requirements is that the new system must be able to export to Excel.

Why is "Export To Excel" so important?
Is it because business users are defiant?

In my early years as a professional working in BI, I was often part of the “Excel must die” crowd, much like Steve. After a few years of not winning at all, I started to understand what it is that business users like so much about Excel. Why would they not simply use the IT and BI system that was put in place? Then it hit me, it’s not the system that’s the issue, it’s the way in which business users, who also happen to be human, work.

Humans want to be able to be part of something. While they don’t always want to be involved in the grunt work, they do want to make sure that what is being produced is of value. They’ve also had many years of experience in dealing with IT professionals that continue to “tell them what to do” and that what they are doing isn’t the right way.

Many times I’ve listened to stories of how business wants to implement change and how the dependencies of internal IT teams just don’t seem to deliver the advantage they should. Instead, they become the problem. Projects take longer than they should, demanding more money but never meet the expectation of business. In the end, business users move along and build the requirement in Excel.

When they want to change something they just do it. As a business team, they agree on the changes and then implement it - done.

No waiting on someone who knows very little about their business to come along and tell them that they are doing it wrong.

Image Credit: Adam Koford | Laugh-Out-Loud Cats #1681

Now, like with everything in life, if you have an unskilled person using a tool it can result in bad things.

You don’t give a two-year-old a hammer. That’s just asking for trouble. However, experienced users should be given the tools that they are comfortable with.

Let’s talk about some of the great modern features that Excel has in relation to some of these business challenges.


This is a feature that is simply great and it’s been with Excel for the longest time. It’s the feature known as Macros. I’ve found that not everyone uses macros for various reasons but mostly it’s because it seems complicated to learn, so people generally stick to what they know and do it themselves.

In Excel 2010, Microsoft released a plugin for Excel called PowerQuery. This is a visual macro to, step by step, build almost anything you want and automate your work. An amazing tool.

Some of the more common tasks that users are doing in Excel is importing information either from a text or csv file or more rarely, directly from a business system. With PowerQuery, these tasks can now be fully automated in a simple and effective design tool built for everyday users of Excel.

Automation is probably the best feature that Excel has and now skilled business professionals no longer have to spend their time doing tasks that are of little value but still necessary. Instead, with a simple refresh, they can have Excel carry out the tasks they normally would be doing manually. Best of all, if something changes in that process, you can simply go to the step at which the process changes and implement it; no need to involve IT, fill out requisition forms and experience long delays, Just get it done.

It can import data from different files, the Internet, an online Software as a Service (SaaS) system or just about anything you can think of. It can even merge and append data from different sources so you don’t have to use complex VLOOKUPs in your workbook. There are lots of other capabilities in PowerQuery.

Microsoft has also introduced a tool called PowerPivot. This is a data modelling tool that runs the super server engine in SQL Server Tabular modelling. Wait, what? Never mind… It’s highly technical, but all that matters is that it’s the same power that supports many “modern financial IT infrastructure”.

Data Analysis beyond 1 million rows

The best feature of PowerPivot is that it gives business users the capability to analyse vast volumes of data at breakneck speed. There’s no longer the need to carefully choose what data you should bring in as sample sets to overcome the row limitations in standard Excel. Now you can simply choose the level at which you want to analyse and just how deep you want to dive.

Interconnected and interrelated

Once you have a model set up in Excel PowerPivot all your information is now interconnected and interrelated. There IS a bit of knowledge that you need to have about relating information, but if you’ve used VLOOKUP before then you already have this base knowledge.

Building amazing visual business tools with dashboards, business scorecards and KPIs has now become easier than ever. Your graphs, tables, and slicers (fancy filters) will all be related to the same information. If you want to change the context of a view to a particular region for example, selecting the slicer of a region will fast-filter all the data to show only that selection. No more having separate tabs, exports and building fixed views just for that view of the data.

What about governance?

With all things there is a measure of control that can be put in place. Not everyone needs to know how to PowerQuery and PowerPivot model the data. This can be the responsibility of an experienced business user that can then share the workbook with colleagues. Those colleagues can interact and, use the results of the dashboard and workbook.

So in conclusion: Stay calm and continue using Excel.

Cover Image - Kris Krug | 2013 Esri International User Conference - San Diego, CA

This post is sponsored by e-magination InfoSolutions. e-magination InfoSolutions is an information management and consulting firm specialising in Business Intelligence and Information Management.