The Power and Fragility of Excel Driven Business

James Kwak in a very smart post about Excel:

But while Excel the program is reasonably robust, the spreadsheets that people create with Excel are incredibly fragile. There is no way to trace where your data come from, there’s no audit trail (so you can overtype numbers and not know it), and there’s no easy way to test spreadsheets, for starters. The biggest problem is that anyone can create Excel spreadsheets—badly. Because it’s so easy to use, the creation of even important spreadsheets is not restricted to people who understand programming and do it in a methodical, well-documented way.

As far as I know there is no way to add comments to document what a formula is actually doing, which is a massive problem when you are creating fairly robust and complex spreadsheets. I have a spreadsheet that I use to calculate budgets for commercial real estate. The spreadsheet breaks down the expenses by tenants, based on square footage, and whether they serve food or not.

There’s a lot going on in the spreadsheet, which is a strategic business tool for us, yet if another company got hold of it they would be lost. They would know what they were looking at, from a final data perspective, but have no clue how any of it was calculated. Simply put: it’s easier to build your own than steal mine.

That really shouldn’t be the case though. This really should be something where I can comment on the formulas so that those that follow me can use the spreadsheet without having to recreate it.

And this is only half the problem. More evident is how easy it is to break the spreadsheet just by adding in little things to help improve the readability. It’s awesome to have a powerful tool like Excel, but at the same time I always get the sense that I’m just moments away from breaking every formula in the spreadsheet.

I had always hoped Apple, or some other enterprising company, would tackle this problem — but that’s not been the case. Numbers just isn’t the same type of program (but I still like it) and every new program tackles a specific problem for specific people in a specific industry.

(Note: As my editor points out to me, Google Docs has a comments and discussion feature, but let’s face it: Google Docs isn’t Excel.)

Originally posted for members on: February 21, 2013
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