Why did you get in Excel hell

The first thing that anyone needs to understand when they want to get rid of Excel, is that Excel is a solution, not a problem. Someone has made the Excel workbook to address a problem that could not be solved with the current system landscape offered by IT. This could be triggered by employees that do not know their way around the current system, even though the system is perfectly able to do it. It could be a new process which the current system simply isn’t ready for. It could be that the data in the current systems is incorrect but correcting it in those systems takes too much time/effort.

It all boils down to people, processes, data & technology. These areas are well known by most consultants and there are many ways of displaying the image below, but as this article has a focus on technology, I will display it with technology up front.

Imagine the size of each pillar is determined by the level of capability. My message with the above image is that the pillars need to be “the same size” to maintain a stable platform and avoid unnecessary workarounds. The level of capability of one of the four areas must match the capability of the other areas. If not, the user experiences friction and will try to use a powerful end-user tool like Excel to reduce that friction. Below are some examples of what happens when the capability of one area is bigger than the others:

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So why does Excel succeed where other technologies fail? It is because the (experienced) user can create new functionality, instantly. The functionality will always fit the user requirements, the user can incrementally increase functionality according to his proficiency, the solution can be adjusted for process changes and the data being used is easily decided by the user. Because the user is in full control; the technology is always on the same level as the processes, the people and the data.

That sounds quite good right? Then why do companies hate Excel? The biggest problem is the lack of a single common source of truth. People tend to have different numbers for the same thing, which leaves them to discuss the value instead of the story behind the value. It will keep people from making decisions or worse, making the wrong decision. There are many reasons why this issue and others arise; I will not dedicate an entire article on them, as you probably know most of them already. I will simply mention them and if you have questions, you can reach me.

  • Ownership: Excel workbooks are usually owned by 1 person, who you then fully rely on.
  • Reliability: Excel can become overly complex, decreasing transparency & reliability. They are often used in production without proper testing so bugs may persist for a long time.
  • Accessibility: Multiple users in one Excel workbook remains problematic.
  • Maintainability: Excel workbooks are seldom well documented. Version management is often neglected.
  • Processing: Excel depends on the computer of the user to process all the data.
  • Automation: Possible via VBA but requires more knowledge & adds complexity.
  • Stability: Complex/Big Excel workbooks tend to become unstable.

Compared to dedicated systems, the above issues are a heavy cost for the flexibility Excel has to offer. The next story, part 2, will explain the images a bit better and why they are important! Part three will be dedicated to how to deal with the technology piece of the story, without losing the flexibility desperately needed by most companies.

Finally I would like to thank Flatland for designing the image to fit this story.