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Spreadsheets are a ubiquitous tool in the business world but they have limitations and if you are trying to manage critical business processes, including business continuity or risk programs, using them you are making life difficult for yourself. Andrew Dinning explains why…

If there’s one tool that nearly every business uses or has used in the past, it’s spreadsheets. Whether you’re an Excel diehard or you take advantage of cloud-based Google Sheets, it’s long been a useful tool for personal use and basic data analysis. But what if we told you that it might be holding your business back?

While they’re a powerful solution that many are comfortable using, spreadsheets are no longer equipped to deal with the complex, data-related tasks you carry out for your business. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of businesses still heavily rely on spreadsheets for mission critical tasks but they simply aren’t equipped to deal with these functions at an enterprise level. To be blunt, businesses shouldn’t rely on spreadsheets for any of their complex data requirements.

By implementing a solution tailored to your business needs, you can improve customer satisfaction, increase staff productivity, and ensure your data is always accurate and up to date.

How are businesses sharing spreadsheets?

Spreadsheets are commonly shared around businesses, with 30 percent of respondents saying most of their spreadsheets are shared. Many businesses also still rely on emails to share this company data. There are four major issues with this:

  • Email communications don’t encourage conversation about the data to identify solutions and improvements.
  • It’s very time-consuming to blend data, so data is not readily available for employees who need to see it, when they need to see it.
  • Email volume is high, particularly now, which means important data is greatly diluted in an employee’s inbox – far from optimal when business data is crucial.
  • Sending static reports means the data is often already out of date by the time you press ‘send’.

Why using spreadsheets could be holding you back

I'm not saying that spreadsheets are entirely unsuitable in a modern business. They have a lot of good use cases, and many people use them every day. To an extent, they’re great for gathering and manipulating data. However, they are also very restrictive and require a lot of manual input and effort. Some of the biggest issues with using spreadsheets for all data-related tasks include:

Disparate data sources equal data chaos
You can’t accurately measure or analyse your data without bringing it all together. ’Data chaos’ occurs when your data is disparate and difficult to merge. Manually copying and pasting data from spreadsheet to spreadsheet is time-consuming, manual, and very frustrating. It can be prone to human error.

Your data is outdated and unreliable
If your data isn’t brought together into a solution which updates automatically, it quickly goes out of date and therefore becomes unreliable.

You can’t cross-reference with older data
It’s difficult to track new and old data, because spreadsheets aren’t equipped to deal with large volumes of information. However, updating spreadsheets with only newer data means you miss out on the ability to spot trends over time or compare insights across longer time periods.

You’re not making the best use of analysis tools
You can do a lot of different analysis in spreadsheets, but a lot of people tend to have a handful of graphs they regularly use and feel comfortable with, or pivot tables. This method of data visualisation leaves you vulnerable to data distortion. Data needs to be presented in the right way to find meaningful insights. Line graphs aren’t always going to cut it. It’s easy for formulas to go wrong in spreadsheets too.

Data security issues
Many spreadsheets don’t have strong security features – especially if they’re being shared on email. Using recognised cloud solutions with market-leading security protocols means team members can collaborate on spreadsheets together. However, that isn’t intended for more than a few users at once. Plus, data can be changed or deleted – so there’s usually more than one version of the spreadsheet anyway.

Moving away from spreadsheets will also help your employees avoid opening malicious spreadsheets from hackers. It’s well-established that most cyber-attacks start with an email, and 48 percent of those emails have a malicious document, such as a spreadsheet, attached. If your people don’t have to rely on sharing data in Excel, they can more easily spot suspicious attachments.

So, should you move away from spreadsheets?

Most spreadsheet programs were designed for data storage and basic analysis. Trying to use it for anything else is going to result in frustration, errors, double data entry, wasted time, and security issues.

There are better solutions that will also allow you to do so much more than basic analysis and storage – the exact solution you need will depend on your unique business needs and what you’re looking to achieve.

Don’t let spreadsheet difficulties and data chaos hold you back. It’s time your business implemented solutions that meet your needs, instead of struggling to use spreadsheets in ways that they weren’t built for.

The author

Andrew Dinning is Head of Data & Analytics Solutions Architecture at Perfect Image, a UK based IT managed services company. With expertise in technologies such as Qlik, Alteryx and the Microsoft Stack, Andrew works to support organisations in achieving value from tailored technical solutions.

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