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Excel Still is not an Enterprise Reporting Solution

Using Excel as an enterprise reporting solution will always put you on a path to failure.

At a recent conference, I had a frustrating conversation. The person I was speaking with was frustrated also. Her manager was an avid MS Excel user. Even with better tools readily available, he insisted on storing data and reports in Excel. Even worse, he forced his employees into the same low standard.

My "Excel victim" related how many data issues occurred could have been easily avoided. A co-worker did not understand how to use the formulas correctly, which resulted in the wrong totals being reported. The list continued and most of it was related to lack of skill or attention to detail. Even when my Excel victim would plead with her manager to use the better tools freely available within the organization for an automated and accurate process, he refused. Instead he clings to MS Excel as if it were some savior -- using it as an excuse to avoid learning or just feel some level of control. At this point, I was rolling my eyes because I thought everyone knew that Excel was not an enterprise reporting solution.

I fantasized about phoning the manager to enlighten him about Excel. Scold him for not trusting his employee's advice. Clarify how he could improve his organization -- this month! In my mind, it ends with him apologizing and shedding remorseful tears. Aren't all criminals sorry when they are caught?

I suspect the real conversation would end differently. Many smaller organizations or departments within larger organizations do not understand the issues surrounding Excel. It is flexible, powerful, and readily available. However, if you want to make a data issue worse - give users Excel for tracking. Suddenly everyone in the department is tasked with managing a tiny database. The data accuracy depends on the creator's skill and attention to detail. I get it -- some things can be managed by a spreadsheet. But even I agree that list is so short it could be tracked with Excel.

If everyone has a personal database, then how do you know which one is the truth? Who in the office has the most accurate count of widget sales or complaints? If you are keeping a running total of something, then how do you manage change? Say you sell 1,000 widgets and a third are returned. How do you investigate that? How do you prevent the AUTOSUM being in the wrong column? When does the data become too much to manage? And talk about duplication of effort.

When organizations do get serious about data and want to treat it as a managed asset, the fun begins. As a consultant, I witness "how the sausage is made" a lot. I am privy to internal discussions that range from compelling to exhausting. A common one is how do we measure <blank>. When individuals or departments have been autonomous for too long, different rules develop. Their counting rules show a lack of skill and aren't based on real business reasoning. "Just don't count x because we don't always see the email about it." If another department finds x crucial or did solve the issue, then you have an epic argument. It's not fun to watch the passions collide in a meeting.

When asked to settle a dispute, I am always on the same side. Have a repeatable process that produces an accurate answer and serves your end user. Departments must agree on counting rules and data item names. It is that simple. Spreadsheets then are used for their intended purpose of tracking short term situations or ad hoc analysis.

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Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
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Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing