The slippery slope into Spreadsheet Hell

by

Spreadsheet Hell!
5 February 2016

I have a love/hate relationship with spreadsheets. I’ve seen them in the skilled hands of a master make a report sing and dance. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a spreadsheet somewhere literally making the coffee! As an ex software developer I love the rich functionality, the versatility, and the ease of use that has made spreadsheets the glue that holds many business processes together, and keeps everyone informed. I’ve also seen spreadsheets inflict pain and suffering as they clog up workdays and unintentionally misinform people. I’ve also seen the stress created when the spreadsheet master walks out the door for the last time!

It never starts out bad. There’s a specific need and the spreadsheet stepped up and delivered. It was quick and cost effective, and the person who created it is a hero. Same for the next step, and the next, and the one after that. All the time the spreadsheet is becoming more important and valuable. However, there are unseen problems creeping in as the business becomes more reliant on it:

  • Technical Debt: What makes a spreadsheet great is also what limits its scale – it’s a free form document. As a spreadsheet expands to include more information and calculations, or becomes more widely used, it swells in complexity and size. Things are done to make it work for the immediate needs, which create problems down the track. This technical debt piles up on the owner of the spreadsheet as they work harder and harder to do a good job. It also locks the author in, as they’re the only ones who know where all the number 8 wire is that’s holding it together.
  • Wastage: Getting larger and more complex spreadsheets authored in the same timeframe means working faster. Going faster means more mistakes, so effort to check and fix starts to increase, sometimes exponentially. More people get involved to cover the workload, adding to the error checking and fixing burden since they don’t know the spreadsheet like the author does. All this doing, undoing, and then redoing is wasted effort.
  • Manual Inefficiencies: Spreadsheets are not developed, they are authored. That one-hour task to do something once starts to balloon as the data entry & capture burden grows. They eat time as they get re-authored each time instead of being re-used!
  • Increasing Risks: Spreadsheets fulfil a valuable role for ad hoc analysis and presenting information. However, they’re a free form document that’s typically authored by hand. As businesses build spreadsheets from other spreadsheets, they inject significant data quality risk, break the audit trails back to the source of the information, and scatter information throughout the company. It’s ironic when a business spends millions on getting its systems of record right, then undermines it all by building a stack of spreadsheets that copy, change and manipulate the information in an uncontrolled way.
  • Each step down the slippery slope can appear to be the cheapest and easiest option. There is point at which the burden of using spreadsheets outweighs the cost of developing an alternative. That’s the best time to look at systemising – shifting the mind-set from authoring documents to designing reliable solutions.

    So here’s the main challenge I see most people face – how do they know when the cost & pain of continuing down the slope is greater than replacing it with a reporting solution? Today, with a smart and agile approach, the right tools and the right skills, it’s possible to start addressing this problem in small, practical steps.

    I recently helped a client with a spreadsheet that had taken months to write and everyone was scared to touch, because the author was long gone. I sucked the data into a database and built the same report within a couple of hours. They are now on a path back up the slope, nobody is scared of the report, and it will still work next week for anyone who needs it!

    So I’d encourage you to take a look at how spreadsheets are being used. If people are squinting to read them on their mobile phones or spending large chunks of time to make them work, then perhaps it’s time to look at better and easier ways to serve up the information.

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