Spreadsheets Anonymous: how to kick the habit and reclaim your life

15 March 2023

It's been over forty years since Apple first introduced the world to the digital spreadsheet. In that time they have become central to how many businesses run their operations and manage their forecasting. But at what point do you need to wean yourself off their practicality and find solutions better suited to your business's needs?

It's quite incredible the number of businesses that are run off a spreadsheet. What usually starts off life as a quick and simple solution for a problem quickly morphs into a complex beast of a thing, essential to the company's ability to operate.

Should this really be surprise though? The spreadsheet can make accessible and easy what otherwise would take a team of software engineers weeks or months to achieve. The very people that own the process usually also own the spreadsheet. So when you have a tool that allows you codify scenarios in minutes or hours, it can be hard to justify investing in an alternative. In a world of agility, there's nothing more agile than a spreadsheet.

But there comes a point where this practicality stops meeting the needs of the business, where the all-powerful spreadsheet starts hindering not enabling operational efficiencies, and where its deficiencies become a blocker to progress, a liability even. For all their power, spreadsheets were never designed for running your business-critical functions, no matter a billion-dollar business. They are a BandAid until they're not.

Accepting The Problem

For many businesses, accepting that they need to change is a place of real inertia. Business owners can be aware of the problem for years – even decades – while doing little to fix things. Their hesitancy is real and justified. In their minds, transformation can feel like shifting the bottom row of a house of cards.

They aren’t alone.

It may feel like the tech sector has been banging on about digital transformation for more than a decade, but the reality is that most large enterprises are still undergoing their digital transformation journey. In fact, as the pace of new technology innovation continues at breakneck speed, this state of constant transformation is the new norm.

Oftentimes, very real and urgent needs in customer service may become the "straw that broke the camel's back." This urgency can break through the wall of inertia and force business leaders to embrace immediate change.

Neverending Transformation

Gartner’s 2023 CIO Agenda Insights for the Banking and Investment Industry underlined the point that most businesses are still undergoing digital transformation in their business processes.

For CIOs in banking, the top enterprise priorities in 2023 are:

  1. Growth (23%)
  2. Digital transformation (22%)
  3. Consumer/user experience (21%)

Furthermore, 50% of CIOs in the financial sector said they’ll increase their spending on modernising legacy systems in 2023 – spending 8% more on this than in 2022.

Escaping Your Spreadsheet Lock-in

There are 5 areas of immediate benefits to unlocking the handcuffs to your spreadsheets.

  1. Workflow – With the spreadsheet, you lack even the most basic workflow functions. There is no guidance through the steps of a workflow, and crucially, no constraints. Step A should be complete and closed, before it flows to Step B and then C, but these controls simply aren’t there.

  2. Reporting – Moving away from the spreadsheet means gaining the ability to know more about your business – understanding what should be measured, and having the ability to track it. Spreadsheets are great at storing data about today. But what about yesterday, a week ago, or the past 90 days? The ability to pull trends can unlock huge business potential that was previously untapped.

  3. Auditing – For a spreadsheet-dependent business, the knowledge of what’s been done, and who has done it, can be difficult to sort out, or non-existent. Furthermore, the person making edits might not have the right permissions, and there is no gate-keeping to ensure this.

  4. Security – Air-tight security simply isn’t possible with shared Google Documents and multiple stakeholders. It’s crucial to know who is allowed to do what – to set roles and permissions for each user. This is nearly impossible with spreadsheets, where access to read/write modes are the only function to control roles.

  5. Useability – How easy is the system to use? A complex spreadsheet displays too much information all of the time. Instead, what helps with productivity is presenting a simplification to users who might only need to access a form or some simple input fields.

Key Takeaways

While spreadsheets have a place in every business, you need to determine if they are holding you back: are they preventing you from working smarter or are they posing a serious risk to your business?

The first step is to recognise the problem. Simply put, are you missing better ways of working because of analogue thinking or constraints in your existing toolset (not just spreadsheets)?

The next step is to figure out how you can transform your working practices for the better using digital technologies. In all likelihood the findings of this stage will have far-reaching consequences to your business. Ultimately, technology is the enabler but it only supports the change you seek.

How you get there will be the subject of future articles so watch this space.

Article By
blog author

Tara Simpson