Can We Live Without Excel?

Posted on August 4, 2015 in Accounting

The business world is an interesting place. The methodology, language, meetings, and even the people are so different from what I’m used to and I never thought I’d be a part of any of it. Obviously it would make sense then that when I was thrown into the land of startups, customer relationship management, and entrepreneurship, it almost irked me as a lover of writing that I knew nothing of business terminology, except of course for Excel. I definitely knew about that. Who doesn’t?

Microsoft Excel was marketed as a spreadsheet program back in 1982 but was originally named Multiplan. In 1987, Microsoft changed the name of Multiplan to Excel and officially launched it for Windows. It quickly became the most popular microcomputer application due to an easy-to-use interface, simple calculation features, and a rather aggressive marketing campaign surely didn’t hurt either. With the release of Version 5 in 1993, Excel cemented its place as the dominant spreadsheet application for PCs and Apple computers. Almost every business uses Excel in one form or another. Spreadsheets are easy to create and update when needed, and the documents are easy to share with the right parties. In essence, how could there possibly be anything negative associated with it?
Let me clarify by saying that Excel is a fantastic software. I’ve used it on many occasions but it does have its limitations that others have tried to fix with their own software to allow for more flexibility. Excel can be complicated to use and requires a great deal of training in order to understand most of its applications. Versions 8.0 through 11.0 of Excel could only accommodate about 64,000 rows and 256 columns, which looks like a large enough number to get any job done but could still be insufficient for larger projects.

What businesses primarily want to do is to build invoices, timesheets, accounting invoicing, purchasing orders, etc. and they want to make sure that the consolidation of all data and reports is possible and seamless. This is where Excel can have a problem, as it is almost impossible to consolidate data and reports using the software, since the files are shared using different methods such as email and drives. Another, more common occurrence with Excel that could possibly make it troublesome is the fact that inputting data on it can become tedious and extremely time consuming. A few employees with 50,000 monotonous forms to input can easily foster more than a few errors and will culminate in issues arising down the road. In work like data management, many subset directories must be created which leads to Excel data becoming lost in a sea of never-ending files. Finally, linking problems can occur with Excel formulae. It can become very easy to lose control of what is linked to whom if many formulae are improperly attended to. Furthermore, it can become extremely complex to manage when Excel contains too much data, as well as the fact that Excel can have a hard time executing files that are very large in size.

Business platforms like Microsoft Dynamics CRM, salesforce.com, and Zoho have stepped in to try and incite a movement away from Excel by offering simpler solutions to business users in the form of pre-made templates, easy to follow guidelines, little to no required coding, and of course, service on the cloud. Say you and a few colleagues have a common Excel file and you must edit it at different times for your boss. If the edits are sent at different times, more often than not one will overwrite the other, newer one, which leads to data loss and confusion. The cloud can rectify this overwriting problem of updating and editing Excel documents through software that updates instantly and “on-the-fly”. On the down side, a framework like salesforce.com does not expand to many business solutions outside of its specialty (CRM) and it does require a business user to have some knowledge of coding in order to use its app building feature.

Now let me talk about IT for a moment and explain how moving away from using Excel is actually making it obsolete and unnecessary in a company. From a financial standpoint, building a model in Excel can become extremely complex, especially when explaining your plan to an IT department that is not ingrained in your business. These days, people are preferring not to get IT involved in their business, or remove them altogether, because it saves them a lot of money. Forbes has said that $32.2 billion was spent last year by IT departments alone. If the relationship between a business and IT is lacking anyway, why foster a disconnected relationship? The introduction of Software as a Service (SaaS), to give an example, is supposed to be an answer to the question of IT being needed at all in small to medium enterprises.
Standalone mobile apps are quickly becoming the future of online business application software. Since more of what customer-facing employees do online is now on smartphones, tablets, and other smart devices, companies that do not jump on the mobile bandwagon can miss out on a whole range of opportunities from increased functionality to fostering better personal relationships with clients. Simply put, going mobile is an essential revenue generator, especially if your web app has CRM or accounting functionality. Apps like FreshBooks, for example, offer simple and intuitive cloud accounting for invoices, expenses, reports, etc. that in many ways is more accessible than using the traditional Excel spreadsheet. The ability to also build web apps on the go with programs like Codiqa also allows more flexibility for employees and less dependence on third party departments that may cost you an arm and a leg.

We definitely live in a world where spreadsheets are seen as the solution to anything that cannot be done in the enterprise business system. Excel simply can’t change and grow at the speed of business, which opens up doors for simpler solutions that people should be aware and take advantage of. I know I have, and pretty soon, my spreadsheet days might just be over.

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