Post: For Analytics, Excel Isn’t the Best Tool for the Job

General Motors workers filling out an enormous spreadsheet like chalkboard

For Analytics, Excel Isn’t the Best Tool for the Job

Whether for financial analysis, logistics, sales or HR, businesses have lots of data to report on. Much of this data resides – for at least part of the time – in spreadsheets. But while Microsoft Excel has been the spreadsheet tool of choice for three decades, it’s not necessarily the best option for your organization.

Usually we work with Excel by copying and pasting data into cells. Problem is, Excel is not a modern GUI, but rather an example of skeuomorphism – a digital version of paper spreadsheets. Unfortunately, unlike paper, Excel relies on cursor placement, and it’s easy to build or fire the wrong function by simply clicking on the wrong cell.

How often does that happen? In my experience, too often. One reason for this: Excel has been around for so long that business people are expected to pick it up with no training, and unfortunately, a base level of knowledge is not always adequate. Most departments have a few Excel experts, while the rest of us struggle along using Stack Overflow or Microsoft Help. Not surprisingly, according to one report, one in five organizations has suffered financial losses from spreadsheet mistakes.

Of course, even if your workbook is flawless, there is another liability: as soon as you download live data to Excel (unless you are using a product with refresh capabilities – more on that in a minute) it becomes stale data. A database should be the single source of truth for an organization’s data, that’s why enterprises invest millions in complex data replication functionality. With Excel, multiple downloads of the same data are likely to hold different metrics.

Spreadsheet Hell

Spreadsheets an operational reporting tool, but not the best tool for analytics. For example, Excel lets you do lots of data manipulation. You can sort data, write functions, and apply color coding to identify outliers. But it’s not easy to reproduce your steps. When you save, your changes are committed, so there’s no way to go back. If you see several unnamed tabs in a workbook, it’s a good indication that they were used as a workaround when analyzing the data. And of course, any time you save an updated spreadsheet, you propagate a new version, one with slightly different data and a different file name. Not surprisingly, trying to reconcile these different versions of the same file is called “spreadsheet hell.” 

There are other shortcomings, but perhaps the one that presents the most risk is that there is no way to certify the integrity of data in an Excel file. Anyone can make up numbers on a spreadsheet, and since there is no security by user role, anyone who is able to view a spreadsheet can see all the data on it. This presents a serious risk of exposure to organizations grappling with locking down and removing personal information in the wake of GDPR.

Self-Service Reporting and Analytics Can Help

A tool doesn’t last into its third decade without proving its value, and this is certainly true of Excel. There is a generation of Excel experts who will want to continue using this solution. How can an organization keep these users happy, while safeguarding themselves from data errors? 

Modern BI tools like Orbit Analytics can meet the growing demand for data insights and fill in the gaps created by traditional spreadsheet applications. You can export Excel files that are secured by role and then automatically refresh the data using ExcelEdge. And you can upload Excel files to include data from other sources in your analysis. An intuitive drag and drop GUI interface makes it easy to explore your data, then create and share your insights using rich data visualizations. With Orbit, you can continue to give your Excel users the tool they want, while ensuring data quality and security for your organization.

Should you use Excel, or another tool? Find out in our on-demand webinar Have You Reached Your Excel Breaking Point?

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