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You Suck at Excel


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Excel can do it all

Working with customers, I'm amazed at how even the biggest companies continue to use Excel for all kind of things. Finance departments are rapidly moving away from Excel while simultaneously using it for more tasks than ever before.

Excel is amazing. It’s one of the most commonly installed apps on every corporate desktop, it can do an unbelievable number of things. Need a quick chart or two? Excel has you covered. An inexpensive database? Sure, you can use Excel. The list is endless.



Excel is Great For Many Tasks

Quickly Build Charts

If you need to represent data in a visual way, Excel offers every manner of charting – pie charts, bar charts, scatter charts, clustered columns etc. These graphics add emphasis to marketing materials, business reports and presentations. If you need to transform tables of numbers into charts, Excel will quickly become one of your favorite tools. Not so much for complex visualization.

Quick Import/Export of Data

Practically every product in the market exports data as a CSV and can import CSV files. It’s a common, easy way to enter contacts into email marketing software, to export a list of users from Active Directory and a thousand other scenarios. While it’s not suitable for large data sets – thousands or tens of thousands of rows quickly get cumbersome – CSV files are a very easy, effective and widely supported way to transfer data between systems.

Personal Projects

Excel is a perfectly reasonable, affordable and familiar tool for things like managing a home improvement project. People know how to use it, it’s widely available and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to invest in commercial software for these one-off personal projects.

Project Management

Because of Excel’s versatility, it can be turned into a calendar, a Kanban board, or any other type of project management tracker with some effort. But a small project can turn into a mess pretty quickly in Excel, especially when it’s shared online with multiple team members.

For project management to work in Excel, several planets need to line up just right:

Everyone needs to respect the color-coding and general rules of the document, since Excel won’t automatically enforce it. You need to use external means to add notifications, deadlines, and notes, since that is not built into Excel.

The document needs to be available online

For ease of use, team members must mostly access the document via a computer. There are an increasing number of dedicated project management tools available on the market. Some, like Trello and Asana, have free versions, which means there is no need for a larger investment.

It’s not to say that the investment is not worth the return, however. Many other options, like Nextcloud+Onlyoffice, are modern tools that can simplify your life considerably.

And if you enjoy the spreadsheet feel of Excel for project management, Onlyoffice has formats that are reminiscent of traditional spreadsheets but that are cleaned up and augmented with features meant specifically to optimize your project management.

For team collaboration, it’s well worth the upgrade.

Analyzing and Reporting Data

Data Analysis and Reporting

Today, companies recognize the enormous value of their proprietary business data and the importance of being able to infer critical business insights by analyzing large volumes of data in real-time. However, this new-found urgency does not translate into new-found understanding of how to do it. As a result, 1 in 5 businesses use Excel for their main analysis tool and to communicate data and business performance.

Excel is a fine tool for what it’s good it but data analysis and reporting is not exactly its forte. First, people don’t exactly get excited about opening an Excel attachment. They don’t expect to view amazing insights.

Second, Excel does not distinguish between what’s important and what’s not. You can manually color rows and columns but, without things like interactive dashboards, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

There’s also the problem that Excel isn’t designed with historical data in mind. If your goal is to discover trends and act on them, you’ll need to manually design and maintain your spreadsheet so that it retains historical data.

Approval Processing

This is a very common use of Excel. Employees fill out an Excel travel request or purchase order and attach it to an email which is sent out to their manager for approval. This is repeated for each person in the approval chain who can review and comment manually in the spreadsheet before sending it on. If a signature is required, they must print, sign and scan. When complete, the spreadsheet is saved on a network drive.

While this seems simple enough, it’s rife with potential problems. Manual, email based workflow risks data loss, wasted time, and data inconsistency. There’s no built-in audit trail that tells you who approved what and when. Your business data is locked in spreadsheets from where it is hard to extract and analyze.

Once again, specialized workflow software for these approvals is affordable and easy to use. It includes powerful form design, built-in mobility, audit trails, business rules and much much more.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

Every successful business is built on a foundation of great customer relationships. CRM systems help you manage these relationships in an organized and collaborative way, especially as your business scales. It’s easy to record interactions with customers, share them with colleagues and track leads, contacts and opportunities.

You could build yourself a CRM in Excel. If you’re a solo entrepreneur or a small business just starting out with a tiny list of clients, Excel might work for you.

However, Excel is not designed to be a CRM system. You’ll struggle to expand beyond your smaller list, especially if you collaborate with other people.

A CRM system’s goal is to make it easier to work with your clients and streamline your day to day tasks in managing those relationships. Excel was never designed for that and you’ll waste time on workarounds rather than spending it on customers.

Excel Doesn’t Have to Solve All Your Problems

We love Excel and it’s incredibly popular for good reason. It’s suitable for a variety of tasks but it’s not designed for many situations where it’s commonly used.

Specialized, new online tools such as Onlyoffice combined with Nextcloud will let you keep using the excel interface you love. Enhanced with online collaboration and extending its features.



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