Much has been made of the inherent risk in using spreadsheets for critical statistical functions within business. A lot of the research has been undertaken independently by academics as well as by the European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group (EuSpRIG) in conjunction with the End-Users Shaping Effective Software (EUSES) consortium.
Unsurprisingly the main known risks of spreadsheets cover a broad range of challenges, including human error through deliberate manipulation and general management.
Nearly 90% of all spreadsheets contain accidental calculation errors, according to IT Management professor Ray Panko.
With close to a billion Microsoft Office users across the globe, it is hardly surprising that there is some anxiety around the inherent risks associated with a largely unmanaged medium for gathering and collating data that can be manipulated, analyzed and reported.
The press makes big mileage out of the mishaps but rarely credits the sustained successes that businesses have with continuing to use spreadsheets in a variety of ways.
One important aspect of electronic spreadsheets, such as Microsoft Excel, that is frequently overlooked, is that many users have never been through any kind of formal training with how to use the product. In fact, the simplicity of a spreadsheet is probably one of the key reasons why their use in an office format is so ubiquitous.
Taking spreadsheets home
Three French academics—François-Marie Blondel, Éric Bruillard and Françoise Tort, with assistance from the French research ministry, ran a three-year study of spreadsheet use at high schools. They discovered that the use of spreadsheets in the classroom was “rather sparse” and essentially non-existent at home.
From this they concluded that “student competencies are weak.” Simple activities, like sorting data in a spreadsheet, for example, would be incredibly useful for students to be able to perform–but without the wherewithal to do this step, they are in a disadvantaged position.
While the lack of capability among students is understandable, among adults in the workplace it is problematic. Many modern day applications support various types of Excel or spreadsheet integration, primarily for data extraction. If users don’t know how to work with their data they cannot be as effective as those who have the knowledge and experience to effectively work with electronic spreadsheets.
The best way to address missing computer skills of course is to ensure that people are properly trained but one can make tremendous progress by simply exposing the workers of tomorrow to such technology today. I encourage every parent to enroll their child up for a couple of lessons in how to use electronic spreadsheets through a program like e-Learning for Kids or take the trouble to sit down with them 1:1 and show them how to do some basic functions. You can also direct your children to a good lesson on the topic, BBC GCSE Bitesize.
Spreadsheets are not just for numbers
While the use of spreadsheets is predominantly for the purposes of performing financial data collation and analysis I have noted their preferred use for other kinds of data as well. One interesting use case is in text string comparison. While there are tools for completing a comparison at a document comparison level, Excel works very well for this too. It’s Excel’s ability to perform word, character and paragraph analysis and comparison.
Integrated and controlled use of spreadsheets
If you’re a confident user of Excel or Google spreadsheets and you also work with SAP, Oracle EBS or Salesforce there’s good news. You can continue to use spreadsheets and integrate these with the business logic of those back-end systems in robust ways that help to maintain numeric and text data.
You can further wrap the electronic spreadsheet in an approval workflow and home the spreadsheet data files in a centralized repository on SharePoint.
While the idea of using a web form or a mobile device with such systems is very appealing, the reality is that for many scenarios there are many records that need to be maintained, created or extracted and an electronic spreadsheet is a great way to stage that data.
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