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Ditch Excel? We Don’t Buy It…

Example of Excel's interface.

If you could build a time machine and travel back a few decades, you would be able to see the revolutionary impact Microsoft Excel had on business. The spreadsheet-based accounting software became the dominant finance and general reporting solution for corporations across all industries. Today, Excel still has a firm foothold on the corporate world, and still serves as the go-to application for spreadsheets that display accounting data, charts, graphs, pivot tables, and other metrics to gauge performance in various departments of an organization.

Excel’s Day Has Come?

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, finance chiefs from major corporations such as Adobe Inc. and P.F. Chang, among others, voiced their concerns about Excel’s failure to adapt to the changing methods of data retrieval, aggregation, and modeling. They spoke directly to the inconvenience it causes a work team to have to download, update, and upload many Excel spreadsheets rather than having information at their fingertips in a common, up-to-date, shared system.

In the FileMaker world, we’ve often faced piles of Excel spreadsheets being used as the source of important data. We’ve seen users struggle with who’s got the latest version, end up stymied trying to export data that is not well structured, and cope with mistakes when a cell definition gets inadvertently changed. Excel is a fantastic tool, but database developers (including those in the FileMaker community) cringe at the way it can often be misused.

Some software developers have suggested that the Wall Street Journal article above is right: it’s time to leave Excel. They cite shortcomings with multi-user document management (even with Office 365), security, data modeling, and interoperability with other technologies.

All those issues can come up when someone has used Excel as a DIY database. But if we may be candid – stop using Excel? That’s nuts.

Excel was the First Killer App.

The benefits to a small business or a workgroup using Microsoft Excel are self-evident. Before the creation of spreadsheets, simple processes like budgeting were painfully time-consuming. When the computer spreadsheet was first invented, it revolutionized business. VisiCalc was the first to bring a grid of columns and rows, combined with math functions to the market, followed by Lotus 1-2-3. Excel clearly now owns what was once a new category of software that we now take as a given.

Excel’s formulas and functions are used in nearly every industry. Professionals in finance, marketing, and accounting enjoy the ability to analyze and manage information. Rather than presenting data in the form of countless pages, with Excel, you can develop graphs, charts, and pivot tables — creating a better experience for the user. Excel can perform sophisticated calculations using functions like SUMIF, and COUNTIF. VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP are excellent for problem-solving. For mortgage payments, the PMT function will calculate the monthly amounts, and the IPMT formula will compute the value of the interest.

To say that Excel is the tool of choice for anyone in finance or accounting is to state the obvious.

Use the Right Tool for the Job.

Excel isn’t perfect. Juggling individual spreadsheets can be inconvenient, it’s easy for an inadvertent typo to throw off important calculations, and good luck with debugging. But here’s the real challenge users often face: Excel isn’t a database. You can wrongly structure information that then makes it nearly impossible to share with other technologies.

This is where dogma and pragmatism collide: use the right tool for the job. At times working in Excel is expedient, cheap, and can solve a problem either perfectly, or at least solve it “well enough” depending on the scenario. At other times, working with a platform like FileMaker and building a data-driven, lightweight app is the most sensible way to go.

At Codence, we use Excel all the time with our clients. We send status reports, export data and digest it, prep budgets for import, and do a ton of charting – all in Excel. Some problems our clients face are rightly solved with Excel and we’re big believers in straightforward common sense.

Bottom-line: we really love it when Excel fits and don’t love it when it doesn’t. All due respect to those CFOs and the Wall Street Journal, but: while our Genesis Financial Suite is truly a shared application for finance teams (and does much that Excel never could), we’d no sooner give up Excel than toss out our web browsers – and we don’t have the short-sightedness to suggest doing so to our clients either.

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