Members in business: is it time to do without Excel?

Excel has found itself facing stiff competition in recent years. With a proliferation of applications offering instant reports, visualisations and forecasts, it can be hard for the old, manual processes to keep up.

Excel is still an extremely popular tool used by the vast majority of finance teams. But with increasing demand for the finance function to provide more up-to-the-minute insights, spending less time on transactions and more time on value-add activities, the pressure is on to automate as many tasks as possible – and that is not one of the programme’s strengths.  

Before the pandemic, a survey of chief financial officers found that Excel skills had slipped from first to last priority when recruiting. In its place, they prize prowess in other technologies that can rapidly and robustly process and analyse data. Covid-19 has shown the frailties of spreadsheets – and the need for more versatile and robust scenario forecasting tools.

So is Excel on the way out, or can accountants still not do without it? Our panel of members give their views on the value of Excel.

If you get Excel right, you can’t beat it

Clare Elliott, CFO, ILUX

Excel is such a powerful application that I can’t see it ever leaving the accounting world. It might change in appearance and format – it is having to compete with some very pretty front-end applications nowadays – but the back-end is never going to die. In fact, lots of new fancy applications often establish themselves on the base of Excel, and often it is possible to upload your data from Excel into the package, which indicates just how much Excel is used by everyone.

It’s straightforward and easy to use once you understand it (although initially it’s incredibly complex so it does take lots of training and experience!). But further than that, it is possible to present data in a more user-friendly way. It can be formatted in lots of different styles and colours so that presenting to others (be that the board of your organisation, or externally to a client, for example) you can achieve the wow factor in your presentation.

Personally, I’m Excel dependent; I don’t know how I would perform some functions without it. Do I wish I was less dependent on it? Not really, no. I don’t see a problem with it, I don’t see it as old fashioned and out of date (yet).

If anything, I continue to learn from Excel. I still come across functionality that I didn’t realise existed. Each time I think of something that would be good and I search for it I’m surprised that it’s been there all along and I have just never come across it before.

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of Excel, but I’ll be the first to admit it does have some drawbacks. To create a presentation, you have to put a lot of effort into the formatting and styling. In order for it to be clever, you also have to be clever. The power of it is huge, but it’s completely dependent on the user. Compare that to Fathom for example, (another application I use); I simply click a button, and some very attractive reports appear before me, without any effort.

It also depends on the size of your organisation and how many people will be accessing one Excel document at any one time. While Excel can be locked and protected, that’s often not practical. If the team is using a live spreadsheet showing up-to-date information that users are constantly accessing and changing, then an Excel spreadsheet is fraught with risks. Users have to be fully trained to use each spreadsheet, understanding how it has been formatted and the consequences of each of their actions within that spreadsheet, as one small change in one cell somewhere in a large document can affect many other calculations throughout the spreadsheet, and finding that one error can be very time consuming.

Using Excel in the correct way for the correct purpose is almost impossible to beat. The problems arise when it isn’t being used properly in each individual situation.

Excel is a cornerstone of our work, but I wish we were less dependent on it

Farha Jamadar, finance manager, Todd Doors

I guess the answer to this question is how technologically advanced is your organisation? Ultimately, I don’t think Excel is on its way out. It is the foundation for a lot of organisations to streamline and produce reporting. This could change; nowadays everything is replaceable. The function and foundation Excel provides can be integrated into many ERP systems. Excel can be avoided and reporting is customised for your needs.

Using Excel is around 60% of my work, so I’m pretty dependent on it. But ideally, I’d like this element to be automated and essentially use a system where my reports are configured and produced for me. The reason I use Excel is that it enables me to customise and review data in different formats. But systems are becoming more sophisticated, which could eliminate the need for Excel.

Excel is a tool that works how you want it. You customise it and manipulate it to get what you want. But it’s error-prone. There are glitches, shutdowns and corruptions that you don’t need. Excel has a capacity limit and when it hits that limit, it’s redundant. It’s difficult to get it to do the work you need it to do.

I could not work without it, yet there is a lot that could be done to update it and develop it. I feel like it’s still can be pretty outdated, almost as if the core information needs to be developed.

There is always something new to learn with Excel

Sanjiv Bali, senior project accountant, A2 Dominion

Although new cloud systems have the ability to extract, assemble and analyse data, I believe Excel is here to stay due to the unlimited features it holds as well. Due to the unlimited range of functions it has, there is always something new to learn within Excel.

I’d say I was very dependent on it, as any data that I extract from any system is exported into Excel format for analysis and report preparation. From my perspective, Excel works very well in analysing large volumes of data that can then be transformed into various different reporting and graphical options in relaying information to users.

If I was to sum up my relationship with Excel, I’d say it’s definitely a data tool that I always prefer to use.

Mark Rowland is a journalist and former editor of Accounting Technician and 20 magazine.

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