Is it time to move beyond spreadsheets?

From scrappy startups and tech giants to our oldest corporations, we have a long running tradition in business, the spreadsheet. They gained broader popularity in 1990’s as they became easier to use and made it much simpler to manage business processes outside of crunching numbers (Check out this Infographic for more timeline details.)

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Few words in business elicit such strong and typically unfavorable responses as spreadsheets. Most of us have a love/hate relationship with them, but as hard as you might have tried, they are really hard to get rid of.

  • Need to start tracking a new project? Spreadsheet.
  • We’re building out a marketing content calendar, tracking team performance or doing a P&L report? Yep, spreadsheets.
  • Trying to get multiple teams on the same page and ready to collaborate on critical business data? Yeah, you guessed it.

The problem is that because they are viewed as convenient and inexpensive (though we can argue the validity of that perception), they are the default option.

But when we use spreadsheets as a data communication and reporting tool, convenient goes right out the window.

After all, we most likely be referencing at least half a dozen tools and typically spending several hours each week collecting all of the necessary data to track it in our precious spreadsheet. And still the result is often a dizzying and intimidating array of columns and rows — raw data that’s hard to make sense of, hard to collaborate on and hard to turn into actionable insight.

In the face of an ever growing number of data sources and with the continual push automate tasks and be more productive, you’re probably wondering, “Is it time to move beyond spreadsheets?”

I think you can guess our take on the matter, but let’s look at the reasons why.

Spreadsheets are time consuming, tedious and inefficient

For the purpose of collecting and reporting on data, spreadsheets are a very manual, time consuming process. As the number of tools and potential data sources continues to grow and evolve, we find ourselves regularly adding a silo or a step to this process.

A quick example: A few years ago, I was managing two teams totaling nearly 20 people and was tasked with tracking metrics from about half a dozen tools, as well as some spreadsheets. At the time, about 80% of the data came from a handful of Oracle reports and I’d spend about 30 minutes a day pulling and crunching numbers. Then we started our migration to cloud solutions like Salesforce, Taleo and a few others. While I was excited about improved processes and efficiencies with these new tools, reporting was a disaster. Within a year, Oracle contained almost none of the data we needed and ended up spending 10+ hours a week pulling data to track daily/weekly/monthly numbers.

So much for productivity and efficiency!

Spreadsheets are often inaccurate

On top of being a time consuming effort, spreadsheets are historically inaccurate. In fact, one report indicated that nearly 90% of spreadsheets contain errors. Since we’re often using spreadhseets as a way to collaborate on our business data, we compound the potential for miscalculations and data inaccuracies. We don’t always have time to double check the data and formulas before a meeting.

As a result, we’re often discussing conflicting information, inaccurate data, or misaligned expectations of how we use and measure that data.

Spreadsheets don’t encourage data collaboration

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In the old days, your only option was to send an email or walk to a colleague’s desk to manually gather data for updating your spreadsheets. Even with newer cloud options like Google Sheets and Office 365, it hardly feels like a collaborative effort to have everyone fill in their respective individual and team metrics so we can properly report on team performance.

Of course, we can set up daily/weekly calendar reminders and hope everyone is able to get the necessary data together and updated on time. More often, we spend the last minutes before important meetings digging through tools and sheets for the needed information. Even worse, we’re left starting at Slack, waiting for that elusive message from a colleague with the information we still need.

Spreadsheets limit data transparency

The purpose for generating all these numbers and reports in the first place is to have the necessary information for communicating business performance, making data driven decisions, performing 1:1 coaching, spotting trends, and being a more transparent organization. A 2015 survey by Censuswide showed 80% of employees want their managers to show more performance data.

Unfortunately spreadsheets, even when shared, often go unread. It’s tough to pull out the truly critical information so that you can share highlights and key points with relevant stakeholders. Plus, they don’t have a great method for including like comments and annotations that put the data into critical context.

Spreadsheets are hard to understand

One of the biggest strengths of a spreadsheet is also a huge weakness, it is packed full of data. They’re great for an analyst who wants to do some heavy number crunching.

But spreadsheets aren’t a great medium for sharing this information with a layperson. If you’re not familiar with this data set in particular or if you’re just not particularly data adept in general, seeing hundreds of rows and columns of numbers rarely leaves you feeling informed, aligned as a team or motivated to keep pushing toward company goals.

All this has me asking, why do we still rely so heavily on spreadsheets?

It seems evident that the business world will never be completely spreadsheet free. Just as many of us still take meeting notes with a pen and notepad, one-off tracking, mapping out items, quick data blending, etc, will always have a place in Excel and Google Sheets; it doesn’t always make sense to bring in a new tool for the job. What we can do however is use a few criteria to evaluate our reporting processes to determine if we are relying too heavily on spreadsheets and need to move to towards a more automated KPI tracking dashboard:

  • Are we dedicating a significant amount of time to bring together data from multiple sources?
  • Is this a fairly standardized process we are repeating on a regular cadence? (Daily, Weekly)
  • Does data accuracy come up often in our business conversations?
  • Are there multiple contributors and consumers of the information?
  • Are we struggling to get team members engaged with the data?

If you answer yes to even one or two of the above questions, it’s probably time to seek a spreadsheet alternative. You’re already working hard to be data-driven. Learn how to simplify those efforts and augment the results. Try Notion and experience a better way.

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Written by

Business guy & philosopher. Try to leave the world a little better than you found it.

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