A spreadsheet is the tool of choice for a business starting up and requiring a quick and flexible low-cost solution to meet a business requirement, however as a business becomes more mature its requirements are likely to change over time and the same advantages can become disadvantages. Below I give you the 3 main reasons to move away from excel spreadsheets, but in my conclusion I also give you a couple of key factors to consider before doing so, because in some instances Excel is still the best tool for the job.
Maintenance is a Mission
Excel macros and VBA code is often initially created by non-developers, usually intelligent and knowledgeable people, but not trained software developers which normally results in something being created that is not only difficult to change, but if it should break, extremely difficult (see expensive) to fix. Whomever coded it initially is most likely the only person who truly knows how it works and every subsequent change will serve to further complicate matters, especially if the changes are undertaken by different individuals every time.
Cheap today, expensive tomorrow
While you don’t have software license fees, servers or cloud platforms to pay for you still need to factor in the maintenance costs of supporting the spreadsheet and the more code/macro heavy it is, the more expensive it is. The more ongoing changes that are required, the more expensive it gets. Who is making these changes? If it’s not a member of your team then where can you get access to Excel developers for short periods of time on a short notice period and at a reasonable price? To make it viable for software companies, they have to charge accordingly, if they are willing to take it on at all. I have been contacted countless times by businesses urgently needing an Excel developer to fix a business critical spreadsheet. Factor in the new versions of Excel and how that can affect a macro/code heavy spreadsheet and the costs mount up quicker than you can say “here is my letter to Santa”.
Security? Not so much
Data within these spreadsheets is often of a sensitive nature, but controlling security and access to this data is challenging. I have heard of many instances where former employees have emailed themselves spreadsheets with financial data or customer lists. This lack of security also impacts data integrity, who has made changes and to what? I have seen further instances of portfolio managers making investment decisions based upon incorrect data because another user made a change to a formula in a cell.
There are many scenarios where an Excel-based application is the ideal solution, it can add a great amount of flexibility, allowing a business to get something up and running in a very short period of time and usually for a low initial cost. The points above do illustrate that there are some situations where the cons will outweigh the pros and then it might be time to consider a move away to a more structured product. The great thing about making that move is that Excel is a fabulous prototyping tool allowing the gathering of all the essential business requirements by key users. So not all bad news!
George Toursoulopoulos is a technology specialist and Director at Synetec, one of the UK’s leading providers of bespoke software solutions.