Following the feedback I received from the earlier article titled 3 Reasons to move away from Excel, it seemed necessary to talk about why it would make sense not to move away from an Excel-based solution. There are obvious reasons why you would create a solution within Excel, but this article discusses why you would stick with it in the medium to long term and furthermore what you need to plan for initially in order for it to be robust enough to deliver value in the long term.
When requirements are ever-changing, when inputs can vary regularly and outputs needs to be highly configurable then Excel is still an excellent choice. Its weakness is, in this scenario, its strength. While using an application built in compiled code that sits on a relational database for the same scenario can add robustness and scalability, it is also slower than Excel in terms of change. There is a trade off and if the environment is very dynamic, Excel might be the most sensible choice.
Everybody is a coder
In certain environments where requirements require a very specific skill set and where the ability to learn basic programming skills is a complimentary mindset, it can make sense to have the users develop their own applications. A few of our clients are actuaries who are ideal candidates for that scenario. They can pickup VBA coding quickly, they obviously understand the requirements and in that scenario Excel can be the perfect platform. When a more permanent data store is not required and solutions are used for repeatable calculations, a non-trained programmer with all the business knowledge can be very beneficial.
Cheap today, could also be cheap tomorrow
Software licenses, database licenses, support contracts, servers, cloud platforms and development tools are all a necessity in a more structured development environment. There are costs on both side of the fence, it’s simply a case of weighing up the costs on both sides along with the requirements as a whole. In the above scenarios actuaries are most definitely well equipped to build their own Excel-based solutions, but the costs of that salary needs to be taken into account.
Excel and Longevity
So, you have decided it makes sense to build or keep an existing solution in Excel, how do you ensure a return on your investment? We get called in fairly regularly to perform Excel System Audits and the primary reason for that is the solution is not performing as it once was (deteriorating performance or causing errors). Often that is combined with a team member having moved on and the solution is extremely difficult to take on for other team members. Managing code of any kind, even within an Excel application, is made infinitely easier if certain basic programming principles are adhered to and those principles can be relatively easily learnt with some initial training. An initial audit can reveal instances of non-optimal coding practises and potential problem areas along with how to correct them. Documentation is another big area that we find can make a difference. As tedious as it might be to create it makes a significant difference and should be absolutely essential. The true rewards of documentation are reaped when that team member moves on.
George Toursoulopoulos is a technology specialist and CEO at Synetec, one of the UK’s leading providers of bespoke software solutions.