How to Excel at Not Using Excel

How to Excel at Not Using ExcelLet’s face it – despite all the talk and evangelizing we’ve been doing about the dawn of the data-driven organization (I plead guilty as well), there’s an annoying little fact that keeps things real. Much of the data we depend on is still, gulp, being stored and processed within Excel spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets remain, as they were when first introduced in the early 1980s, a vehicle of extreme convenience. People can plug in whatever data and variables they want, and come to quick conclusions, beyond the confines of reporting tools and dashboards.

A survey of data managers, conducted by Information Today, Inc. found that 37% say that Excel spreadsheets were their primary sources of information for business and analytics.

But Excel – especially the earlier versions still seen on many computers – has many limitations, including lack of collaborative features. Plus, there’s no guarantees that decision-makers will be working with the latest data.

So, how does one go about breaking, or at least weaning, employee decision-makers off the Excel habit?

One way that’s being tried is the commandment-from-on-high approach. A recent report from the Wall Street Journal observes that a number of prominent CFOs are telling their staffs to simply cut it out. “CFOs …are on a drive to reduce how much their finance teams use Excel for financial planning, analysis and reporting,” the article’s author, Tatyana Shumsky, notes.

In its place, they are tapping into cloud-based services that deliver reporting, number-crunching capabilities as well as collaboration.

This is all good, but in my experience, I have seen mixed results from executive fiat. Attempting to ban a certain tool may appear to work on the surface, but underneath, decision-makers are still pulling in the apps they feel works best to get their jobs done. And spreadsheets, being as ubiquitous and handy as they are, aren’t going to go away anytime soon.

Sorry, but attempting to ban certain things and push other things into the cloud may create more chaos than it is supposed to resolve. Instead, the best approach is a multi-faceted data governance initiative that builds awareness, educates and lays in guardrails for managing what data eventually gets translated into corporate transactions and decisions that materially impact the business.

A solid, successful data governance effort needs to accompany any cloud migration. Such an effort is about people, it’s about ensuring trust – trust in the data that is guiding the enterprise, trust in decisions, and trust between the people using the data.

In a very insightful post here at Perspectives earlier this year, Kevin Fleet put it very well. “With business people on board, you can have conversations about how technology can solve real problems, and decide which moves provide the greatest and most immediate value—whether by minimizing risks or seizing opportunities,” he stated. “If part of your strategy is to use the cloud to enable better integration of, and access to, data, for more efficient use of data across your enterprise, all those decisions at the governance level help you stay on that path, even as other priorities are addressed. Strong data governance brings together the right stakeholders, and transforms the conversation around IT from a big cost center to instrumental to achieving business goals.”


How Data Governance Keeps Your Journey to Cloud on Track

Bottom line: You probably can’t just tear things out of users’ hands. But it pays to work with them to see what their requirements are, and build solutions – preferable less complex– that meet those needs.