The File-less Organization: Why Excel Isn’t Enough for Businesses

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by Saar Bitner

I recently sat in a work meeting in which a few colleagues were presenting some statistics from the just finished quarter. Everyone had, of course, prepared a few Excel-generated spreadsheets and graphs to present. Very quickly, we realized that although every person in the room was supposedly working with the same data, each had slightly different data sets, different charts, and in turn different conclusions.

Seemingly small inconsistencies have a tendency to have big consequences on business decisions, especially as we now find ourselves relying on big data analysis more and more. What’s really surprising to me is that I’ve encountered this problem multiple times in various workplaces; and the culprit is almost always insufficient reporting software.

The most common spreadsheet software is Excel, and I’ve also seen the use of Google Spreadsheets increase, but these two are clearly not enough anymore. Instead, many serious business are pushing beyond these two sub-par options and fully adopting a dashboard software instead.

Is it Time to Ditch Excel?

While Excel is the most popular spreadsheet and reporting software in the world, it is no longer sufficient for many businesses. The program starts slowing down with large amounts of data and doesn’t allow inputting more than a very limited number of rows and columns. So limited, I think, that most big businesses cannot rely on Excel to perform even their smaller analysis projects.

Most Excel users store files on their own computer; if several people want to work on a report using the same data, they must all have identical copies of the file.

Usually, when it involves more than two people, it is almost impossible to keep everyone up to date on the latest version of the file. Each time an analyst begins building a report from the existing data, or even just combs through it, inevitably, values change. This is especially true when there are multiple users running analysis on a single data set. Each person tends to make his own changes: by adding formulas, generating new columns or rows, consolidating data, or customizing the period of time of a data set.

Editors also tend to make changes at different times and frequencies. Even with just a couple of users using and maintaining different versions of the same files, it’s easy to lose track of who has the best or most recent data. Even if all the data that’s being updated and revised by multiple people can fit into a single file, managing it can be a massive headache.

For example, let’s say user A generates an initial report and sends it to three people. User B notices some inconsistency in the data and amends it, but only sends it back to User A. Meanwhile User C has added a new field with his own data and saved it in his own computer. User D adds some formulas and then sends the file directly to his own boss, User E. It’s easy to see how these five people could show up at a meeting, each looking at a completely different version of the data.

Does Google offer a quick fix?

To overcome the collaboration issues they have with Excel, some businesses try to use Google Spreadsheets. Sure enough, with Google Drive and its myriad applications anyone can open and edit a document that is updated in real time for every other user.

Though it is indeed a great collaboration tool, Google Spreadsheets is even more limited than Excel when it comes to the size of data the app can handle, as well as its ability to mash-up data coming from other sources.

The alternative: dashboard software

Once the major (or, popular) options are invalidated, what alternative is left for professionals who need to analyze data? The answer is: business intelligence software. These tools aggregate data across the organization’s various data sources and present it in one centralized dashboard. Analytics and reporting is subsequently done using this dashboard, while the raw data sources are no longer fiddled with by each user and thus, remain uniformly accurate. This way, you have a standardized data source, and a single version of the truth.

BI tools also solve the problems of cloud-based services such as Google Spreadsheets, because they are built with the capability to handle very large amounts of data and can join different data sources into one set for the purposes of analyzing and reporting.

Additionally, BI software optimizes collaboration through sharing interactive dashboards across the organization. You can build upon the work of others and manipulate and update charts and graphs, while always analyzing the same data.

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