Complex Tasks Require More Than A Spreadsheet

Bill Meyers

More than 1 billion people use batch spreadsheet software such as Excel. If it were a language, Excel would be one of the world’s most common.

So it’s no wonder that when The Wall Street Journal published an article last fall headlined, “Stop Using Excel, Finance Chiefs Tell Staffs,” it kicked open a hornet’s nest. Such was the furor that the Journal published a second-day lead headlined, “Finance Pros Say You’ll Have to Pry Excel Out of Their Cold, Dead Hands.”

The Journal’s coverage didn’t ignite a debate over the importance of batch spreadsheet software for FP&A professionals, but it revealed it. For decades, spreadsheet software has offered a fairly simple, very flexible approach for gathering and analyzing data.

Some experts are grateful for Excel’s role in the financial revolution that started in the late 1980s. “Excel’s transparency has played a big part in the democratization of financial information,” Bloomberg Gadfly columnist Nir Kaissar recently wrote. “For decades, financial data was controlled by Wall Street and academia. Both realms had armies of analysts to pore over the numbers. But beginning in the 1990s, the Internet made much of that data publicly available, and Excel allowed a single user to do the work of many analysts.

“Seemingly overnight,” Kaissar added, “anyone with a computer could challenge the claims long made by Wall Street—about the accuracy of analysts’ market predictions, about the skill of active fund managers, and about the effect of fees on the performance of financial products. It’s no exaggeration to say that Excel paved the way for indexing, ETFs, smart beta, and all the now widely accepted ideas that Wall Street once tried to stamp out.”

All that may be true but increasingly, finance professionals are worried that the flexibility doesn’t answer for the ever-more-complex job. In January, AFP published its annual risk survey. It found that 97% of corporate practitioners used spreadsheets to manage their companies’ risk, but only 28% viewed spreadsheets “as an efficient risk management tool.”

“Excel should be viewed as a fantastic productivity tool, but organizations get into trouble when it becomes a financial system,” said Mitch Max, a partner at consulting firm BetterVu.

So far, most practitioners have elected to stay with traditional spreadsheets. Fully 70% of all companies rely heavily on spreadsheet reporting across all their business units, according to a recent survey by CEO.com. And 40% of companies surveyed by KPMG in 2015 said that they relied on spreadsheets alone to produce their forecasts.

Some folks’ devotion to Excel can seem a bit eccentric. We talked to one practitioner who used Excel grids to recreate a portrait of his wife. But while the consensus among the practitioners seems to be that Excel offers flexibility, ubiquity, and economy, it is a lot trickier for complex or sophisticated data analytics. Other vendors’ software—or home-built tools—can either patch those gaps or obliterate them.

While spreadsheets still dominate, many practitioners are actively evaluating other technologies to help manage risk within the finance function. Download the 2018 AFP Risk Survey to see what’s being considered.

For more on this topic, read this blog.


Bill Meyers

About Bill Meyers

Bill Myers covers FP&A issues for the Association for Financial Professionals and leads the association’s FP&A Advisory Council, helping corporate practitioners and thought leaders stay ahead of trends in their profession. He can be reached at bmyers@afponline.org.