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Friday 27 January 2012

Is fiddling with Excel a good or a bad use of time?

I'd really like to know what everyone thinks about this question - because I am not sure myself.

I have always fiddled with Excel until I got it to do what I wanted. For me, personally, it has worked out very well as I turned the skills I developed as a result into a successful business! But was it good for my employers at the time?

Granted, they got some good spreadsheet solutions in the end, but would it have been more effective to bring someone in who already knew how to do it, rather than use my time to get there by trial and error!

I'm sure I'm not alone as someone who likes to make sure they find a way, but it can be all too easy to spend far more time than could be justified in financial terms. Once the problem has been solved, the skills are there for next time, but is it the most efficient approach?

There are a few alternatives to fiddling with it until you get there using Google and Excel's help facility, they all have a financial cost but can considerably reduce the time spent:

  1. Excel training - this can obviously be useful but is often too generic to then apply to your real problems when you get back to the office. I have found a one-to-one approach is often more effective, working with the client's own spreadsheets and problems. Another approach is to have training tailored to your business or industry (the service I offer to Accountants in Practice at Excellent Accountancy works along these lines)
  2. Subscribe to a service where you have someone to ask - my Excel Advice by Email subscribers get this kind of service by email for just £75 per year
  3. Get someone else to do it - I have my own service for this at
My suspicion is that any one of these could be right, depending on the relative value of your time vs your business cash, and whether you ultimately want the skills in-house.

If you have plenty of time and no cash (especially if you want to develop the skills yourself), then keeping fiddling is probably the best route (it worked for me!). At the other end of the scale, your time is usually more valuable than the cost of getting the job done outside, and this for many is a no-brainer if the primary purpose is not to build your own Excel skillset.

I'd love to hear what you do now, and what you think is best as they may not be the same!

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  1. "I have always fiddled with Excel until I got it to do what I wanted. For me, personally, it has worked out very well as I turned the skills I developed as a result into a successful business!"

    This is the same for me.

    Was it good for my employer(s)? First, I had many small workbooks for various tasks, related to my role as an R&D scientist. Second, it would have been hard to find outside spreadsheet help with flexibility and domain knowledge to help with these projects. Third, my employers would not have contracted out to build my spreadsheets for me. And fourth, I shared these spreadsheets with my colleagues, which gave them capabilities they would not otherwise have had, and saved hours and hours of tedium.

    So I think on balance my fiddling about with Excel was good for my employers. But it was better for me.

  2. Jon

    Thanks for your comments. I am certain that the employers benefited in both of our cases. My question is whether they would have benefited more by me bringing in an expert that would have done this a great deal quicker, ensuring I had more time to do work that didn't require me learning on the job.

    I think your third point is an interesting one, and I believe this was true at my employers too.

    Maybe we both benefited from employers not valuing our time highly enough!

  3. I've always been in a situation where I've learned new techy skills on the job. In the main, my employers have been happy for me to do this, as they've usually had some idea of the kind of thing they want without either the knowhow nor the savvy to seek out the solutions themselves.

    Whilst I agree that, in some cases, I have been essentially paid to learn things when I could have spent more time actually 'working', the benefits to both my employer and myself have made that time spent learning on the job worth it. Also, employing consultants or contractors can sometimes be a backward step, as a lot of the money spent is on the time it takes to explain to them how your organisation operates. With internal staff you always at least know that the solutions being developed will (hopefully) actually directly benefit as they already know the business model they are developing for inside out.

    Good, thought provoking post!!

  4. Matt

    I find I have two types of clients:

    1. Those that know what they want and need a little support to get there, getting the benefit of some accelerated learning on the job - and utilising their knowledge of the business, and;
    2. Those that don't have particularly strong Excel skills in-house - and probably don't need them - who not only need me to do it for them but often need me to help them to understand what they need.

    I certainly don't think it is wrong to learn on the job, I just wonder whether in many cases, both the learning and the development could be accelerated with a little help.