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Tuesday 24 April 2012

Do you deny how much your team uses Excel?

"A prudent question is one-half of wisdom."

In too many years of experience helping organisations to make better use of Excel, one truth has become evident:

The higher you move up an organisation, the less they think the organisation uses Excel.

I am currently talking to many accountancy practices and this seems even more true in that industry.

Causes of Excel Blindness
There are a number of reasons why this should be true but it can be incredibly damaging for reasons I will go into later in this post.

I believe that the main causes are as follows:

  1. The day-to-day experience of those involved - The higher you go in any organisation, the more your role involves relationships and meetings, rather than hands on number-crunching. Naturally those producing the numbers and analysing them use Excel far more than those discussing them;
  2. Belief in computer systems - Having invested in accounting and/or ERP packages (or in the case of accountancy practices, accounts preparation software), and been sold the omnipotent nature of these packages by the software companies, it can be difficult to believe (or face) that there are still large amounts of work done on spreadsheets.
  3. Over-simplification of what processes involve - A manager, for example, may understand that a member of the team is emailed a particular piece of information from a customer,a supplier, another branch or another department, and that they enter this into the system. The member of the team involved will know that they receive this information as an Excel file and they apply numerous sorts and filters, delete columns and rows, calculate totals, etc. before they enter it (or even import it) into the system. All of this work is done in Excel - and the manager is completely unaware.
Why does it matter?
It matters because it can be incredibly damaging to an organisation in terms of both financial risk and inefficiency

Financial Risk
Not understanding the systems that your business relies upon can lead to errors in systems management don't even realise are being used. The controls in the ERP system or accounting software may be perfectly adequate, but if the information entered is coming from a spreadsheet with an inbuilt error, they won't be of much use.

In most organisations, this is by far the greater cost. Many staff are using Excel for a great deal of their time and have very little training or understanding of how best to use it. Many hours can be cut from most employees' working weeks, with a little bit of focus on this area.

Let is use the situation described earlier to demonstrate both the efficiency and financial risk elements:

"The member of the team involved will know that they receive this information as an Excel file and they apply numerous sorts and filters, delete columns and rows, calculate totals, etc. before they enter it (or even import it) into the system."

This whole process could be automated in Excel so that a couple of hours of messing about, could be reduced to a couple of clicks. This not only saves those couple of hours every month, week, or even day, but ensures that the same conversion is applied to this spreadsheet each time, significantly reducing the risk of error.

What can be done?
The first step is to acknowledge how much your organisation uses Excel. No matter how sophisticated your systems are, there are many jobs around the edges of the system for which Excel is not only the best tool, it is often the only tool capable of the flexibility required. Acknowledging this can lead to some very quick improvements to efficiency.

Ensure that you have access to someone (either inside the organisation or from outside) who can look at this Excel use and suggest and/or implement improvements and train staff. I offer this type of service to UK accountancy practices via my Excellent Accountancy business, but please feel free to email me if you wish to discuss how to go about it for any other type of organisation.

Excel is not just Word for numbers, it does form parts of your key processes - whether you like it or not.

Imagine if you took the same lax approach to any other key processes in your business.

A little time and/or money invested in improving how you use Excel will go a long way, as it is such an untapped area in most businesses.

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