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Are you stretching Excel beyond its limits? 6 OCTOBER 2020

Are you stretching Excel beyond its limits?
5 minute read

News broke yesterday that the discrepancy in UK COVID-19 test results and the resulting reporting mistake was due to an Excel error.  It was basically down to row/column limits on an old file type (.xls vs .xlsx) used for consolidating data.

The reaction online has been predictably brutal with armchair pundits, and indeed experts, pointing out how Excel should not be used for reporting and, with perfect hindsight, what a clanger of a mistake this was.

Excel is indeed excellent

Obviously, this is important data. It is critical information which needs to be reported correctly. Incorrect reporting has consequences.

With hindsight, Excel was probably not the best tool. However, the biggest problem with Excel is that it is such an amazing piece of software. Easy to set up and understand, it has the functionality to create complex reporting, quickly and cheaply.

This is often exactly what businesses (and in this case the government) needs, which regularly makes it the go to place to start any data related work… and it does work, until it doesn’t.

Monster spreadsheets

At Arum, we often see reporting, analytics, collections processes and even entire businesses run off Excel spreadsheets. It is really not that uncommon.

These typically start off as small, time saving processes, most likely built by an individual on the side of the desk, to get just get the job done. They are fantastic to start with.

However, as the process grows, the spreadsheets grow too, often exponentially both in complexity and support. Everyone then relies on them and no one will touch it for fear of breaking them … they have become monster spreadsheets.

And spare a thought for the original developer here, who has seen their spreadsheet grow outside of any initial design parameters. It seemed like a good idea at the time… because they built it, they are now supporting it - a developer’s nightmare (and even more of an exposure if they leave).

Regaining control

The real error here is not one of initial spreadsheet design, but a management mistake not to recognise that a great quick solution had its limits. It is an easy mistake to make, after all why spend money to build a new solution if the existing one still works?

However, as has been illustrated, spreadsheets built beyond their design limits quickly become too complex and can run into significant control issues. This is true if they are being used for data consolidation, reporting, or even working customer accounts. They are just not ideal for most uses long-term.

There are some great tools out there that can be used instead, be it from collections systems, business intelligence and reporting dashboards, through to data automation (RPA) and cloud process replacements (SAAS).  There has never been a better time to regain control.

Where should I start?

Recognising the issue, together with taking first steps to think about alternatives is critically important.

At Arum, we have extensive experience in the review and replacement of process solutions across the collections and recoveries industry. We can help with understanding process control risks, options, and alternative solutions to reduce risk for your business. Contact us to find out more.

Chris Warburton
Principal Consultant

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