Why spreadsheets are killing your business.

Daniel Cunningham
Dan Cunningham 11/29/2018·6 min read
A painting by Tatsuo Horiuchi created entirely in Excel.

I took my first art class in high school. One day, I was painting our final project and feeling (overly) confident when the instructor came behind me and told me to use a smaller brush for the details. But I was more comfortable using a larger brush and the work was turning out just fine, so I kept at it. When she made her way around a second time, she gave me a stern look and said: “You’re not using the right tool for the job.” Begrudgingly, I switched to a smaller brush … and it became immediately and substantially easier to paint. I like to think that’s a good metaphor for the way we’re using spreadsheets.

Here’s what I mean: Spreadsheets have been the reigning champ of business tools for decades. Admittedly, there are a lot of excellent reasons for this: Firstly, they’re super accessible. Spreadsheets exist on most operating systems and architectures. Also, most people can use them pretty easily because a spreadsheet’s functionality and complexity scale with your competence … or patience. Complex formulas can manipulate simple cells. A spreadsheet can be a staff schedule, wedding-planning checklist, a financial model, a 300,000 cell data set, or even a work of art! So, spreadsheets do a bunch of useful stuff, and they’re probably here to stay for quite a while. We’re just using them the wrong way.

We’ve been using spreadsheets to compute numbers, store and arrange data, manage projects, etc. since the late seventies. But with as fast as tech is moving, disrupting, and transforming the world today, the case for using spreadsheets the way we do now just isn’t strong enough. You can no longer rely on technology that has remained fundamentally the same for over four decades.

You can’t afford it.

The squeeze is not worth the juice.

Most businesses, even small ones, are complex and operate in complicated dimensions: departments, locations, products, services, customers, employees, etc. Getting an accurate picture of how all those things interact – rows and rows and columns and columns – is a massive headache.

A recent survey found that on average, workers are spending 20 hours or more a month managing, modifying, correcting, and emailing spreadsheets. That doesn’t even account for all the time they spend trying to read and comprehend them! Let’s put it this way: If the average retail manager’s monthly salary is about $1,900, and a large retail chain operates 700+ locations … That’s millions spent on trying to generate insight into your business, not to mention insight that’s actually actionable!

We’re at a point where we have more data than we’ve ever had before. We know more about our customers, our industries, and ourselves than we ever have. Our old friend the spreadsheet cannot reliably support the sheer scale, variety, and granularity of data that companies are collecting. The standard now is to store and analyze large, complicated sets of data. We’re poring over spreadsheets to understand patterns in foot traffic or managing the performance of thousands of items of inventory or menu items. Because, put bluntly, it’s just not acceptable to not pay that kind of attention in 2018. We all have to collect and analyze data, set specific targets, and refine our efforts. You can bet that your competitor is.

“Stop, collaborate, and listen.” – Vanilla Ice.

We’re big fans of collaboration at Quorso. And that’s not some kind of HR lip service … We made it a cornerstone of our technology. All companies have to be able to collaborate, yet most have not managed how to do it at scale. And – you can probably see where I’m heading with this – spreadsheets are not conducive for effective collaboration.

Companies are storing all kinds of data in spreadsheets: account credentials, financial info, project milestones, etc. The list goes on and on. But it’s not easy for multiple people – to say nothing of multiple teams – to share, update, or manipulate data in spreadsheets effectively. Even on cloud-based programs.

When multiple people and disparate data sources are involved, spreadsheets are hard to keep up-to-date and error-free. After all, the people that manage them are people. And since we all make mistakes, it’s no surprise (Or, maybe it is! This is a staggering number … ) that 88% of all spreadsheets have errors in them.

The use of mobile devices has blended our personal and work lives together (Indeed, chances are, over half of you are reading this on your phone). Have you ever tried to look at a spreadsheet on your phone? It’s painful. Spreadsheets contain cells and cells of complex data, which requires a lot of pinch and zoom to read on a small device. And you can forget about inputting or updating information. When it comes to creating a spreadsheet, it’s pretty much necessary to use a laptop or desktop. That’s not always feasible with your frontline teams. In stores, restaurants, and bus depots, you don’t want people staring at screens for long periods of time.

Companies who empower their people to leverage the latest technologies are about 10x more productive with existing resources. When you can just give people the information they need, they can spend more time on what matters: selling to customers or coaching their people.

Your people expect tech that’s better than spreadsheets.

Technology, transformation … [Insert eye roll here.] We know. You’ve been hearing this stuff for years, but the rate of change is only getting faster. This means that businesses have to use technology, and provide the right tools to their people to stay relevant, competitive, and to grow. When it comes to retaining talented, dedicated people, great companies know it’s not just their needs that have to be met. It’s their expectations, too.

Getting access to information – immediately – is the new norm. Real-time data visualization tools, project management software, and budgeting tools are just a few examples of tech that’s making spreadsheets irrelevant. If someone coming into your organization is expected to use them, they might not stay long. By 2025, 75% of the workforce will be comprised of millennials. This new crop of managers has learned agile methodologies, and unlike the large companies these people are going to work for … they aren’t afraid to use them.

But at the moment, scaling lightweight processes across large companies is easier said than done. Because – a lot like me in high school – we aren’t using the best tool for the job.

To survive and thrive in an era when we need to move as fast as we can, collaborate well, and meet the needs of a mobile workforce and mobile customer, we have to perform at an entirely new level of efficiency. It’s a fact. And it’s why we created a tool that uses technology to help managers get better insights into their business, empower them to take action, and scale what works.

Has a spreadsheet done that for you lately?