From Asset to Liability: When Excel Becomes A Bottleneck In Your Business Processes

Alex Siryi
By Alex Siryi, Tech writer with 8 years of experience in helping the business audience better understand the complex and ever-shifting world of software development.
16th June |
Excel automation is a neccessity

Excel is one of the most reliable, flexible, and versatile business solutions on the market, but only when used in the right way. And just like you wouldn’t use a screwdriver to hammer in a couple of nails, you should never rely on the wrong tool for a business process.

Imagine waking up one day and the sights of MI5 – one of the largest intelligence agencies in the world – are aimed at you? It can happen. In fact, it has happened before. All due to a simple mistake in an Excel file. 

Well, things weren’t as dramatic, but MI5 did wrongfully bug 1,061 phones due to a formatting error in their spreadsheets. 

And the James Bond types are – by far – not the only ones to fall victim to catastrophic Excel errors. 

What do all of these errors have in common (other than catastrophic results)? 

They could have been easily prevented by business process automation if it wasn’t for the “it just works” mentality.

Person tired from working with Excel

If it’s not broken – don’t fix it

Right now, everything works fine…

If Peter, Catware’s CEO, was offered a quarter every time he heard this phrase when talking to potential customers, well, he’d have a lot of quarters…

Fortunately for us, this phrase tends to bring Catware new clients, rather than pocket change.

Take one of our recent projects for example. We were tasked with optimizing the workflow of a large manufacturer of electric cables for ships after a brief discussion of how their agents are working in the field. 

Our client had managers responsible for such aspects of business as shipment reviews, complaints management, or logistics and manufacturing who were all using Excel spreadsheets for various tasks. The employees were using actual printed out spreadsheets when their tasks were relying on teammates from different divisions. 

User management, traceability, accountability, and spreadsheet version control were all out of the picture.

The interesting part is that their approach worked quite well. Until it didn’t. 

Yes, the managers were able to do their work, but the time they wasted on data mining from various unreliable document sources or generating valid reports took the lion’s share of their routine. 

A couple weeks of developing a custom solution that fits their business needs took the need for all of the repetitive work entirely leaving them with more time to be productive as well as several other added benefits such as a clear data log, a useable, scalable database that empowered data-driven decision-making, and a few extra layers of security. 

Another example is a Norwegian Legal 500 company who came to us for document workflow automation. Not only were their lawyers spending hours on drafts of repetitive paperwork, but they were also using Excel’s formulas for conditional calculations. The process was quite a chore when it came to figuring out something as complex as shares distribution. 

We designed a solution that automates all of these processes which resulted in at least a 3x increase in productivity. All while eliminating the risk of human errors and adding an extra layer of security. 

These and similar cases have led us to a curious realization – while most businesses have shifted to a digital toolset by now, a lot of them are still using the wrong tools for the job. They continue to do so because of the “it just works” mentality. 

Where can it bring them? 

The lack of scalability

Excel lacks scalability

Excel, at its core, is not a bad tool. In fact, its accessibility, wide spread, and relative ease of use make it a best in class business application.

MS Excel is a great choice for small businesses who are dipping their toes into the new wonderful world of planning a budget, making sense of logistics and shipping costs, or keeping track of their inventory.

That said, businesses grow over time. And so does the pool of data they use to operate. This, in turn, leads to a series of challenges like broken formulas, lost files, and misplaced data. 

The worst thing a business can do in these situations is looking for a workaround rather than investing in a fitting replacement for a faulty system. The “it just works” mentality is a ticking time bomb where every new input has the risk of becoming the straw to break the camel’s back. 

 

“You want to know what is going on with something: try it in Excel! But if you want to know something, at scale, regularly, spread over the company? Excel is not going to cut it. Once you start manipulating large datasets, at the point where looking at the data no longer offers insight, why are you using a spreadsheet? This is the realm where specialized applications come into play.”

Dr. Drew Lipman, Lead Data Scientist at Hypergiant

The implications

What happens when a data set is too large for Excel to handle? 

If put simply, the program begins to struggle. And we are not talking about the technical nuances, slower load speeds and lag (which all happen, by the way). We are talking about struggling with business-critical tasks – the ones you actually intended to use Excel for. 

Research

Dr. Lipman illustrates this spectacularly with his example: let’s imagine you have been tracking all parent\child relationships from a small city in a dataset. Every person would have two cells associated with them – a mother and a father. 

This is a simple enough process and it does the job fine until you need to go outside the boundaries and find something like who is a cousin to whom. You will then have to determine people with common Grandparents, which is relatively easy. Determining their grandchildren, on the other hand, is quite more complex and involves building an auxiliary dataset. 

A specialized solution, on the other hand, does these kinds of calculations in milliseconds. 

Workflow

Long gone are the days when people have worked in one company up until their retirement. The newer generation tends to switch positions, companies, and even industries faster than ever before. What happens with the work they are doing after they move on?

Let’s get back to our previous spreadsheet example and make an assumption that one of your managers had to keep track of the people in the town. That person then faced the need to pinpoint cousins and made the necessary adjustments before leaving for a different open position. 

The next person to look at the sheet (even with partial prior knowledge) will treat the document with respect to its original intent –  not the changes that were made. The document will then be passed on and on to different employees, each of whom will make some minor tweaks or even massive adjustments in order for the sheet to work for them. 

This will lead to the eradication of the original intent and a potential corruption of all the data gathered in the spreadsheet. 

As such, the lack of traceability and version control can butcher years worth of carefully gathered insights and intelligence. 

How can you tell that you’ve outgrown Excel?

If put simply, Excel becomes a burden when you grow. It doesn’t offer as much flexibility as the fluctuating, data-driven business world of today requires. 

How do you know if that time has come for your company to move forward? 

We’ve prepared a short list of questions. Answer them, and you’ll know if the time is right.

  • Do you feel like you are stuck in the routine doing the same tasks over and over again (copying new files, sending them to new colleagues, etc.)?
  • Are you constantly questioning the accuracy of data due to different versions of the same document?
  • Are you wasting time waiting for Excel to load? This isn’t an option for most small businesses but office computers will lag after Excel reaches 100,000 rows. 
  • Are you having troubles with managing access to different parts of your Excel?
  • Does it take a lot of time to get new employees to be familiar with your Excel model?
  • There are more recurring reports on your plate than you can chew?

If you’ve answered positively to at least one of these questions – congratulations, your business is ripe for automation. It’s no longer a matter of advantages and disadvantages of spreadsheets. 

Top Excel Alternatives for Different Tasks

Top Excel Alternatives for Different Tasks

Now that we know that Excel is not a one size fits all solution, what can we do to improve our internal business processes? 

Finding the most fitting alternative. 

How?

Start with analyzing the tasks you need to be done. Then look for the best tool for the job. Jira or Trello, for example, will sort out all things project management way better than any spreadsheet. 

Salesforce, Hubspot, or Zoho, on the other hand, will offer a variety of solutions to streamline your sales process while making quick, data-driven solutions in real-time.

A custom-made product designed with the needs and preferences of your business in mind can do all that and more while saving you from the trouble of investing in monthly software licensing fees. 

The primary con of SaaS solutions

Despite the common belief that cloud-based SaaS solutions offer less flexibility as they are not technically tailored to match one’s business needs specifically, the level of customization most worthwhile products offer is more than enough for 99.9% of companies. 

That said, the added functionality is usually locked behind a paywall. More on the matter, SaaS solutions are distributed via a subscription model. This means that the more you use, the more you will be charged for either monthly or annually. 

A custom-made business automation solution can save you hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run. 

Speaking of which, a good custom Excel alternative that’s capable of complex conditional calculations, seamless integration with existing systems, access control, and a wide variety of templates isn’t really that far away. 

From the experience of our clients, we can guarantee the following:

  • 3X less time spent on paperwork
  • No more calculations in Excel
  • No more copy-pasting
  • Substantially lower risk of errors
  • The ability to design a solution that fits your business processes like a glove
  • User audit and data changes traceability

Get in touch to learn more!

Conclusion

Everyone can hammer a nail with a screwdriver. But is it the most efficient tool for the job? 

Hardly.

The same can be said about Excel. It is a deceptively simple yet surprisingly effective piece of software when it is used in the right way. 

That being said, most challenges businesses are facing in the 21st century require dedicated solutions that offer the ability to zero in on a task with the precision of a laser.