Death by Excel – 8 ways to protect your company

Posted on 04 Nov 2014 by

Most companies at some time or other find themselves suffering from a very modern phenomenon – death by excel.

This manifests itself in the form of multiple versions of the same workbook, everything being done in excel when there are more suitable programs available and confusing worksheets that only the original user can understand.

It’s a very real issue and can cause considerable harm as it tends to lead to inaccuracy, inefficient working and in some cases incorrect information being given to customers, suppliers and government agencies.

So how can you ensure your company doesn’t fall foul of this pernicious disease? Here we present our top tips to keep your company excel work in good order.

1 Use collaboration functions – Excel has the ability to share workbooks (although to be honest it’s not as good as it used to be), Google docs were made for sharing and Software as a Service (SaaS) products are usually superb from a collaboration point of view. Using collaboration services in this way stops people having to save their own versions of the same workbook.

2 Enforce file discipline – Too often we allow people to store excel documents on their local hard drive. This is not only bad form from a security and data back up point of view it also tends to lead to people having their own versions of a file that someone else is working on leading to confusion as to which is the source of the truth.

To get round this make sure that everyone stores their workbook centrally in accessible folders and that no local copies are made.

3 Version control – leading on from the last point ensuring that versions are maintained and identified means that users know which is the latest information. Use the same name for each file but append with a V1.1 to show its place in the series. For major changes the first number changes (e.g. V2.1) for minor changes then its the second number (V1.2). The final version of a task should be quite clearly marked FINAL to stop people having to guess.

4 Use the right platform for the job – The more comfortable people get with excel, the more they tend to use it inappropriately. Writing letters, drawing pictures, producing databases can all be done in excel but it doesn’t mean it should be done in excel. This is particularly important when accounting software for example will produce perfectly good reports but users then insist on exporting data to excel and reporting from that just because they feel more happier.

5 Don’t reinvent the wheel – whatever you want to do has probably done before (and better) than the way you’re trying to go about it. Have a look around and see if in fact there is an app to collect your expenses information or report you credit card data rather than building an elaborate workbook. As the world catches on to the benefits of apps you’ll often find that major suppliers offer free versions too.

6 Comment your work – always build a workbook with the view that someone else will use it. Use the comments or note function to add in information that tells other people what cells are doing, any assumptions you’ve made and where you are getting information from. Research shows that people who can’t understand what a workbook is doing generally go off and build their own.

7 Use well known standards – use things like FAST standards to help ensure that everyone builds, operates and stores workbooks in the same way. This avoids users adopting their own standard that no-one else can get to grips with.

8 Remove waste – use six sigma techniques to eliminate wasteful excel activity. Very often asking a user why they are filling in a workbook every month will elicit the response that ‘we’ve always done it that way’. Take a look at every workbook you fill in, find out who uses the information and whether it is still needed. You may be surprised at how many workbooks you can do away with!

Excel is a well loved tool and increases productivity immensely but it has to be said that sometimes it is a bit too useful for its own good and users come to rely on all of the functions it has when really there may be a better way to do things.

In the same vein when a company has many users all working on the same information excel can save huge amounts of time but has the capacity to add in confusion with people not knowing which is the right version of the truth.

Using our tips and enforcing a little bit of organisation and discipline will help ensure that your firm doesn’t suffer death by excel.

Brought to you by Sochall Smith, Middlesbrough Accountants

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