Sunday, February 22, 2009

Excel Evils

I'm a big fan of using the best tool for the job. The old adage that says when you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail explains why so many people use Excel for tasks beyond its capabilities. This article provides some facts for what I've been seeing anecdotally for years.
  • "Spreadsheet errors are probably more prevalent than most users realise. A 2005 paper by Jonathan P. Caulkins, Carnegie Mellon University, refers to earlier studies which suggest that the (simple) average proportion of spreadsheets with errors was 46%. A further analysis of this literature by Panko suggested that even those numbers might understate the problem, since not all audits find all errors. Out of 8 studies auditing a total of 421 spreadsheets using better methodologies, only one study had an error rate below 21%. According to Panko, a weighted average of published spreadsheet audits since 1995 suggests that 94% of spreadsheets had errors. Even if these stunning rates overstate the problem in practice, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that errors in spreadsheets are common. "
The question is, what can replace Excel? I've been writing one-off pieces of software to replace Excel for years. The problem is that Excel has become so ingrained in many users workflow that even if I provide all of the options they used in Excel they still want the ability to export the data back to Excel.

It is time to move past Excel (and thus spreadsheets) and into tools that treat data as data and calculations as calculations and not confusingly mix the two as is often the case with Excel. Enterprise mashups are going in the right direction, but still don't give users the same flexibility as Excel. So what do you think will eventually replace Excel as the defacto analyst tool in the enterprise?

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