Whether you see it as a second home or a prison cell, we all know our way around a Microsoft Excel workbook. The spreadsheet tool has long been hailed as one of the top software solutions for businesses working with large amounts of data — but is that still the case?
Nowadays, workers have the pick of the litter when it comes to programs that can store, manipulate and present their data. So, what are the potential drawbacks of using Excel, and how can they be overcome? Let’s take a look at three of Excel’s largest limitations.
1. Poor security and tracking
In an age of data security incidents and IP theft, Excel suffers from notably poor security and auditing capabilities. But what exactly does this mean? Specialists from EASA explain that “spreadsheets, by their very nature of easy editing/altering, replication, and the fact that they often contain proprietary algorithms and data, make them inherently challenging to fully secure, track and audit usage and changes.”
This inherent lack of controls makes spreadsheets vulnerable to unintended, undesirable or fraudulent manipulations. Put simply, if a user has access to the spreadsheet, it’s all too easy to make and propagate damaging changes, or steal data.
This means you may struggle to track any errors, suspicious activity, or changes that have been made to your datasets. This can prove costly when working with sensitive data or important business logic held in your spreadsheets — and you may be better off using a third-party software solution. EASA’s tool, for example, provides a higher level of security, by preventing circulation of the original spreadsheet, making it impossible to alter, save or forward when being used.
2. Prone to human error
Excel, when used as a standalone tool, requires users to largely make their changes to the spreadsheet manually. This increases the risk of introducing errors to the dataset which can be propagated widely when used in tandem with formulas. The Excel Experts explain that businesses use the program for a wide range of important calculations, for everything from sales reporting to stock and inventory. As a result, one small error could compromise the accuracy of an entire spreadsheet.
Of course, there’s usually some risk of human error when using any type of software — but the problem in Excel is that there is limited functionality in the native toolset to support error tracking. As a result, it can take a long time to even find the cell that contains a value or formula error. As for mistaken selections or accidentally moving cells, the program will only automatically let you know if you’re trying to copy data into cells that are already occupied, so you might not even spot your mistake.
The desktop version of Excel does allow some basic error detection for formulas that can be useful in limited situations, but you may also want to consider implementing an additional checking system as outlined here by ExcelUser, to trap as many errors as possible.
3. Impractical for collaboration
When working on a spreadsheet, the original file with all of its built-out business logic may need to be spread around several different departments of the organization. This can cause errors to be made or confusion to arise surrounding how to use the file correctly, especially if it uses tailored functions or macros built by tech-savvy members of staff. It may also cause version confusion to arise, wherein different updates are made to different iterations of the spreadsheet and lead to errors and misuse.
Using the cloud-based, simplified Excel Online helps to mitigate some of these challenges, but lacks the full functionality of the desktop version of the program. Excel should be preferentially used when VBA coding, making advanced charts and graphs, retrieving data from external sources, and performing advanced edits. Otherwise, Excel Online may be the better fit for collaboration and flexible storage capabilities.
Excel is a powerful tool that can streamline business functions at your company but isn’t without its limitations. Providing comprehensive onboarding and training to your workforce can help you to implement the program to its fullest potential, but ultimately, it will also help you to recognize when additional tools may be needed.