Learn from Boris: never trust a spreadsheet with your critical data

Spreadsheets. Easily made, easily broken. While few have failed as spectacularly as the Excel sheet that ate 16,000 Covid cases, many do fail – and if you’re still running your business on them, then you, like Boris Johnson, need to rethink how you handle critical data.

Spreadsheets have plenty of strengths. They’re cheap, powerful, flexible and user-friendly – and they’re everywhere. Ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond ran the entire UK economy on spreadsheets, earning the moniker ‘Spreadsheet Phil’.

However, these strengths can easily turn to weaknesses. The government is only the latest in a long line of organisations to suffer a costly Excel embarrassment. Giants like Carillion, Canopy Growth, Societe Generale and JP Morgan have seen their reputations and finances seriously harmed by spreadsheet snafus.

 In a recent poll by EUCplus:

– 53% of respondents said their organisation had no robust policy on spreadsheet use.

-14% didn’t even know if they had one at all.

-47% said their organisation used over 1,000 spreadsheets for daily functioning.

-23% didn’t know what percentage of their organisation’s spreadsheets were critical to keeping the business running.

-And 30% admitted that over 25% of the spreadsheets were business-critical.

Why are these figures so scary? Here are five reasons you can’t afford to keep using spreadsheets for your critical data.

#1: Siloisation

Siloisation means storing the same data in different places, leading to inefficiency and inconsistency.

While it’s possible to link spreadsheets to central data repositories, that’s not usually what happens. Instead, you’re likely to have several different people editing their own versions of the data. As most commonly-used spreadsheets aren’t designed for collaborative work, siloisation ensues.

In most companies, the number of spreadsheets just keeps going, and with no policy or guidelines and no formal training for most people, the design and implementation of them tends to vary wildly.

Aside from the obvious problem of duplicating effort, if there’s no one master of the data, there’s no official version, and people are likely to make the wrong decisions based on inaccurate data. When you switch to a proper system, there’s no risk of duplication, and everyone can work collaboratively on the same data.

#2: High Maintenance

Maintaining spreadsheets is hard work. Multiple authors lead to inconsistent, bloated and redundant spreadsheets. And even with only one author, if they leave the company, you can be left scratching your head as to how the thing works.

Spreadsheets don’t control user access cell by cell; someone either has access to the whole spreadsheet or nothing. This means people can mess with areas they don’t understand.

Manual data entry, with all that copy-and-pasting and fiddling with complex formulas, is a recipe for errors – and unlike in Word, there’s no helpful red underline if you get it wrong. It just stays wrong. And since spreadsheets rarely get tested or debugged, errors can spread.

Spreadsheets have no built-in business process logic or systems logic. A proper business management system does. It makes it easy to allow or deny access to data, spot errors, and create new processes.

#3: Bad for Collaboration

In Excel, anything more than five users on a small, simple spreadsheet will lead to problems with conflicting versions. Multi-user editing is difficult and data relationships are almost impossible to model and maintain. You’re likely to end up calling the IT department even for a small request.

With a proper system, multiple users can work seamlessly together, data relationships are supported, and strict permissions ensure that nobody accidentally overwrites data.

#4: Insecure Security

While you can password protect your Excel spreadsheets, once someone has the password, you have no control whatsoever over what they do with the spreadsheet. If you want your data to be portable and you want to allow many people access to the same sheet, as often happens, you’ll need to give each of them different access rights, which you can’t do in Excel.

This means people see things they shouldn’t, leaders make decisions based on incorrect data, and your IT department is wasting time and money on unnatural ‘data protection’ that you shouldn’t need in the first place. With a system, you can easily set the correct access permissions and avoid the risk of inaccuracies.

#5: No Accountability

This is the worst one of all. Spreadsheets don’t tell you who last updated a given cell. Or when, or where. There’s no audit trail, no accountability, and no way to see if someone’s been in and changed things at random.

In a regulated environment, it’s difficult to implement the controls around the audit trail and updates, and cumbersome to use them. Under GDPR, this flexibility can turn into an outright liability. The lack of audit trail leaves your business at risk if proof of compliance is called for (e.g., ISO). In a system, every action is logged, so you can easily see who’s done what, and you can easily prove your compliance.

So, while running your business on spreadsheets might seem cheap and easy, it actually turns out surprisingly difficult and expensive. If you want your business to grow, you need a flexible system that’s still easy, but gives you full control, accountability and security.

In recruitment there are so many choices of systems, and often it feels like many of them have competing advantages.  Sometimes settling for the path of least resistance results in an over reliance on spreadsheets.  But this should act as a warning.

We help many clients each year digitise their business and/or help them to select and integrate new financial systems.  If you are interested in seeing what we can do for your business, contact us today.

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