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Could Spreadsheets be Preventing the Growth of your Business?

Posted on: April 4th, 2018 by Simon Swords


Microsoft Excel, and spreadsheets in general, are a versatile business tool. Spreadsheets allow data to be stored, organised and manipulated; and, as such, are used by almost every business on the planet.

Spreadsheets are used for a bewildering array of business tasks, including those that may be business critical such as inventory management, through to those much more mundane matters such as keeping track of who is attending the bi-annual golf weekend.

Regardless of whether you use spreadsheets to organise your customer or supplier details, as a basic inventory management system, or even for financial fund data management, the power that spreadsheets bring in to your business are equally their greatest weakness. Spreadsheets are ultimately as useful, dependable and reliable as the skill level of the person creating and managing them dictates.

Spreadsheets are a perfect example of Gall’s Law

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: a complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a simple system.” – John Gall, Systems Theorist.

Gall’s law can be used to explain the success of the World Wide Web, which grew from a simple system to a complex one incrementally, becoming a global success. The same law applies to Facebook too, which was originally a simple solution just for University students to make connections in class, and is now the largest most dynamic social media platform in the world.

John Kaufman stated that complex systems are full of variables and interdependencies that have to be arranged just so, in order to function. Complex systems that are designed and built from square one are not going to work to purpose. This is because they have not been subject to environmental selection (a key mechanism when talking about evolution) during the design process, meaning that they have not been allowed to grow through trial and error.

So, what’s the problem with using spreadsheets for everything?

We’ve witnessed many companies using complex Excel spreadsheets that they created, evolved and maintained over the years. These intricate spreadsheets usually tend to possess a lot of validation rules and normally include a visual presentation of data to aid in data analysis. We always admire the incredible results that these companies achieve with such a simple tool; but we can’t help thinking about the extra effort and hard work that they must put in – not to mention the risks often inherent in a large and clunky spreadsheet (or worse still Microsoft Access database, but that’s for another blog post!).

The fundamentals of a spreadsheet’s success are the combination of ease-of-use and accessibility; and, unfortunately, these are also two of Excel’s greatest weaknesses.

Creating a spreadsheet is incredibly straightforward, right? You start with the basics – creating columns and inputting simple ‘=SUM’ formulas to find your total. But the further into an elaborate spreadsheet you get, the more room there is for easily made errors. If you’re now looking at what you believe to be a completed spreadsheet but cannot work out why a field is showing a ‘#VALUE’, the chances are that you’ll find it a job to identify and address the issue.

Once you have a complete and fully functional spreadsheet, it is important that it is maintained – especially if it requires updating on a regular basis or includes certain data that fluctuates. However, auditing the use of Excel can prove to be very difficult. Particularly in larger companies that have multiple spreadsheets and many people who use and edit them, it becomes hard to know who did what. Moreover, with more than one or two people editing one spreadsheet, there becomes room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation. This (along with the initial time that it takes to create and populate a spreadsheet) leaves companies open to a drainage of resources and could, therefore, be considered prohibitive.  

Possibly one of the biggest drawbacks of using Excel, and certainly one that many businesses can agree on, is not having the ability for multiple concurrent users to access files at the same time. As Excel is a file-based system, it can only be accessed by one user at a time; and with no version control, as with software development, staff are forced to start calling out across the office for the file they need to access to be closed by another colleague who has it open. This example of multilevel security for different parts of a file is a wish that, sadly, won’t be coming true. Role-based permissions to update different parts of a file won’t happen, and frequent backups of rollback points are not possible.  

However, these examples are not exhaustive and simply put – companies needn’t put up with these shortfallings.

Moving on from spreadsheets

“The things we fear most in organisations – fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances – are the primary source of creativity.” – Margaret J. Wheatly, Organisational Behaviour Consultant.

Moving away from Excel, towards building a bespoke web or mobile application is a solution that offers business new and powerful ways to store and process their data.

Bespoke web-based and mobile applications could be the best replacement for your Excel files which served well so far. They are accessible from anywhere, with secure control over access of multiple users and frequent backups of the database and the application (not to mention more flexible and reliable, user-friendly and modern).

Migrating an Excel spreadsheet to a bespoke software application is not only a desirable decision which will bring in new opportunities to the business, but also an inescapable solution when an organisation has become heavily reliant on filing data and multiple users need to access and process it concurrently.

Bespoke software also enforces workflows that can ensure work is carried out consistently every time.

What Atlas Can Offer You

We’ve witnessed first-hand the highs and lows that a spreadsheet can bring to a company, and it’s for this reason that we feel we can really relate to Gall’s Law in all its simplicity.

When Gall’s law is applied, spreadsheets are an uncomplicated, yet powerful mechanism that have the ability to test new business processes, and ensure that they are worthwhile before investing more time and money into them.

Atlas has worked with a whole spectrum of companies, progressing them on from spreadsheets that are no longer sustainable (or, perhaps, never were) onto more complex, integrated systems that are much better suited to serve their business needs.

If you would like more information on what we can do for your business, please get in touch for a no obligation chat. You can email us at 

Simon Swords


Managing Director

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