The magic power of EXCELsior!

Rick Johnsson (1937-1989) was an American close-up magician, who always ended his magic tricks with the cry "Excelsior!". It was his way of emphasising that his tricks were not cheap illusions but were really supernatural. Real magic. Something from beyond. Which is, in fact, the word's real meaning. Excelsior ([ɛkstsɛlzɪjor], ex "beyond” and celsus “lofty") is a Latin adjective meaning "higher" or "loftier". Used in English as an interjection, it carries the poetic meaning of "ever upward". I find it quite amusing that this cry of greatness contains the name of something considered by many to be equally magical, especially in the corporate sphere.

It is, of course, MS Excel. What exactly is so supernatural about this spreadsheet application? Well, just the belief in its infallibility has to be proof of its magical power. Just think of the way people react when confronted by wrong results from their excel formulas. Responses like: "It can't be wrong! Its Excel!" or "It must be right! The cell with the result is highlighted in green!" are familiar to us all. Sometimes it seems as if Excel is seen as a magic box that, when filled with numbers, will magically produce the right answers. "EXCELsior!"   

This could be the key to solving the mystery about why people overuse this software so much. In finance, for example, according to the 2011 WeiserMazars study, 87% of the CFOs are heavily reliant on Excel spreadsheets in their financial closing, in their FP&A activities, as well as in their budgeting and reporting processes. "Even the people selling business analytics (BA), business intelligence (BI), and financial planning and analysis (FP&A) software — jobs traditionally performed through Excel — sing Excel’s praises."

Take JPMorgan as an example. Their Chief Investment Office used it for the calculation of their value-at-risk (VaR) model for their synthetic credit portfolio. The bank developed sophisticated bank-modelling software managing bets for tens of billions dollars with the software. They didn't consider this strange even when it “operated through a series of Excel spreadsheets, which had to be completed manually, by a process of copying and pasting data from one spreadsheet to another” (source) and the wrong equations made the bank lose several billion dollars!

My friend, who works in an international corporation which focuses on IT systems integration, told me, that even in his company, which is IT savvy, they use an Excel sheet to manage and capture team workers' work flow and tasks. This sheet is available from the German SharePoint and they call it Master list issue. The sheet is accessible to 8 teams, and at the end of the month, it has more than 1500 rows and 25 columns. There's no list of values for the cells, so it could be (and is) filled with a ton of mistakes.

How's it possible to maintain data consistency in this system? The short answer, it's not. My friend admits his company has tried to take some steps towards data management. They've hired a guy to try to put it together manually somehow. Not only that, they've set out who can change the sheet's fields and when they can do it. Unfortunately, nobody is able to understand it and do it properly, so changes take effect after a week or two of delay. On top of that, latency is a real problem when making changes. Dragged down by dozens of unprofessionally written formulas, a click on a single cell can take up to 10 sec for the cell to activate! As a consequence, making reports is not only time consuming, but also pointless. Data is inaccurate and difficult to trust. My friend ends the whole story with the word "tragedy".   

Now, don't get me wrong, Excel can be an effective and useful tool. But so is a hammer... and you would probably not use a hammer for making Prosciutto-Wrapped Goat Cheese-Stuffed Jalapeno Poppers. I know Abraham Maslows said, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" but please! Using a table processor of 1048576x16384 cells to try to capture the complexity of team-workers' work, activity, personality, skills and knowledge is not the way you should be handling these things. If not Excel, then the question is – how?

We live in times which offer an application for everything (literally) and naturally there exists an appropriate one for enterprise work-flow. We call it the Order Book and it is truly amazing. Just look at images below and you'll see the difference.

The Order Book has been created because of the need for a powerful project management tool. With a tool like this you can share issues and search results with the click of a button or follow the activity streams of your team workers. It can be integrated into existing infrastructure through LDAP and single-sign-on or to other programs like Salesforce or MS Project. The Order Book also supports email notifications, customisable search filters, Feed-Readers that will inform you when there are new issues, as well as many other useful functions, that will be covered in another blog. Or you can just try it yourself (link).

I know, that it's very tempting to use MS Excel as a magic wand that solves everything. But just as it is with magic, it is just an illusion.

Try something that really works instead. Try the Order Book. It can be the first step to setting your company free from MS Excel and starting to be really effective.