When baseball season starts each Spring, it doesn’t take long for die-hard fans to start donning caps, talking about their favourite players or, most importantly, defending their team from pre-emptive criticism. Surprisingly, finance experts treat Excel spreadsheets much the same way.
But unlike the passionate disparity between rival teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees, virtually everyone in the finance world agrees that Excel is the only team to support.
Not long ago, for example, a web site called Financial Planning published one of those articles you often see lately that suggest Excel spreadsheets are too simplistic to offer real strategic value. The response from advisors was so immediate, so volatile and ultimately so thoughtful that the publication felt it had no choice but to offer a follow-up piece, “Are You On Team Excel or Not?” that highlighted the best reader reactions.
Some of these comments are well worth examining by those leading finance teams who are reaching a decision point around their future use of Excel. Take this one:
If you really know Excel well, you can out do most of the financial planning software and maintain control. By knowing it well, I mean being an advanced user that understands pivot tables, use of macros, programming in visual basic and being able to integrate monte carlo simulation. Excel is an extraordinarily powerful tool if you know how to use it. I would add to this that most clients do not care for detailed analysis and want to have simple answers that make sense.
The only nitpick here is that detailed analysis does not have to come at the expense of simplicity. In fact, the best approach – whether it’s accountants to CFOs who want to bring real value to their customers or stakeholders — is to ensure that the tools they use reduce complexity while offering insight.
Besides simplicity, what anyone looking at data values most is accuracy. That’s where the idea financial applications that connect structured source systems to front-end tools becomes really powerful. To put it another way, it’s the difference between simply using Excel and using Excel as a platform.
This was something a writer on Forbes noted almost a year ago, talking about the way Excel is becoming a conduit to information stored in ERP, for example. “These types of add-in technologies help Excel do more than ‘simple’ spreadsheet functionality,” the piece said.
By all means, be a member of Team Excel (we all are!). As corporate performance management becomes more sophisticated, however, there should be even more for finance professionals of every kind to cheer about.