Lots of people will suggest spreadsheets should fade away, but they might be the best bridge between the old ways of working and the new.
A couple of years ago, an online magazine called Backchannel published a surprising article with the headline, “A spreadsheet way of thinking.” It was surprising because Backchannel normally tends to focus on the next generation of technology — certainly not something as “obsolete” as Excel spreadsheets are often said to be.
“I think (the) spreadsheet is at least to calculation what word processors are to writing … It is incredible how much software is written solely to “do better than a spreadsheet.” And how much fails at it.”
And yet, according to the author, “The spreadsheet is a tool, and it is also a world view — reality by the numbers. If the perceptions of those who play a large part in shaping our world are shaped by spreadsheets, it is important that all of us understand what this tool can and cannot do.”
That’s a much different stance than the many experts who suggest spreadsheets are laborious to use and inevitably error-prone. What the article suggested, however, is that spreadsheets represent the foundation for a lot of what startups are doing today. If you want proof, you just have to look at a thread on the message board of YCombinator, the famous Silicon Valley incubator that nurtures all manner of entrepreneurs.
“I think (the) spreadsheet is at least to calculation what word processors are to writing,” said one. The last comment reads, “It is incredible how much software is written solely to “do better than a spreadsheet.” And how much fails at it.”
Some of the comments like a rebuttal of sorts to “Avoiding Spreadsheet Hell,” an article published here on Banking Technology that came out around the same time and which detailed some of the most common complaints about Excel. When you look more closely, though, you realize that the problems and limitations with spreadsheets weren’t necessarily untrue: they just hadn’t been addressed yet.
In fact, according to a research report from McKinsey last year, automation is sweeping all areas of financial services, with possibly 43 per cent of the tasks workers spend time on today being dealt with by software or even artificial intelligence. That doesn’t mean we should fear robots taking over the office: instead, it’s an opportunity to figure out the best way to easily transition into new ways of working.
For example, if it becomes easier to import rather than manually enter data into an Excel spreadsheet, we should all welcome it. If it frees up teams to take a closer look at what those spreadsheets contain, even better. The key is making sure those teams can take on that higher-level work in a way that makes them feel empowered rather than intimidated.
Banks have already gone through this on the customer-facing side. Whether it was the introduction of ATMs many years ago or more recent moves to mobile apps, smart financial institutions have always put a priority on guiding customers in using these new tools and making them look and feel as natural as traditional face-to-face transactions at the teller as possible.
As the scope of analytics widens in banking, business leaders will need to apply the same kind of change management principles to their employees. It’s not just about embracing a spreadsheet way of thinking: it’s about supporting the fact that many people continue to have a spreadsheet way of doing.
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