To (Really) Know Excel Is To Love Excel

October 20, 2016 George Papayiannis

Finally, some of the true spreadsheet champions are starting to speak up.

If it sometimes feels as though spreadsheets are on trial — based on the voices unsuccessfully attempting to persuade finance pros to ditch Excel for something more complicated and expensive — you couldn’t ask for a better character witness than Alexandra Samuel.

The author of Sharing Is The New Buying, among other books, Samuel is not only one of many who have stuck with spreadsheets for years, but is passionate about paying it forward with ideas on how others could make use of them. In “An Ode To The Underappreciated Spreadsheet” on the Harvard Business Review, Samuel notes that tools like Excel have often gotten a “raw deal” because people sometimes see them as limited in functionality.

To prove them wrong, Samuel shows how spreadsheets can be used for a wide range of creative knowledge work. This includes creating directories and asset files, structuring documents or planning infographics. When she comes to analytics, she shows just how personal the approach can be:

When I first dig into tables to summarize survey results, I use a spreadsheet to see which segmentations yield the most-interesting variations. For example, if I have a survey where results are segmented by age, gender, ethnicity, and social media usage (my usual columns), I want to see whether any of those segments differ significantly from the overall average. So I create what I call “Brent columns” — named for Brent Peppiatt, the colleague who showed me how to set up conditional formatting for a set of columns. If the responses for a particular segment (e.g., 18-to-25-year-olds) give a response that’s more than 10% higher or lower than the average, my conditional formatting turns that cell green. It’s a great way to quickly scan hundreds of response cells to see which ones are worth zeroing in on.

Samuels is certainly not the only one seeing more possibilities in Excel. Writing on Inc., John Brandon suggested that recently-added features like Maps are giving a hint at the ways more professionals can do a bit of their own data science:

Excel has that rare distinction of being an app many of us use by default, yet we never talk about it. We’re power users, pivoting our tables and typing complex calculations into cells,” he said. “Anyone serious about business likely uses a spreadsheet to track expenses, at least initially or in a pinch. When you need to visualize some data, create a slide with a chart, or track finances without the extra fluff, many of us use Excel.”

There are still some extras spreadsheet users need, but it’s not fluff. It’s deeper knowledge about what’s making a company grow (or not grow). It’s a sense of what’s next before it’s coming. Pair Excel with the tools to do that and the next ode might not just be dedicated to the spreadsheet, but the finance team that used it.

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