Who’s to blame for "Excel hell?"

My blogging mojo had left the building for a while, but for better or worse it returned today.

When I speak to enterprise software vendors they often moan about Excel. They say it is not secure, and that most spreadsheets contain errors. They preach about the dangers of information silos, of decisions made on old and inaccurate data, the hours wasted in uploads, downloads and reconciliation and formulae creation. They are of course right. 

They are at a loss to understand why well-rounded, upstanding members of society, who pay their taxes, are loving but firm parents, drive assertively yet safely with their seatbelts fastened, and have decent golf handicaps let down by poor bunker play would chose to spend hours in Excel rather than use the vendor’s application to do a much better job for that particular process.

They then mutter and twitch or rant and foam about Excel hell.


(Dante’s hell via ing ing ing)


To Enterprise software makers, my plea.

Excel hell is not an evil Microsoft plot, or some sort of madness that descends upon otherwise sane managers and knowledge workers when they open the PC.  It is the fault of enterprise software failing to provide an alternative.

Most of the users who use your software for a significant part of their day do so because they have to if they want to get paid: accounts payable experts, call centre agents, payroll administrators and returns clerks, for instance. They can’t get up in the morning and say, “Today, I’ll use Lawson or Oracle, because I didn’t really like the feel of the SAP application I used to process those invoices yesterday.”  Admin users are in an arranged marriage. On some rare occasions, love blossoms, especially in the payroll department. Most of the time though, they seethe with quiet loathing.

Most employees in an organization are voluntary users for the vast majority of processes. They don’t have to log onto the employee skills dashboard every week to check if their team is on track for their development goals. If once a year they log on to the HR application, complete the appraisals as fast as they can, and get out of there, they will. Many top sales people spend as little time as they possibility can in CRM systems. Many poor salespeople spend considerable time logged onto CRM applications.

Now you can draw up long valid lists of reasons why enterprise applications are better for business processes than Excel (an ideal use for Excel). You can deliver fire and brimstone warnings about the damnation that is Excel hell (use Facebook to attract others to your cause).

Or you can ask yourself some hard questions about your own design thinking.

If you expect managers and knowledge workers to do serious value added work with your applications, rather than filling in the mandatory fields in travel expenses and fleeing back to email, then it is from the likes of Excel and Facebook that you must learn. Excel entices with simplicity for beginners and powerful freedom for experts. Facebook squeezes every drop out of the human desire to share and tell.

Neither application assumes just because you are a “user” that you will use the application.  When was the last time you had an enterprise application go viral?

I’m not disputing the need for standardised, disciplined processes. Heck, I have marched to that process drum most of my work life. But if enterprise applications want to really impact productivity, innovation and agility and do all that step changing, paradigm shifting, goalpost moving, blue oceaning stuff then yet more “process efficiency” is not the answer.  

When you log onto the enterprise applications in your own organisation, do you actually like using them? Have they helped you innovate? Can you you obey the 8th scout law while using them? 

Or do you have a secret excel with all the really cool stuff in?  And are you sure you didn’t forward a spreadsheet onto your sales team to fill in about the q4 pipeline, because you knew that it would take weeks to get it out of your CRM system?

When was the last time you fired up the enterprise application in a meeting and looked at the real numbers on the big screen?

You may think your competition is a venerable but still packs a punch  ERP vendor, and that darling of wallstreet oh-so-smug SaaS vendor, and several stealth but pedigree VC cloud virtual collaboration hypercool outfits.  Yes, but…..

stop, step away from the cookie jar

Call in the design thinking team. Create a design persona with competent Excel skills.

Add another column to your product planning strategy budget spreadsheet (I know that you are doing your product budget planning in a spreadsheet, rather than in that New Product Development Planning and Introduction Application you have). Add the following formula, please.