Microsoft Excel – The Beauty, the Danger, and Moving Beyond to Analytics

Posted by Steve Cormier

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11/13/13 11:00 AM

People talk about a lot of cool data science and tools these days; big data, analytics, sentiment in social networking; but the fact is, a very substantial amount of the computing in the US takes place in a small intimate place called Microsoft Excel.

Excel is a beautiful thing—it’s immediate, scales from simplicity that almost anyone can use to analytics lite that many business units push to the limits.

However, Excel’s beauty is also its danger. Excel spreadsheets can metastasize to monsters of complexity and error, sucking huge amounts of labor and time. Even mundane monthly reporting can be exhausting. The organization has to have the data the spreadsheets supply, but so much effort is spent maintaining them using semi-manual processes (copying worksheets, altering formulas so they recognize their place etc.) that moving on to more sophisticated analytics tools is difficult.

Still, organizations must wake up from the Excel coma and move to a more sophisticated analytics environment if they want to stay competitive. 

The great benefits of transitioning to modern analytics tools such as Tableau or Cognos are manifold. First, there’s establishing a clean, repeatable, automated data supply chain from operational systems that removes the error-prone and tedious manual processes used with Excel. Next, there’s the ability for the user to traverse data through drilling up, down and around to see illuminating visualizations. Such capabilities not only allow the user to see base data as they did through previous reports, but to discover new aspects of their business through exploration. 

Finally, most new analytics tools allow the user to create their own custom content that they can combine with company data to provide even more insight. Want to see a product categorization hierarchy different than the ones your company uses? Simply create it yourself, attach it to the company base data, and you now have your own way of seeing financial grouping, with all the same drilling capabilities. You can also attach data from outside sources that, once again, can play with existing data. 

Excel is a beautiful thing, but there comes a time for organizations to mature in their operations or get left behind, and new analytics tools with low barriers to adoption (low cost licensing and user-friendly interfaces) offer a menu of advanced capabilities that can drive new competitive advantage.

Topics: Analytics