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Here’s Why Spreadsheets Are Still Relevant In 2021

Here’s Why Spreadsheets Are Still Relevant In 2021

To date, Excel remains a prominent feature of so many job adverts. And even though I haven’t conducted a robust empirical study, my hunch is that the overwhelming majority of those roles are not referring to how well the prospect Excels in public speaking.

Historically spreadsheets have been the tool of choice for data-involved tasks. Their mix of features and formulae have matched the complexity of these problems. And that’s how we’ve been able to move from messy to meaningful data in a few spreadsheet manoeuvres.

But then came Power-BI and Tableau. They promised to deliver the very thing we’ve come to rely on spreadsheets for – the transition from messy to meaningful data, now made in real-time. And they haven’t disappointed.

It’s now possible to connect to disparate data points, cleanse and visualise it, all on the fly.

With this capability at our disposal, one wonders how spreadsheets are still a thing in 2021.

Here’s What’s Up

It turns out there are some very valid reasons why we still need and use spreadsheets today. In fact, despite all the innovation in the data space, spreadsheets have grown in popularity.

So here’s why Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets and spreadsheets in general, will be with us for the foreseeable future.

1. Numerical Reports Are Still Useful

This seems like a simple statement but there’s a whole world out there that still runs on numerical reports and tabular data. Data visualisation has been trending for the last few years now, making spreadsheets look a bit dated. I agree, visualising data makes the insights much easier to grasp. But is it always necessary? Many reports have a standard numerical format that is widely accepted. These include:

  1. Financial statements
  2. Financial forecasts
  3. Variance analysis
  4. Sensitivity analysis
  5. Exception reports
  6. And more

Importantly, all these are still fit for purpose today. Further, the users of these reports are adept at reading them. Moreover, these reports are an essential part of the language used to communicate value and strategy in the business world. And so there’s little to no real value add in changing their format. That’s a long-winded way of saying it’s not broken. No fix (or enhancement) needed. 

2. Not Everyone Is Visual

There is a rebuttable assumption that visualising data adds value for everyone. But how accurate is this? Some prefer to look at numbers, while others (myself included) like to mix and match.

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3. Familiarity

Whenever I have data to crunch, I tend to work in the familiar Excel environment. As much as I love using power BI (and believe in its promise), I revert to the familiar when I work. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious one is that I’m far more confident navigating spreadsheets than I am with data visualising platforms. That affects both how I approach tasks and what I can confidently recommend. Two things are still holding me back from making this ultimate plunge into data visualisation platforms:

4. Spreadsheets Are Editable

When we pull data into a visualisation platform we do not alter its content in any way. We simply clean it up and present it in a more meaningful way. This is good because it preserves the integrity of our data. It’s not always a good thing though. Quite often, you’ll need to make minor changes to the underlying data. Here’s where spreadsheets shine brighter. Editing a few cells is a copy-paste job. To get the same result in a visualisation tool, you’ll first need to edit the data at the source before you re-import it. And if it’s not already on your device (but you’re connecting to it remotely) then that’s another hurdle. Spreadsheets are editable, and that adds a level of convenience that’s not available to visual platforms.

5. Data Is Fragmented

Although visualisation platforms help uncover some truly brilliant insights and allow us to interrogate data in novel ways, the issue is not visualising data (that’s the easy part). The problem is that getting real-world data from disparate sources into a single model is hardly ever feasible. Because data sets rarely share the right common denominators, integrating them in a model is inherently problematic. For this reason, the insights they yield are generally a starting point, lacking in empirical robustness and statistical relevance. Organisations today simply don’t have the confidence to base their final strategy on these raw findings, interesting as they may be.

Final Thoughts

Of all the reasons I could think of, these are the ones I want to share. But spreadsheets and data-visualising software need not be viewed as mutually exclusive options at odds with each other. Indeed I would argue that when used together they complement each other beautifully, leading to endless possibility. To date, I only know of two companies that are actively bringing these tools together (hello Microsoft and Google), Incidentally both tech giants. And I’m curious to see how they move this agenda forward.

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