How The Role of Spreadsheets Is Changing

How The Role of Spreadsheets Is Changing

We’ve talked about the pros and cons of spreadsheets. Now, let’s dive in to how spreadsheet use changes in a hybrid work world, alternatives to Excel, and what businesses can expect from spreadsheets moving forward.

How is Excel currently used for expense management?

Expense management is still one of the most common uses for spreadsheets, and thus very prone to all the errors listed above, as well as taking up a significant amount of time and effort. A survey of over 2,000 knowledge workers found that, on average, they spent 12% of their time each day on administrative tasks, a large part of which is expense management. 

Keeping track of all spending within an organization is a monumental task and one that, again, lends itself to fraud, mistakes, and inaccurate reporting. Each expense needs to be checked, validated, assigned to a department, and then compared to the budget to monitor spending and cash flow. These steps are often conducted manually and are highly user-dependent. We all know those colleagues who lose receipts, do not file their expense reports until they have been repeatedly chased by their finance team, or simply ignore best practices for reporting. 

There are also additional complications, such as currency exchange rates, timing differences between invoicing and outflows, and misplaced paperwork. A lack of transparency can be extremely damaging, particularly with businesses that closely monitor their cash positions. 

How is remote work changing the role of spreadsheets?

Many CFOs have reported that the pandemic has brought the shortcomings within their internal finance processes to light. As their employees dispersed by working remotely, the limitations of using a tool that was not designed with collaboration in mind have increased the possibility of errors. 

As employees work from home, it becomes harder to sync data, and many versions of the same spreadsheet can coexist, creating confusion and making it harder to create an appropriate paper trail. As employees share files through emails or Slack, other problems can appear. The spreadsheets can be very data-heavy and cumbersome to share, or files that are linked to other files can create problems when shared (particularly in those cases when Excel is inappropriately used as a database). 

Finally, and crucially as far as risk management and compliance are concerned, working remotely makes applying the four-eyes principle difficult. The four-eyes principle is a crucial tenet of risk management. In synthesis, the four-eyes principle is a mechanism that dictates that each decision and critical action needs to be approved by two people. This becomes very time-consuming and difficult to check when workers are not in the same location and is always tricky in the case of an Excel file. 

When the spreadsheet is constructed simply, the inputs become too many to be manually checked one by one. On the other hand, checking their integrity is nearly impossible if the file contains complex formulas, particularly if a user has modified them without noting down the changes.

Are there alternatives to Excel?

Automation is the most obvious solution to the fallibility of Excel, particularly when that fallibility comes from human error. But the key to using automation effectively is to automate all data collection and processing steps. 

Reducing the number of inputs and outputs that need validation and are then used for decision-making saves time, reduces the scope for errors, and minimizes the possibility of fraudulent behavior. 

However, people remain the most significant obstacle. Ultimately, a company is made up of people. It is notoriously difficult to get people to change ingrained habits and ways of working, and for many, using spreadsheets for everything is that status quo. A successful software switch to automation needs to be easy, frictionless, and compelling in terms of value added and time saved.  

What CFOs are saying about the future of Excel

The discussion sparked by the WSJ articles about the “spiral of spreadsheets” in their organizations continues in online forums. There is substantial consensus on the need for better tools to save time, reduce errors, and give more valuable business intelligence. 

Many CFOs agree that the critical challenge is ensuring that staff can and will use new tools. Spending money can save money if the software is worth it. What is really crucial, however, is finding a software solution that can easily be integrated into current processes, can evolve as the business grows and changes, and is intuitive enough for users to adopt it readily. 

Ultimately, Excel has remained the tool of choice for its ubiquity, simplicity, and flexibility. Any emerging solution will need the same characteristics, while being a “helpful contributor” to humans, rather than a mere mirror to their proneness to error. Artificial Intelligence could shine in such a scenario.

Conclusion

Just because spreadsheets have been around for a long time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the best tool for moving your business forward. But having parsed the pros and cons of spreadsheets — and what common errors to look out for when using them — you’re now equipped to make an informed decision.

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