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Spreadsheets are not free

Digital Growth
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Much like Taylor Swift, spreadsheets are everywhere. And while we can’t say that Spreadsheet-mania has taken off quite as much as Swift-mania, here at Land Digital, our team is full of passionate Excel-heads.

(‘Spreadsheeties’ didn’t sound anywhere near as good as ‘Swifties’...anyway, where were we?). 

That’s because spreadsheets are so ingrained into business. They’re no longer the secret weapon of the finance department - nowadays, they’ve permeated into all areas of business, operations, HR, finance, customer service, strategy, IT…you name it! 

Whatever the company, whatever the industry, all roads lead to spreadsheets. Or, to put it another way, spreadsheets and business processes go together better than Tay Tay and Travis Kelce.

But what makes this such a great Love Story? Do spreadsheets leave businesses with any Bad Blood? And have we already run out of Taylor Swift references?

Powerful possibilities….

Spreadsheets are pretty awesome for a number of jobs. In fact, this flexibility is one of the biggest advantages they afford you. 

Because they’re highly customisable, spreadsheets can be adapted to meet the needs of any business and can be used to find solutions to a wide range of tasks. For example, one of the best use cases is their ability to take large(ish) data sets and implement formulas to enable you to analyse data efficiently. 

This, paired with the capability to quickly visualise data to support a written narrative, means spreadsheets are a super-handy tool to assist your data storytelling - which is fundamental to leveraging data most effectively, from gaining deeper insights to implementing more focused strategies. 

For example, spreadsheets can handle large amounts of data and perform complex calculations with ease, and then create charts and graphs to present this data in a visually engaging format. This can be a powerful way to better understand your data by uncovering trends and identifying focus areas easier, quicker, and with better accuracy, transforming approaches to tasks like budgets, inventory management, and financial reporting. 

Of course, this is all a testament to the versatility and adaptability spreadsheets grant your business. And these advantages make them an invaluable tool to businesses of all sizes, empowering everyone across all levels of a company to take advantage of these features and source the information they need on-demand. 

Oh, and did we mention that you can get all of this at minimum cost, if not free? Access is included in the licences you pay with companies such as Google and Microsoft, meaning you probably already have it. But if not, fear not - open-source versions are also available!

….with a hidden cost

But while you might not have to dig deep into your pockets to unlock the advantages of spreadsheets, that’s not to say there isn’t an associated cost.

Sometimes, spreadsheets can be a bit of an Anti-Hero (wahey, looks like we had one more in us!). The ubiquity of the spreadsheet in everyday life provides a number of challenges that can be very difficult to overcome due to the human involvement required. 

For example: a company has a spreadsheet that is business critical to everything, but nobody really knows how it works. Jenny from finance built it a couple of years ago, but she left the business to follow the Eras Tour around the world without doing a comprehensive handover. Classic Jenny. There are some very strict rules of engagement around how this spreadsheet must be utilised and, when these are broken, chaos ensues. You’d be surprised at just how common of an occurrence this is! 

The reality is that these business-critical spreadsheets require significant time and resources to set up and maintain. Creating formulas, importing data, and ensuring accuracy can be time-consuming and require technical expertise, and this isn’t an area where you can afford to cut corners. 

Errors can be costly - they misguide decision making, lead to missed opportunities, and require further time and resources to address. But spreadsheets can be highly prone to these inconsistencies, especially when multiple people are using them. And that’s before we even consider the difficulties of managing multiple spreadsheets and large data volumes. 

The powerful portability of spreadsheets can also be a double-edged sword. For instance, the ability to share data in a user-friendly format via a convenient method like email means vast amounts of data can be shared with a colleague, supplier or customer easily and efficiently. And that’s awesome. 

But this also presents its own dangers. We’ll never know how many promising careers were brought to a halt because of the loss of a business critical spreadsheet or the unauthorised sharing of sensitive data. Over the years we’ve heard it all, from accidentally deleting key formulas to leaving laptops on a train with millions of customer records - the latter being a key reason why a lot of organisations no longer allow files to be transferred to portable media devices. 

Email, however, knows few boundaries. And making a small mistake is very easy to do - we’ve all accidentally hit ‘reply all’ on that email response at least once. Make this faux pas while sending a quick project update to your line manager? No problemo. Do it while sharing a spreadsheet full of restricted data? Big problemo. 

There are lots of horror stories about spreadsheet mishaps that have caused big problems for businesses, resulting in a few red faces and a small matter of millions of dollars in losses.

Reducing the total cost

Spreadsheets will always have their place in the day to day business, despite new alternatives emerging.

However, by evaluating the hidden costs, businesses can make more informed decisions on the ways in which they use them, and consider how integrating new tools can assist with this process optimisation.

For example, with the maturity of some of the no-code platforms such as AirTable or Notion, there’s an opportunity to carry out a review of how you utilise spreadsheets within your business. How do you manage and record error reporting, if at all, and how can a different approach to the way you store, view and analyse data reduce the cost of human error while driving new efficiencies within the business?

Tools like these have great character, offering a similar learning curve to spreadsheets but offering so much more possibility in how you manage data and processes within your business. And one thing’s for sure: after exploring these tools, you’re never-ever-ever getting back together with your old ways of utilising spreadsheets.

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