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Spreadsheets Are Here to Stay—But Not for Complex Business Budgets

November 2, 2017
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Although I'm an avid spreadsheet user (who isn’t?) I don't consider myself a spreadsheet geek. So, it wasn't until I read a press release from Centage Corporation ( announcing an event at their Natick, Mass., headquarters to honor Fathers of the Spreadsheet Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston on October 17, 2017—National Spreadsheet Day—that I realized such a holiday existed. Messrs. Bricklin and Frankston introduced the first commercially available spreadsheet, VisiCalc, to users of the first micro-computers.The event, where the two spoke about their invention, was broadcast live on Centage’s Facebook page and gained interest as evidenced by coverage in local media and trade publications.  In a ceremony after the presentation, Centage announced the naming of its new customer training room after Messrs. Bricklin and Frankston.I had a chance to personally meet Mr. Bricklin at the Centage First Annual User Conference earlier this year, so I was familiar with his presentation and what led him to develop VisiCalc.  When I got home, I was determined to find and display my own copy of VisiCalc, a version published for the Atari 800 8-bit personal computer around 1980.Although VisiCalc is a bit different than modern-day spreadsheets, particularly Microsoft Excel, its basic premise remains: automate, format, document and save for future electronic editing, all manual calculations previously done on paper.A lot has changed since VisiCalc’s humble beginning.  Excel became the most used business application in history, and its functionality expanded well beyond simple calculations as its user base found many creative ways to put it to work.Spreadsheet use is rampant in finance and accounting and frequently involves complex and convoluted home-brewed financial models, business budgets and other in-house projects.  It seems that almost every business need and problem is tackled with spreadsheets.The number of spreadsheets stored on company servers and employee work stations is almost as staggering as the number of formula errors and other problems found in them.  Many of these spreadsheets stopped having a specific use or have been abandoned by their creators.  Almost none of them have proper documentation, which means that someone new attempting to resurrect them often gives up and starts from scratch.  Very few complex spreadsheets are formally reviewed for accuracy and completeness and usually are excluded from IT change management internal control processes.Yet many organizations still use spreadsheets for their most complex tasks, e.g., preparing corporate budgets and annual budget books.  Spreadsheets have no place here and should never be used for the many compelling reasons explained on this blog and in other forums.As spreadsheet use in business increased, so did the use of purpose-built, application specific Corporate Performance Management (CPM) software solutions that replace the core tasks previously handled exclusively by spreadsheets. We can confidently predict that this trend will continue and intensify.Outside core CPM software tasks, there are many good and desirable applications for spreadsheets within CPM software solutions.  Spreadsheets are useful for importing static data into CPM applications, such as charts of accounts, database dimension lists (e.g., customer types, product classes, business units), static budget data and more.Spreadsheets, particularly Excel, are a great add-on for analytics, so users can extract data from their CPM database in any imaginable way, slice-and-dice it exactly how they want, all using the unique formatting, color and charting capabilities that Excel so elegantly offers.In conclusion, spreadsheets, particularly MS-Excel, have a solid home in the workplace, when used for their intended purpose.  However, trying to implement end-user programming of formulas, functions, VB code and spreadsheet links in complex business budgeting and other CPM applications isn't one of them.I just added October 17th, National Spreadsheet Day, to my calendar.

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