Are spreadsheets the second best tool for everything?

One of my mates used to be a hotel handyman. That wasn’t his main job, but as he generally fixed things no-one else could, he got the jobs by default. His secret weapon was a standard cutlery knife. Its was equally poor at everything, but with enough effort he could prise things open, use it at a screw-driver, clean things etc etc.

Spreadsheets are often called a ‘hammer – and all problems look like nail’, I think they are more like Micks knife. Better tools were available for every job, but they were hard to find, he could always find a knife. And with a bit of imagination and enthusiasm could solve many a problem.

A few people have suggested spreadsheets are more like a multi-tool, would you agree with that?

In their book,The Art of Modeling with Spreadsheets, (worth a read btw), Powell and Baker suggest that the spreadsheet is the second best tool for any job. What do you reckon?

Maybe its third or fourth in some cases but I think they are spot on. There is nearly always a better specialised tool for any project. But there is often a significant learning curve, or excessive form filling, or cost, or other barriers to use.

Spreadsheets are ubiquitous and flexible. Often that is more useful than being the ultimately best tool for the job.

I think with decent spreadsheet skills and a bit of coding you can cobble together a solution for most business problems. It may not be perfect, but many times its good enough, at least temporarily. And almost without fail it will be quicker and cheaper than the ‘best’, especially if you are less experienced in the best option. Would you agree?

Can you think of any other software that is as widely used (/abused?) as spreadsheets?



7 Responses to “Are spreadsheets the second best tool for everything?”

  1. Lord Says:

    There is one quality they can, though not necessarily do, have, beyond accessibility and that is transparency. Better tools usually do their best to hide rather than expose.

  2. Harlan Grove Says:

    There’s nothing as widely abused as spreadsheets.

    If one defined ‘best’ with the requirement of possibility, and given recent comments about IT lockdown at everyone else’s clients, Excel may be the ONLY programmable software available to most business users. If so, it’s ‘best’ by default.

    If Excel is the only tool one has, all problems look like spreadsheets.

  3. Jon Peltier Says:

    Email and browser software are pretty widely used; I guess it’s a matter of opinion whether they’re abused, misused, overused,…. PowerPoint’s reputation is one of being abused, but the risk there is tediousness, not dangerousness.

  4. Don Price Says:

    I did see one small company who ran their stock control system using Word tables. They originally used Excel but it wouldn’t print prettily enough, so they got into the habit of exporting it to Word. They eventually kept it in Word. After a chat with them, they went out and looked for “proper” stock software. After pricing it, they started using Excel again.

    In other words, Excel is used because it can be made to work. It’s cheap, available, easy to use and will do most tasks demanded of it. The fact that it may not be the most suitable software for a job doesn’t mean it’s not adequate for a job. We have all seen examples of it being used inappropriately, but it is used because, for many firms (particularly small firms or those with hard-line IT departments), it’s all that they have, so they adapt their procedures and wants to suit the software they have.

    I agree with the Powerpoint comment, I have felt like sleeping through a few meetings when the dreaded projector is turned on….

  5. Marcus Says:

    “After pricing it, they started using Excel again.”

    Always an argument that makes me laugh. There’s price, and then there’s cost. They are two entirely different beast.

    I’ve also seen organisations using Excel for purpose for which it was never intended. After all, the price of appropriate software was far too high. Of course they didn’t factor in the fact that their Excel solution held a lot of redundant data which cost them the embarrassment of sending one customer the same bill twice. And every time a customer changed their details, it took three times longer than CRM software. And each time they did a mail out, they spent most of the time removing duplicates. And it was s-o-o-o easy for Roger the sales manager to take the entire client list with him when he left the company. There’s price, and then there’s cost.

    When Simon posted the Spreadsheet types graph recently I mentioned that I’d probably put time on the x-axis. As time has progressed the nature of the spreadsheet work I’ve done has evolved. At the same time, my perspective of what a spreadsheet tool can (but more importantly should) do as a tool has also evolved.

    In the past I would have been more gung-ho to announce that “of course Excel can do that” (and then figure out the details later).

    Now I take a “synergistic” (is that a word?) approach. Excel works best when it’s working as part of a business solution – not when it IS the business solution.

    Cheers – Marcus

  6. tom Says:

    By nature we humans are tactile creatures, we like to hold things, turn them upside down and inside out, take control if we can. A spreadsheet gives us this ability with our business data. I agree with Lord above, it ‘s not just its ubiquitous availability, it’s also the transparency and the ability to take ownership of the problem that makes spreadsheets so popular as problem solving tools.


  7. Peter Grebenik Says:

    The beauty of spreadsheets is the accessible intuitive nature of the grid and the fact that many tasks involve manipulating lists. Coupled with VBA that allows amateurs like myself to automate tasks and the spreadsheet is the most empowering piece of software available.

    So I use it for my diary/organiser, accounts, marksheets, drawing programme, query tool, web writer… What other single piece of software is so versatile?

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