Are Excel users cutting edge?

The last post wondered if your average Exceller was a bit of a dinosaur.

Here I wonder if it is the opposite, or a combination.

I think when a spreadsheet user first builds a model they are being truly cutting edge in a great many cases. They are pushing their, and often their organisations understanding of their data resources. Later when they adapt that model for new knowledge or changes in process, still some cutting edgedness.

When they finally stabilise the spreadsheet and just start updating the data and grinding the handle, at that point I start to see the dinosaur aspect creeping in.

Spreadsheets are great for discovering new insight, once that has stabilsed into a regular report or dashboard, at that point I think there could be advantages to looking beyond spreadsheets, at least for some parts.

Examples would be server based tech that allows multiple users, or compiled components that provide more stability, other presentation options, etc.

What do you think?

19 Responses to “Are Excel users cutting edge?”

  1. Rob Bruce Says:

    Funnily enough, I’ve always thought of myself as operating at the point where someone, having developed a quick and dirty, or unwieldy, or inefficient model, needs it taken apart and put back together again using a more structured methodology, more appropriate and scalable tools, and with better (or any) documentation.

  2. Ross Says:

    Yes I agree with that view Simon, once something is established, then it either needs re-writing in Excel/Access/VB6 so that people cant brake it, or moving on to a web tec. – the model is simple, getting it done it the hardest thing in the world!



    You really hit it when you mentioned how when conceptualizing and intitiating an Excel file the user is being “cutting egde” but that once an app is in place they grow horns and slow down to the crawl of a leaf eating dinosaur. This is inevitable and unfortunate.

    The fact is that most users are not versed in the data capabilities of Excel and that those within origanizations who control access to data are not interested in providing it to them. This is where Excel fails. But in the absence of Excel I have seen the exact thing happen with the “official” BI and analytical apps that rely on IT to create them, support them and increment them. That scenario is even worse.

    If only someone could get the word out (MS ?) to the field of the opportunties in Excel not only for “Quick and Dirty” reports or for huge unwieldy traditonal spreadsheet designbut for the availability of a tooll that is not only incredibly data capable but also capable of on-going revision and re-purposing if properly designed and implemented. This has been my biggest frustration for over 20 years ever since my efforts with External data in Lotus 1-2-3.

    Maybe now with things slowed down MS will be get out and promote how users can get the most out of what is sitting on all their desktops at lieelt or no direct cost and foster “lock-in” to their technology available in Office generally.


  4. Bob Phillips Says:

    … If only someone could get the word out (MS ?) to the field of the opportunties in Excel not only for “Quick and Dirty” reports or for huge unwieldy traditonal spreadsheet designbut for the availability of a tool …

    Not a chance! MS seem wedded to providing their concept of secure applications, which is far more towards centralised control. Oddly, it seems to me, MS seem to have bought the message from centralised IT departments that their most successful product (even BG’s favourite app) is insecure, intrinsically leads to fragmented dat, and cannot ever but be so. They have been persuaded that a process problem is a technology problem, and that they are to blame. Unbelievable!


    “They have been persuaded that a process problem is a technology problem, and that they are to blame. Unbelievable!”

    I have been around MS staff who really do think that way.. I say to them “Who signs your paycheck?”… It would be sad if it wasn’t so scary.


  6. dougaj4 Says:

    From my perspective spreadsheets are good for doing calculations that would once have been done with a pencil, calc pad, and slide rule, but doing them 10s to 1000s of times more quickly, and if things are set up properly, with 10s to 1000s of times less probability of making a calculation error (of course it is possible to set them up to have the opposite result if you want).

    This can certainly be cutting edge, but there seems to be a prevalant anti-excel attitude from some sections of the engineering world (especially academia!) that regards Excel as a toy product, suitable only for the book keepers in the front office.

    Not that I mind, if other people want to take twice as long to to the same job using a “proper engineering tool”, that’s all good for business (my business anyway).

  7. Al Gill Says:

    Actually, although I agree with everything above, I can think of at least one class of model for which Excel is the first choice of tool which is neither bleeding edge new development nor replacing pen and paper. The sorts of deals that people do for PFI construction projects or other things financed by debt work really well in Excel and it would be a little weird to code them up in some form of OO language (all the calcs are done most naturally in tabular blocks and the sort of graphs / reports you want also involve looking along the tables).

    I know of at least one real-estate finance group that had a standard model which took in input on cash flows, did some generic debt calculations and then produced two reports (one for the investment guys and one for the credit committee). In the 18-months that I was on and off site the only change requests related to wanting a little bit of a scratch pad (all cells apart from the inputs were locked because I felt that trusting users was a bit too brave).

    I’d like to second Dick’s comment about Lotus / Excel and data-capability. What you said about “They have been persuaded that a process problem is a technology problem, and that they are to blame. Unbelievable!” worries me though. Have they really been persuaded? Do I want to imagine what they might do about it?

  8. Bob Phillips Says:

    It was me that made the point about the process v technology problem, and it is the only explanation that I can come up with for the way that MS trying to drive Excel specifically, and Office generally, into the .Net framework.

    Excel is not a great product because it does everything you could ever want of a spreadsheet, and they all work perfectly. It doesn’t and they don’t.

    Rather it is a great product precisely because it doesn’t try to do everything; that there are enough things done well but with so many hooks, side-doors, whatever you want to call them, that the ability of developers to extend it is almost unlimited (I don’t just mean VBA here, look at some of the ways that formulae have developed, how DV and CF have been extended with clever formulae, and so on). Oh, and it has the best, most structured object model of all of the Office products.

    Many of the things that MS are doing are removing Excel’s greatest strength, and that seems criminally insane to me.


    “Many of the things that MS are doing are removing Excel’s greatest strength, and that seems criminally insane to me.”

    Nice turn of phrase…. it IS criminal in the sense that they have a defacto monopoly on the space and people all over the worldrely on the product every day… The company (and not the Excel people per se) is abusing the franchise called “spreadsheet”.

    Just look around any downtown of any city and TRY to imagine how many spreadsheets are being used at any given time in the business day, how many are totally underdesigned (or worse) and how many opportunities there are to make companies more productive by proper use of the technology. It IS CRIMINAL – unfortunately there is no law against what they’re doing – although there was an attempt once to break MS up… at the time I thought it was the wrong thing to do but you have to wonder now. It’s sad.


  10. jonpeltier Says:

    “Many of the things that MS are doing are removing Excel’s greatest strength, and that seems criminally insane to me.”

    Or at least completely misguided, showing a lack of understanding how people even use their applications. Well, except for Mom and Pop, who couldn’t figure out the overly cluttered and complicated menu system.

    From Excel 97 to about 2002, MS pushed Excel (and Office) as an alternative development platform. But since 2003, Excel as its own development platform goes against the creed of VSTO and .Net. And while VSTO/.Net might be worthy development tools, for the vast majority of Excel projects, they are much more than is needed.

  11. Harlan Grove Says:

    How the comments have diverged from the article!

    Most datasets in most problem domains may be represented as tables, so spreadsheets are reasonable tools for most problems. Computer science professors have been talking up functional languages for decades, and spreadsheet formulas are the most accessible form of functional language. Add instant gratification formatting, and spreadsheets are very, very handy tools.

    So what’s wrong with them? First and foremost, they came out back in the dark ages before most PCs were networked. Which means most spreadsheets are designed to be stand alone models, maybe with some network data access, but stand alone at their core. Next, there’s too much concern for backwards compatibility. Example: why does Excel ever complain about specifying ranges not in the active worksheet? Why is there no Excel OM object with which to pass 3D references to/within VBA? Putting this differently, why isn’t Excel yet a true 3D spreadsheet?

    Excel needs better BUILT-IN FUNCTIONS for data access, e.g., a built-in version of the old SQL.REQUEST function. While I’m at it, a built-in WEB.REQUEST function to fetch anything with a url and with an optional parameter for a filtering script.

    [Tangent: some of the Unix spreadsheets of old provided formula mechanisms to pass ranges as text input through external programs and return their text output to the cell(s) containing the formula(s). Excel provides DDE formulas, which aren’t nearly as powerful now but could be a start if there were any interest on Microsoft’s part for adding SPREADSHEET functionality to Excel.

    But a casual analysis of Microsoft’s recent activities shows Microsoft has no intention of making Excel itself or Office in general more capable. .Net seems to be their only path forward. Microsoft may not take away VBA for now (they tried doing that with Office 2008 for Macs under the claim that it was just too difficult, but whatcha know they’ll have VBA back in the next Mac version of Office), but I doubt any functionality will be added to VBA (e.g., WSH-like dictionary or regular expression objects).

    To the extent that Excel/Office/VBA on its own (without .Net) is a dead-end tool set, by definition its users can’t be cutting edge.

  12. Simon Says:

    I don’t think Ms have a clue what to do with Excel.
    One the one hand it now has multi-threaded calc (in 2007) and Excel services – real ‘serious system’ features.
    On the other hand its completely loaded up with formatting featuritis and has a fuckwit interface. Seems to be 2 opposite ends of the spectrum of computer users.
    classic bandwagon syndrome – soon (or already) there will be too many people jumping on it and the wheels will break off.

  13. Harlan Grove Says:

    Brief excursion through the ribbon again: how cluttered/unintuitive is Excel 2003’s menu? More to the point, to what extent did Microsoft perceive a need for a new & improved UI for Word, then decide that what’s good for Word is required for the rest of Office no matter how different the other Office applications may be from Word?

  14. Hui... Says:

    Interesting concept.
    Excel and people who develop system around it, are at least cutting edge in there businesses. They have at least recognised that there are issues and problem and simpler ways to do things and share information.
    Wether developing Excel is “Cutting edge” is a different question, at least it is a great way to at least commence the path to automating data flow forces standards and a systematic approach to data use which is often lacking in manual systems.
    I fear there are much better systems available for development but often people don’t know where to look or are overwhelmed when stepping away from the known (Excel) into the unknown.

  15. Al Gill Says:

    Controversial thought re what MS should do with Excel – avoid breaking it. Pre Office 07 most of my clients were happy. Almost none have felt the need to upgrade. Is it amazingly controversial to think MS should have concentrated purely on fixing bugs?

  16. jonpeltier Says:

    Harlan – It’s all part of the same suite, so they have to all look the same. One size fits all. Biggest comment from first-time Word 2007 users was “Can I dock this big old ribbon thing on the side of the window?” Well, no, but you could have done so with the old interface we scrapped for no good reason.

    Al – Just look at how many things now need to be fixed. User customization of the Ribbon, unworkable color/theme system, unfriendly new dialogs.

  17. Bob Phillips Says:

    Al, they should have put a lot of effort into fixing bugs, but there were/are lots of additional stuff needed (Harlan covers some of them). Unfortunately, they did neither to any great degree (embedding ATP functions was more or less wasted, those of us who suffer them in pre-2007 still do in 2007), but put too much effort into glitz (and here I refer mainly to colour schemes, charts, and CF – I’ll avoid Simon’s favourite for now .

  18. Bob Phillips Says:

    BG – by criminally insane, I was referring to what MS are/may be doiung to themselves. If we are right, and MS keep driving Office applications, as against simple Office products, into the .net/VSTO domain, then they are in danger of destroying a cash cow.

    Agreed, and also maybe more than most users will be given.

  19. Mel Glass Says:

    Hi – I guess it could be irritating to find a vendor joing the conversation but when I found your comments I felt obliged to respond. Excel is a the most widley used and most flexible development tool on the planet. You can write good or bad spreadsheets – large or small – simple or complex. The issue is that once you have something working then it is no longer a ‘fix’ but a critical part of the business operation. That’s because it works, it can be shared and it can be changed to meet new requirements without reaching out for expensive IT resource which is generally in short supply. EASA fixed this problem for the Atomic Energty Authority where many of it’s engineers built latge complex models to ‘fix’ a problem then idscovered that the spreadsheet could be re-used, shared, modified for other projects. AEA set about finding a solution – and EASA came up with a smart platform for web-enabling spreadsheets – including all add-ins/macros etc. The ‘master’ spreadsheet resides on a central server – never on the desktop. IP is protecetd – never at risk. Users see the spreadsheet via a browser thru a UI that is easy to develop using EASA (point/click/drag). The UI exposes only the parts the user needs to see. The UI introduces additional validation. A database is mainatined of all sessions of use of the spreadsheet app including date and time stamp, userid, version of spreadsheet used and data input. The spreadsheet behaves like a core business application. It’s beautiful and unique – so say Zurich Financial Servces, Barclays Wealth, AMLIN, London Stock Exchange, Procter & Gamble. Drop me a line if you’d like to see it.

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