Most important system

Q: what is your organisations most important software product or system?

A: Excel – almost certainly for a massive proportion of organisations.

Q: Name a not-very-important system.

A: Web based expenses tracking

Q: In which system did the users get the most training?

A: Never Excel!

I see and hear this patter repeated and repeated. Excel is mission critical for the whole of the financial services industry yet most people get more training on how to reclaim their 80 quid flea pit hotel room mini bar charges than building testable, reliable spreadsheets.

If you don’t think Excel is the most important, then what do you think is? And does it have a dedicated team to look after it? (Could we agree Excel (or, increasingly another spreadsheet app) is one of the most important?)

Even if Excel doesn’t appear to be the most important, it often seems the case that Excel is implicated in the loading or manipulating of data between other core systems.

At the recent Excel User conf quite a few people came up asking where they could get training in Excel and VBA. So the will is there, whether the budget is I guess is another question.



15 Responses to “Most important system”

  1. Pattie Says:

    I took extra Excel Classes more than 17 years ago, to keep my credits up to remain a Full-Time student (in additionto working) and it was the best investment in myself I could have ever made. Over the years I have been the ‘expert’ in Excel at every organization I have worked at. To me it is as critical to suceess as being able literate.

  2. alastair harris Says:

    this frustrates me. VBA is a proper programming language. To use it properly you need to learn something about computer programming, and then you need to go away and apply it to real problems. Once you know how to program then all you need is google to work out the (mostly frustrating) syntax, and to nick other people’s ideas.

    Actually, what you also need is to understand SQL, and to work out how to use the Access query wizard, and how to link to other database tables.

    Problem is that this is not something you can then use in the way Excel is designed to be used – you have to start using proper dev methodologies.

    Having preached VBA and SQL to all and sundry over the years I have come to the conclusion that only those that can be bothered to work it out for themselves should be allowed to do it!

    • C Rieckenberg Says:

      @ alastair harris I have been thinking the same thing, the need to understand SQL, linking to databases. Do you have any good

      I was hired to improve processes in a biotech lab. As I studied the
      workflow I realized the rate limiting step was not the automation in the
      lab but copying/pasting/deleting the same data over and over and over..
      A few simple macros from a beginner cut times from hours to seconds.
      In the land of the blind a one eyed man is king. The next step is to link
      directly to LIMS.

  3. Harlan Grove Says:

    I’ve never had any training in any spreadsheet, but I’ve taken two application training courses through work (one for Paradox, an old database, back in the 1980s; the other for an in-house application) and a few university night school/continuing education courses on my own (on SAS data step programming and C programming for business).

    The first through-work training took 2 full days off-site, and the other 1 full day in a training room with PCs and the next morning with trainers walking through the department answering questions as we used the system ‘for real’. While the Paradox class was useful (in no small part because there were two of us from my department who attended the same course, so we bounced idea off each other), the trainer knew nothing about its PAL scripting language.

    Both night school courses met once a week over 4 months (12 classes each) with weekly homework assignments, cumulative projects and final exams.

    Any guesses which one was more useful?

    Companies may be able to afford real training, but they’re too impatient to wait a few months for their employees to develop real skills. Companies will only pay to get immediate gratification from training. Since programming and spreadsheets don’t work that way, there’s nothing for which companies are willing to pay.

    Maybe I’m being too bleak. Maybe there are employers elsewhere who reimburse tuition after employees successfully complete outside educational courses, but where I work the company must approve courses up front, and they only approve courses leading to some form of certification. So maybe that leaves MOUS prep courses, but I know next to nothing about MOUS. Are there Excel-specific tracks, or is it only Office as a whole? If the latter, one heck of a lot of chaff to endure to extract a few kernels of useful Excel training.

  4. Bob Phillips Says:

    Surely, the most important system for most corporates is SAP, maybe not the best, but when you sink millions into it with the promise of millions in the future, it has to be (my brother is a SAP implementation manager for a large IT company, he and about half a dozen more have been doing it for over 5 years now – how is that possible?).


    I always found the courses that I took when I worked for corporates to be pointless. They were either corporate propaganda (customer service, performance appraisal system, and so on), which nobody cared about including those mandating it, or for the few technical courses I managed to get myself on I never recall any internal follow-up. So although all corporates say that their most important asset is people, and training is a vital part of their development, I have seen evry little evidence of that talk being followed through.

    My last employer did one interesting thing, they initiated a personal university, with courses we could subscribe to in our own time, and also members of staff could deliver specialist topics. Surprise, I delivered a few Excel courses, not sure how much the people got out of them, but they were all very well attended – which is good, it was their own time. But again, there was no follow-up that I was aware of.

  5. Sal Says:

    While training in Excel sounds like a great idea, it would hand a loaded gun to most corporate excel users. I already inherit Excel files that are overly “cute” to get the job done.

    Most Excel files should only be as complicated as absolutely necessary, and I am afraid many corporate users would reach for the proverbial gun when a little more consistency and better layout would do wonders.

    Sometimes a hammer just needs to be a hammer. Not every nail is better off being shot through a pnueamatic air gun.

  6. dougaj4 Says:

    Sal – wouldn’t that depend on the training?

    If the training focussed on Excel functionality, such as how to squeeze 10 columns worth of logic into one array formula that no-one can understand, then yes it might do more harm than good.

    But what about training users how to arrange their spreadsheets to make the logic more obvious rather than less? Or how to control and document revisions? Or how to effectively review and verify spreadsheet based output so the inevitable errors don’t get accepted as gospel (Excel for non-Excel users perhaps)?

    Couldn’t there be some benefit in that?

  7. Jon Peltier Says:

    I would have said the most important system in a big company is voicemail. Or maybe email.

  8. Will Riley Says:

    @Jon – ask anyone from senior management (and even many below) and that’s the answer you’ll probably get, maybe not face to face, but sure from reading the helpdesk tickets ;-)

    @Bob… LOL, SAP – as someone working on just such a project at the moment, I hear you….

  9. Simon Says:

    I don’t think anyone in the world has finished a SAP implementation yet have they?

  10. Marcus from London Says:

    Like Harlan and others, I’ve never had any training in spreadsheets; the irony here being that I worked as a corporate trainer for a few years teaching both Excel and 1-2-3 to macro levels.

    When Win 95 first came out, I saw a large stream of corporate staff attending the ‘Intro’ courses, a smaller number attending Intermediate and even fewer, the Advanced. VBA (and Lotus macros and then LotusScript) were typically fully tailored workshops.

    Is Excel the most important system? At least in the financial services industry this article would suggest it is:

    Click to access tiacositcol4.pdf

    Other industries, such as legal, would probably slant more to Word. I once did some maintenance work for Patent Lawyers who lived and died by their elaborate, database driven document creation and management system built entirely around Word.

    @Jon: Voice/email is an interesting suggestion. From my experience – which undoubtedly differs from others – email wastes as much time as it saves (the same argument could also be applied to poorly designed spreadsheets).

    At the IB I currently work I received yesterday some 229 emails, the vast majority of which are totally irrelevant to me. I have filters to bin most. However I have seen managers open each one to confirm each emails’ relevance before deleting. There goes the day.

    Regards – Marcus

  11. dougaj4 Says:

    In the engineering world, if you ask the IT guys, they’d probably say Autocad, or maybe their project management system, or maybe a structural analysis program, but if you look at what the guys actually doing the design work have displayed on their monitors at any given time I’d be surprised if Excel wasn’t a clear winner.

    Of course this makes a lot of people very worried, because everyone now knows that not only is Excel not the best tool for everything, it isn’t the best tool for anything. But as far as I can see the opportunities for getting the design wrong are much the same whether you do it with pencil and paper, on a spreadsheet, or with some purpose designed package.

    The answer is in proper independent review and verification procedures, not in trying to get everyone to use some magical software package that does not allow errors.

  12. Bob Phillips Says:

    @Marcus, email is undoubtedly the biggest workflow destroyer/time waster on the planet. In concept it is great, in actuality it has become horredously abused. Everyone expects an immediate answer, don’t dare to consider a response, and of course it is the biggest a## coverer going. You copy in everybody that might possibly have an interest/be affected, most of whom of course cannot read it because they have a job to do, and when it goes pear-shaped you just refer back to the email of 24th Jul at 22:49 that you sent them and told them exactly what you were doing.

    Five years ago when I was working for an IB, I was getting in excess of 500 per day. Of course this is stupid, so you filter them. I had To and cc filters, and I only looked at my email 3 times a day, 10am, 2pm, and about 6pm. Of course this left me vulnerabe to the tactics I outline above, but I had work to do.

  13. Marcus from London Says:

    Hi Bob,

    One IB manager I’ve dealt with basically deleted everything in his inbox when returning from holiday (vacation) and just waited to see who screamed to find out what was truly important.

    Agreed, rectal protection has made email a huge scapegoat.

    Cheers – Marcus

  14. Nick Hebb Says:

    I read though the Excel manual that Microsoft provided (yeah, a looong time ago), but I’ve never received any formal training. I have worked at two companies that had in-house trainers to cover Office and other commonly used software. The training was all really basic stuff, though.

    BTW, I think Excel is the most critical for Finance companies, but beyond that there are many industries where it’s rarely used. And even in finance, there are exceptions. My wife has worked in the mortgage industry for years, and other than managers, the rank and file employees (underwriters, processors, etc.) do not use Excel much.

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