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The Ubiquitous Spreadsheet

Originally published February 6, 2014

Take a look around you. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the spreadsheet is everywhere. I once was at a company in the Midwest that estimated that 4,000,000 unique spreadsheets were created each year in just one building. (That was just a guess. Nobody really knew. It is entirely possible that the actual number was even higher.)

What does that mean? Among other things, it means that some employees at the company did little more than spend their days creating new spreadsheets.

So what’s the big attraction? For all the value of the spreadsheet, probably the single largest attraction is that of CONTROL. When I have my own spreadsheet, I have total and perfect control over what data goes onto the spreadsheet and how that data is to be interpreted. So autonomy of the end user is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) attractions of the spreadsheet.

Another attraction of the spreadsheet is that I can get the data on a computer. I don’t need the IT department to create a new transaction or a new report in order for me to create my own small form of automation. I can have my own automation immediately.

Yet another attraction of the spreadsheet is that I can get the spreadsheet to do things for me. I can cause it to add numbers together, and I can get it to do multiplications and divisions. If I want to do something other than the mere collection of data, then I can get the spreadsheet to do lots of things.

There are other ancillary uses of the spreadsheet. I can use the spreadsheet to document things. I can use the spreadsheet as a form of communication. I can use the spreadsheet as a form of analysis. At the end of the day, the technology that supports the spreadsheet is inexpensive.  In a word, there are good reasons why the spreadsheet is as popular as it is.

The Dark Side of Spreadsheets

But is the spreadsheet a really good thing? It turns out there are some really dark sides to the spreadsheet. Consider the following:
  • Because the spreadsheet is so easy to use, anyone can enter a number on it. I could walk in one day and decide that I need to change monthly revenue numbers. Can I do this? Sure I can. Does my employer like me doing this? Probably not. Does the IRS like me doing this? Certainly not. If I want auditable numbers, the spreadsheet is not the place to find them.

  • One day my computer crashes and I lose all my data on the computer, including all my spreadsheets. Can I easily and automatically recreate my spreadsheets? The answer is that unless I have already thought about it and prepared for such an eventuality, I am out of luck. There is no nice, neat and easy way to automatically recreate my spreadsheets unless I have prepared for it.

  • One day I excitedly share my spreadsheet results with management. Then my neighbor shares her spreadsheet results with management. The problem is that her spreadsheet results are in direct contradiction with my results. How do I defend my results? How do I convince management of the truth of my spreadsheet and the inadequacies of my neighbor’s spreadsheet? My organization has a problem on its hands.

  • One day I look over a spreadsheet I created six months ago. Now I can’t figure out how the calculations were made or even where the data came from.

  • One day I want to examine someone else’s spreadsheet. I find the little formulas that sit behind every cell in a spreadsheet. The problem is that trying to decipher the meaning of a given cell is like trying to understand Greek. And I don’t read or understand Greek.
So there is no question that spreadsheets are pervasive. And there is no question that spreadsheets have solved some of the world’s problems when it comes to management of data. But spreadsheets come with a whole new set of problems.

  • Bill InmonBill Inmon

    Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations.

    Editor's Note: More articles, resources and events are available in Bill's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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