Killing Spreadsheets and Empowering Data Driven Organizations

Are spreadsheets outdated

One of the more polarizing discussions I've had with IT leaders on Twitter chats #IdgTechTalk (Thursdays 12pm ET), #CIOChat (Thursdays at 2pm ET) or at conferences is around the use or misuse of spreadsheets.

From the comments, you can guess people are either "for" or "against" using spreadsheets, but what we are really saying is, "Use them wisely" and find ways to replace them with more robust tools when they become operational.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • "The amount of core business rules that are still buried in spreadsheets still frightens me regularly #idgtechtalk" - @efeatherston, tweeted on 12/6/2018
  • "I am with you on this! Coincidentally, I spent large part of my day today playing with large datasets in Google Spreadsheets, formulas and functions and ended up realizing a need for a more flexible, reliable data-system for the project I was working on. #IDGTECHtalk" - @moingshaikh tweeted on 12/6/2018
  • "So many people want to kill the spreadsheet, but building/adopting tools that can produce or consume a spreadsheet can be a huge enabler for the larger ecosystem.  A "download as a #spreadsheet" button can be a huge win.  #idgtechtalk" @CPetersen_CS tweeted on 12/6/2018
  • "You used all the colors of the rainbow for your spreadsheet.... anyone should be able to read it at a glance, like you do.  #idgtechtalk" - @BrentKirkpatri3 tweeted on 1/17/2019
  • "Ah The ode to the spreadsheet. I profess my undying love to excel... Via  @mthiele10: @IDGTechTalk But, but, my spreadsheet, it’s so beautiful... #IDGTECHtalk" - @MaribelLopez tweeted on 1/17/2019

Using spreadsheets wisely

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I've written quite a bit on the dangers of using spreadsheets to "run the business". In my book, Driving Digital, I have a chapter on becoming data driven where I label MS Excel and Access as a "Data sin of our pasts." I advise, "Think of spreadsheets as algorithms" even when "executives can’t get off the juice of getting quick and cheap analysis." You can read my letter to spreadsheet jockeys, my plea to Access developers, and my fears of data landfills of siloed data sources.

For the record, I don't want to ban spreadsheets, but I do think they should be used appropriately. Here are some good use cases for when spreadsheets are appropriate:

  • A quick inspection of downloaded data 
  • One time analysis of data for some quick insights
  • Very basic formatting of data for a one time presentation
  • Basic data cleansing and prep before loading the data into another tool
  • A personal tool for tracking something 

This is not to say there aren't other good reasons. What I am sharing in this list are use cases that are very limited in scope - either because they are done one time, are used by one person, or are a quick tool for basic formatting. 

It's trues, spreadsheets such as Google Sheets have improved collaboration and Microsoft has built up Excel's data integration and analytical capabilities. You can do a lot more with these tools than three years ago, but once data or a process becomes operational, there simply are more robust tools for the job.

Replacing spreadsheet use cases with more robust tools

Over the last decade, technology companies have developed tools and SaaS platforms that target citizen data scientists, basic data prep and stewardship activities, and citizen developers building robust departmental workflow applications. The table below provides a brief summary

Use CaseWith SpreadsheetsMore robust options
Sharing data with a small groupCreate spreadsheet and email or store on a shared drivePublish the data source to a data catalog that supports versioning and developing data dictionaries
Basic data cleansingFormulas, dedupe, copy/paste, macros Data prep tools such as Tableau Data Prep, Talend Data Preparation and others designed for business data analysts, data cleansing and basic data blending
Basic workflowData and status stored in spreadsheets and shared with the groupCitizen developer platforms such as QuickBase, Caspio, and Kintone that can load Excel and create robust web/mobile based workflows
Data analysis and visualizationFormulas, charts/graphs that must be updated when the data changesRobust data visualization tools such as Tableau Online, Looker, Qlik and others that allow business data analysts to create visualizations and analysis, publish to the cloud for sharing, and define schedules to automate data updates
Process new data setsMix of Excel techniques to load and blend data setsMix of API, data integration tools (ETL or data streaming) and data quality tools that can be implemented by data teams or IT to properly manage data sources.

I often see many organizations failing to recognize when their spreadsheets become part of a critical business operation. The spreadsheet may start with one person producing a report monthly, scales where a few people are involved, and grows where more people rely on the underlying data and process. By then, many leaders fear relinquishing control of their spreadsheets or having it replaced with a new tool they need to learn.

And so like all things that are transformational, using these robust citizen data technologies requires organizing and managing a change effort getting leaders, dashboard consumers, and citizen data analysts to work collaboratively.

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About Isaac Sacolick

Isaac Sacolick is President of StarCIO, a technology leadership company that guides organizations on building digital transformation core competencies. He is the author of Digital Trailblazer and the Amazon bestseller Driving Digital and speaks about agile planning, devops, data science, product management, and other digital transformation best practices. Sacolick is a recognized top social CIO, a digital transformation influencer, and has over 900 articles published at InfoWorld,, his blog Social, Agile, and Transformation, and other sites. You can find him sharing new insights @NYIke on Twitter, his Driving Digital Standup YouTube channel, or during the Coffee with Digital Trailblazers.