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Death by a Thousand Pivot Tables: The Problem with Excel

Posted by Trish Lemley on Sep 3, 2019 1:00:00 PM

the-excel-problem.001image credit: suphakit73/

Across the finance industry, the great Excel debate is alive and well, with ardent supporters on both sides. Why should those of us in media care what the finance industry thinks of Excel? Considering that many would say our businesses are duct-taped together with Excel, I think it’s worth some examination.

Pro Excel:

  • Big behemoths like government, investment banks, Wall Street and the stock markets rely on Excel; therefore, it will never go away.
  • These are institutions that are resistant to change, and the idea of launching new BI and analytics tools is a non-starter for them.
  • Excel is a powerful, customizable and relatively cheap tool that everyone can use and is trained on.
  • Overall: The financial industry is run on Excel - If it ain't broke don't fix it! 

Against Excel:

  • Excel is a ball and chain - the ultimate enabler of “we've always done it that way.'”
  • It is a drain on the time and energy of great talent - hours are spent creating macro’d-out, advanced spreadsheets, instead of analyzing information, modeling scenarios and making informed decisions.
  • It is a workflow bottleneck, and it reduces the ability to automate processes and maintain inefficient business workflows.
  • It is prone to human error and fat fingers, which can lead to ill-informed decisions.
  • Overall: Embrace new technology and automation - Acknowledge the opportunity cost of being tied to manually intensive tools!

I can see both sides...nothing is ever truly black or white. There are subtleties, nuances, and plenty of grey areas to navigate; but if accountants and financial professionals are willing to debate the long term merits of running an Excel-based business, shouldn’t we be examining how much we rely on it?

I know Retro is cool, but...

Excel has been around since I carried printed resumes on expensive paper in a cheesy pleather portfolio around NYC begging for interviews. It has not lost its popularity in all that time, nor has its functionality dramatically changed; but think of all the technological innovations in your life, job and industry over the last 25 years...are we really saying that there aren’t new technologies that can handle what Excel can? Are we destined for death by a thousand pivot tables, or is there another way?

Maybe the answer is evolution, not revolution - taking small but progressive steps forward toward the new world of work. This is certainly an idea worthy of consideration. The myriad of systems and tools used across our industry is mind-numbing; have you seen the most recent LUMAscapes?!LUMAscape 2018

image credit: LUMA Partners LLC 2019

Many staff-level positions on both the buy- and sell-side have to be trained on and work daily in over 10-15 different systems/tools! As an ad ops professional for over 20 years, and someone who has had her hands in many of these systems, I can attest to the pain and frustration of trying to pull reporting and draw insights from them. Just trying to validate a report’s numbers and ensure that it represents the ‘truth’ can be an arduous task requiring hours of Excel manipulation.

Time to retire that trusty, old, hard briefcase for a comfy and versatile backpack

We have let Excel become the default mechanism to tie our disparate systems together, glean insights, and help make more informed decisions. But as Dr. Phil likes to ask, “How is that working for you?” I believe it is time to move beyond a tool that was introduced when I first entered the workforce, and embrace what technology can do for us, our businesses and our quality of work life. There is a better way.

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