Natalie Gagliordi | Content Strategist | June 5, 2023
Love them or hate them, spreadsheets will endure. But while spreadsheets will remain indispensable, they’re too often tapped by business users to do analytics jobs too complex for a spreadsheet’s capability to pull off. Many teams default to spreadsheets as their go-to tool for organizing work, managing projects, and reporting data. When it comes to doing analytics, business groups often resort to spreadsheets as the catch-all basket in which they gather up the data from the myriad sources that they need. Using spreadsheets for such a task leads to lots of manual work and the risk of human error—which can translate into missed opportunities that teams could’ve seized upon if they had the right tool for the job.
Spreadsheets are a competent tool for many business endeavors; however, risks arise from using spreadsheets incorrectly for tasks they’re not designed to perform. When used for tasks beyond their capabilities, spreadsheets can create risks, including data entry errors, calculation errors, security vulnerabilities, scalability problems, and compliance shortcomings. When multiple spreadsheets are used, data is often spread across many files, making it difficult to create a single, consistent, and trusted business view that decision-makers can rely on. And because there’s typically no governance process in place with spreadsheets, decision-makers might be served incorrect data due to unseen errors. Spreadsheets also are limited in their ability to do analysis and provide recommendations. All of these issues combined can lead to the phenomenon known as “spreadsheet hell”—an environment where spreadsheets proliferate, information gets outdated, and human-error risk rises, rendering analysis unreliable.
Spreadsheets are used in many industries and work for the right, targeted job. However, numerous risks are associated with the widespread use of spreadsheets, including a tendency for manual data entry and insecure data errors due to a lack of access controls and widespread sharing. Because of their performance limitations, spreadsheets can also become unscalable over time as a business grows, quickly running out of fuel when faced with the intricacies of cross-functional teams; multifaceted operations; and the need for high-level interaction, collaboration, and coordination.
Spreadsheets are often the default option teams use to pull together the data they need during analytics tracking. The problem: Spreadsheets are easy to launch but hard to maintain with current data. They often proliferate, so there are soon multiple versions of that initial data set, leading decision-makers to lose trust in the data and conclusions. While spreadsheets handle numerical data well, they aren’t well suited for unstructured data. When depending on spreadsheets, many companies struggle to make sense of their data and can miss opportunities to glean useful insights through in-depth data analysis.
Spreadsheets are a popular tool for businesses because they are flexible, easy to launch and use, and generally cheap (essentially free to the business end-user) compared to some alternatives. Spreadsheets also can be created quickly and easily without the need for IT support or specialized software, making them an accessible tool for many functions. Users often need to pull data from multiple sources and systems, and they opt for spreadsheets to collect it for all the reasons just explained.
Spreadsheets also provide a way to sort data and make calculations that business teams need to make informed decisions without launching a major IT initiative. In finance and finance functions across industries, spreadsheets remain essential to core tasks such as financial modeling and reporting. Data preparation is another big reason people use spreadsheets for analytical work. Data is often stored in a format that isn’t optimal for analytics, so people export it to a spreadsheet to manipulate it into a form that businesspeople can use. Most analytics tools don’t provide built-in data preparation and enrichment.
Spreadsheets are used for business purposes, including accounting, data management, and financial analysis. While useful for such jobs, they create risks when pushed to higher scales and capabilities. Spreadsheets can become increasingly difficult to manage across medium or larger organizations. Issues related to data governance, security and access controls, data integrity, and regulatory compliance get increasingly complicated to address with larger volumes and more users. Here are some of the most common risks businesses face when using spreadsheets:
1. Errors: Whether it’s mistakes from manual data entry or the use of outdated data, spreadsheet-based analytics are prone to errors, particularly when the analytics is based on large and complex data sets. Even a small mistake can have significant consequences, especially if it goes undetected for a long time. Errors also can be introduced when data is being manipulated for purposes such as analytics.
2. Data insecurity: Spreadsheets can be easily copied, shared, and distributed, increasing the risk of unauthorized access or data breaches (PDF). Sensitive data stored in spreadsheets also can be compromised when ported into other systems for tasks such as analytics and visualization.
3. Limited scalability: Spreadsheets can easily manage a proliferation of reports and users, but they’re not equipped to handle large amounts of data or complex calculations and business analysis, leading to performance shortfalls and errors.
4. Lack of transparency: It can be difficult to trace the origin of data or understand the logic behind calculations in a spreadsheet, especially if it was created by someone else using data from many sources.
5. Workflow efficiency: Due to issues and limitations in data sharing via spreadsheets, their use can lead to manual and repetitive processes across a business and cause people to perform duplicate efforts trying to solve the same or similar problems.
6. Work silos: Spreadsheets are typically created and used by individuals or teams, which can create information silos and result in inconsistencies and errors in data.
7. Version control: With multiple users editing a single spreadsheet, keeping track of the most up-to-date version can be difficult if the spreadsheet is used incorrectly. This can lead to confusion, and people might end up working with different spreadsheet versions. Spreadsheets can support real-time collaboration using cloud versions, but many users favor the desktop versions that create these headaches.
8. Wasted time: Maintaining and updating spreadsheets can take up employee time, especially when dealing with large amounts of data, which can divert resources and time from more important business activities.
9. Limited data scope: Spreadsheets are limited in handling data types important to analytics efforts, especially unstructured data, such as large text documents.
10. Lack of trust: Any of these factors can lead business leaders to believe that the information they’re depending on for decision-making is out of date, inaccurate, or biased. Leaders who don’t trust their data will revert to gut-feel decision-making based on experience rather than being truly data-driven.
It's important for businesses to carefully consider the potential risks associated with spreadsheets and establish controls and processes to manage them. This generally entails addressing current spreadsheet usage, taking appropriate corrective action, and implementing best practices and new corporate policies to reduce risk potential continually. That might involve implementing new applications to meet a need spreadsheets can’t. The following are steps you can take to mitigate spreadsheet risks:
1. Identify how spreadsheets are used: Take an inventory of how spreadsheets are used in your organization to know the extent of the risk.
2. Pinpoint the risks: Assess which spreadsheet risks are most significant in your organization. These risks may include data entry errors, unauthorized access, data loss, or incomplete or outdated information.
3. Implement controls: Implementing password protection, version control, and data validation can help reduce spreadsheet risks.
4. Train staff on spreadsheet best practices: Ensure that all staff who use spreadsheets are trained on techniques including formula auditing, error checking, and version control. Include training on when spreadsheets are the wrong tool.
5. Review and test critical spreadsheets: Spreadsheets used in critical, high-stakes decision-making processes should be audited regularly to ensure accuracy and validity. Though this approach isn’t practical to scale widely, this can help identify and correct errors in key systems before they cause serious damage.
6. Consider alternatives: Depending on the complexity of your business, consider spreadsheet alternatives such as specialized analytics software, particularly cloud-based platforms, to reduce risks associated with spreadsheet usage.
Spreadsheets are a useful tool in business, but there also can be steep and costly consequences when they’re misused. Spreadsheet mistakes are not only costly in terms of time and money but also can lead to damaged reputations and lost jobs. Here are three real-world examples.
Spreadsheets will always have their place. But if you’re trying to uncover valuable information in your data using techniques such as combining multiple data sources or doing iterative discovery using machine learning capabilities to find hidden patterns within data, a spreadsheet won’t do the job. Likewise, if you’re using a spreadsheet to track project status, there’s likely a purpose-built project management tool that’s a better option. Of course, all these options require money, while firing up a spreadsheet won’t bring incremental costs—a big part of their appeal. But if a budget item is possible, here are several alternatives to using spreadsheets:
While spreadsheets can be a powerful tool for many use cases, it's important for businesses to recognize their limitations and potential risks when used for analytics. To mitigate these risks, businesses should embrace an analytics-driven culture built around trusted data and consider implementing alternative tools with more functionality, security, and governance.
A secure analytics platform can provide greater functionality than a spreadsheet and reduce the need for data exports by centralizing the logic dispersed across physical files, bringing that into an accessible, well-governed location for all to use. Oracle Analytics provides all the data manipulation capabilities people need to combine in-house and third-party data sets and leverage them in a trackable, shareable, and repeatable business process. Offering the latest data analytics technologies, including AI, machine learning, and natural language processing, Oracle Analytics is a complete analytics solution that can help your company make better decisions based on more timely and precise data—data that your business leaders understand and trust.
What are the disadvantages of using a spreadsheet?
The main disadvantages of spreadsheets are data insecurity, limited scalability, and vulnerability to costly human errors.
What are the shortcomings of using spreadsheets for analytics?
Spreadsheets are difficult to govern and lack data management functionality, which makes them a poor fit for complex analytics using multiple data sources.
What are some examples of common spreadsheet problems?
Common spreadsheet errors include copy-and-paste errors and stale data due to manual updates.