Excel is NOT Forever

Here are MY New Year’s thoughts:

I used to just assume that spreadsheets were forever – I don’t think that way anymore.

I have made the point in many speeches around the world that Scrooge and Cratchit were doing “spreadsheets” that famous, fictional, Christmas eve.  I believed that once people started using ledgers to track money (as opposed to abacuses (abaci?)) the electronic spreadsheet was just a natural step and would now just get better and better and more powerful as it is used by smarter and smarter and better experienced users. This  would lead to a plethora of professionally designed “spreadsheet applications” that providedintegrated and integral functionality for businesses all over the world – forever.

The spreadsheet was the “killer app” of the PC (Personal Computer) when the Apple IIe and the IBM PC came out and it remained so for a long time.  In the old days my spreadsheets (and Access apps) were able to get in, get done and get paid before IT even knew they existed.  Then most of them were left alone because they got the job done and didn’t  need any IT resources to maintain.  Only when the apps were TOO good did they become an embarassment for IT and get shut down – but I was already paid so I didn’t really give a shit.

Then the Internet came along, and along with the Internet came better and better connectivity and the PC was basically co-opted into the corporate interior and fell under the management of IT.  With security worries, SOX, off-shoring. large consulting firms and now the economic meltdown, (that is not over by the way), things have changed.

Remember the phrase “under the radar”?  Well the radar has been moved down to ground level and now the old model doesn’t work.  Potential clients don’t have the power or budget to spend money on these projects and getting rights to the data or the network resources  has become so difficult or impossible to prevent many projects before they even get off the ground – and that is just not good business for people like me either.

So without the ability to connect to the data required, use internal network capabilities as necessary or the rights to use outside resources, Excel is now playing the role of the only tool that users have the rights to use BY themselves (so far) in “personal” ways or to email around inefficiently and insecurely.  So many, many  business processes are currently being run on bad user-maintained spreadsheets.  In short order IT will begin shutting spreadsheets down – to protect the businesses.  Under these circumstances that will probably be a good idea.

Such spreadsheets could not be relied on as sources of anything in the SharePoint environment that is being bet on anyway.  So where is all that SharePoint “content” going to come from?

Rather than becoming a major tool in the suite of tools available for business analysis and process, Excel is becoming a rogue time-bomb just waiting for the powers-that-be to realize it has to be shut down.  This is a dirty, rotten shame IMHO.  This was and is totally unnecessary but it has been allowed to happen and it is what it is. 

Can anyone do anything about it?  I know one organization that can, but I doubt they will.

So we all have to plan our futures accordingly.

Happy New Year everyone.

About Biggus Dickus

Dick is a consultant in London, ON Canada who specializes in Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Office Development.
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9 Responses to Excel is NOT Forever

  1. Marcus from London says:

    Hi Dick,

    Umm, thanks for signing off the year with such an upbeat post😦

    However, I do tend to agree with you. Historically a lot of my work was under the radar. More than one IT manager has confessed that outwardly they need to frown upon such projects while privately acknowledging they didn’t have the resources (time, money, people, whatever) to fill the gap.

    Of late though, much of my work has reduced Excel to a GUI with all the data, number crunching and grunt work taking place elsewhere.

    Your statement ‘IT will begin shutting spreadsheets down – to protect the businesses’ is in the wrong tense. They’ve already started. In fact, they’ve been at it for while. In one case I’m aware of, an outside regulator threatened to shut down the business (unit) if it continued to use their spreadsheets (generating risk and P&L) in the current manner.

    But it’s not fair to purely blame the IT dept (nor the business). IT has been under pressure to cut costs, increase their professionalism and still keep those darn business users on a leash. Business users have had to respond to IT’s inertia by taking matters into their own hands. The results aren’t always pretty. At one IB I’ve worked, MS Access was formally forbidden by IT. A quick scan found just over 400 mdb files on the server. When IT takes away business’ tools, the business will either use tools covertly or, when they are permanently taken away, will resolve to using their existing tools in a way they weren’t designed for – such as 450 meg spreadsheets.

    We may see more acute cases of larger companies unable to respond to business requirement due to the rigidity of the IT infrastructures, having their lunch eaten by small, more nimble firms who’s IT dept can respond to ever changing business needs with the most appropriate tools.

    Cheers – Marcus

  2. Dick Moffat says:

    “We may see more acute cases of larger companies unable to respond to business requirement due to the rigidity of the IT infrastructures, having their lunch eaten by small, more nimble firms who’s IT dept can respond to ever changing business needs with the most appropriate tools. ”

    That’s EXACTLY what expect to see. But I’m afraid the entrenched mindset in IT and in Board Rooms may just decide to accept the limitations in the name of control.

    Sorry for the dour New Year’s comments but I’m not a big fan of deluding people about the “Joys” of our business.

    Thanx
    Dick

  3. Jon Peltier says:

    I think Dick’s analysis, while accurate in general, is overly pessimistic. The current economy has shut down a lot of potential work, but has opened up markets for smaller bits of work, like the charting tools I’ve started marketing.

    I think Marcus’ assessment is accurate that smaller, more nimble companies will evolve to fill the gap left by the dinosaurs. The only SOX they (need to) care about are the Red Sox or the White Sox. They don’t have their own obese, obstructive IT megaliths. They just have work to do, and they don’t have lots of job-saving rules to follow. If getting it done means hiring a gunslinger to help, that’s what they do.

  4. Dick Moffat says:

    “They just have work to do, and they don’t have lots of job-saving rules to follow. If getting it done means hiring a gunslinger to help, that’s what they do.”

    That may be true. But will there be enough of that kind of business to maintain a community of people with the skills to help them. A market based on a small number of small projects simply won’t sustain itself over the medium or long run. Without the big guys there will not be enough money to keep a “professional” class of spreadsheet and/or small database developers – unless they all stay single and live in their psrents’ basements🙂

    Dick

  5. Jon Peltier says:

    Will there be critical mass, you mean? I get your point, and I don’t know.

    Can we judge by users of Excel add-ins? The majority of my software sales are to unknown domains: companies (probably small) that I’ve never heard of, or mass email domains like Yahoo and Gmail. Perhaps 10% go to domains of large corporates, consulting firms, and academia.

  6. Harlan Grove says:

    I’ve written elsewhere that Excel is usually the only tool given to non-IT business users that provides any automation capability. That can, but doesn’t need to, include programmability. If businesses take Excel away, they lose some productivity. The questions is how much productivity.

    Where I work, fewer than 10% of users create their own spreadsheets, and of those, fewer than half (so less than 5% of all) create spreadsheets that contain more than a dozen simple formulas or span more than a single worksheet (or that print out on more than one UNCOMPRESSED page). IOW, for most users Excel, as a composition tool, is a single screen grid control, not a spreadsheet. So for the majority of non-IT business users (extrapolating wildly), having Excel taken away won’t reduce productivity much.

    That leaves the other 5% or so who are lazy and clever, so who try to automate repetitious processes. Unless IT provides work-alike tools, they’d be screwed if IT took their spreadsheets away. However, unless their managers are narcoleptics, non-IT management may raise a fuss about that loss of productivity.

    So maybe this is another 80/20 situation: 80% (or more) of users get 20% (or less) of their productivity from spreadsheets – no great loss taking spreadsheets away from them, but probably minimal risks letting them keep their spreadsheets; OTOH, 20% (or fewer) or users get 80% (or more) of their productivity from spreadsheets – no easy or sensible to take their spreadsheets away without giving them replacement tools.

    There’s also Microsoft itself to consider. If there were a serious threat of large organizations removing Excel and Access from non-IT users, it might occur to some IT software buyers that OpenOffice Writer and Impress just might be adequate replacements for MSO Word and PowerPoint. That just might be the point at which MSFT begins to work on good spreadsheet management tools for Excel.

    Access, OTOH, I think is doomed *if* IT departments can bring themselves to provide non-IT users with server RDBMS accounts with which those users can write and run their own queries and even create and maintain their own TEMPORARY tables. I recall the MIS/DP department for the company where I was working in summer 1989 (just before I left and about a year before they networked their PCs) was doing a feasability study of giving some of the more technical non-MIS/DP users (those who knew how to write programs for the mainframe and could figure out how to edit CLISTs and JCL) with limited DB2 accounts. If IT departments are willing to share some of their database toys, there’s no good reason to keep programs like Access around.

  7. Dick Moffat says:

    Great points Harlan (as usual).

    “There’s also Microsoft itself to consider. If there were a serious threat of large organizations removing Excel and Access from non-IT users, it might occur to some IT software buyers that OpenOffice Writer and Impress just might be adequate replacements for MSO Word and PowerPoint. That just might be the point at which MSFT begins to work on good spreadsheet management tools for Excel.”

    The way people use Excel today I see no reason why OpenOffice couldn’t do the job and for a lot less. Tragically though, IF people just understood the value that lies in Excel that they are not tapping into (and that value isn’t JUST VBA) then a HUGE opportunity for MS, for these Users and their companies (and of course for us) would be lost, never to be recovered from any other source.

    “If IT departments are willing to share some of their database toys, there’s no good reason to keep programs like Access around.”

    True – but they aren’t doing it and they aren’t going to do it either. I think the departmental database is going to be an on-going problem because IT really does not like not having control of databases even to the point of not even giving the genuine consumers of that data adequate query capability in many cases. To them Access is a virus and simple access to that data is a risk – go figure.

    Why Microsoft can’t understand how important Excel and Access are to keeping organizations in THEIR “Camp” is beyond me (although they tell me they do, their actions speak otherwise).

    I know that Office isn’t the latest cool thing, but there are always going to be good solid things in this world that just go on and on generation after generation without being changed, but they continue to make a lot of money for their companies. Everybody loves their Kraft Dinner in North America , or their Heinz Beans in the UK or their Vegimite Down Under (although I have no idea why in that case) if you want to think in terms of software as a “product”. Maybe that’s not a good analogy but I think it’s fair.

    A world without spreadsheets and/or departmental databases strikes me as a tragedy. A world without good, well designed, efficient, capable spreadsheets and smaller databases strikes me as a big lost opportunity for everyone involved – including Microsoft.

    Dick

  8. Marcus from London says:

    All valid points gents. Of course individual mileage may vary. My last contract involved maintaining a spreadsheet with 504,000 formulas (formulae?) across 114 worksheets with just over 10,000 VBA LOC. The users spend 95% of their day in front of a spreadsheet several of which have grown organically over 11 years. I shudder to think of the cost attributed to them over that time.

    Meanwhile, this organisation had also removed Access from its SOE, so users were also maintaining large spreadsheets for database functionality. MSO2007 would be a disaster in such places further enticing the use of the wrong tool for the job as a pseudo-RDMS.

    Watch it Dick; there’s 2 jars of Vegemite in the cupboard here – always keep a reserve (Aussie in UK remember)😉

  9. Dick Moffat says:

    Marcus – Each to their own I guess🙂 ….

    :Meanwhile, this organisation had also removed Access from its SOE, so users were also maintaining large spreadsheets for database functionality. MSO2007 would be a disaster in such places further enticing the use of the wrong tool for the job as a pseudo-RDMS.”

    Yep – I’ve recently seen several references to “Excel Database” on the Internets – scary stuff.

    Dick

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