Spreadsheets. Love them or hate them, in accountancy, you can’t ignore them. And if you hate them, is it possible you’re in the wrong job?
For resource managers with complex projects that can span continents, we need to talk about why spreadsheets are still used for resource planning when they just don’t cut the mustard in today’s world.
Let’s first pay Excel its dues: it’s been a phenomenon in its lifetime, no question. In 1996, Microsoft proclaimed it the world’s most popular spreadsheet application in a press release that celebrated 30 million users, with lots of colourful testimonials.
That was 24 years ago, when Bill Clinton was president, the Macarena was top of the charts, Enron was still a thing, and there were only 100,000 active websites in existence. (Today, there are over 1.7 billion).
When cloud technology arrived, it’s no surprise that the spreadsheet landscape changed too. Spreadsheets could be updated kinda sorta collaboratively, and sort of in real-time, and this convinced many firms that, once again, they remained the best way to map resource planning.
To quote the infamous Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Spreadsheets were never designed for project or resource management, but with the dearth of other solutions out there, and their ubiquity in accountancy, they ended up filling the role.
Luckily, the message appears to be getting through that centralised, purpose-built automated software is the best way to plan and manage complex projects, but if anyone needs a reminder, here are four reasons why it’s time to ditch Excel for planning.
The key to successful team spreadsheet use is to have everything and everyone kept up to date. How often, when nobody has any time to do anything beyond client work, does that happen?
We’re human, and life gets in the way. An incorrect change here or a missed update there can all have a knock-on effect on the work of others. This can very quickly snowball into silos of workforce scheduling, where one part of a team is moving at a very different pace to another.
Running everything on a centralised platform gets rid of all this clutter, giving you live information, and even notifications when something has been or needs to be changed.
Having a hundred people inputting availability, skills, and cost expectations into a spreadsheet is simply asking for trouble.
For large firms, trying to keep everyone up to date through a shared document can be a nightmare. While workarounds and hacks might help, these aren’t sustainable, especially in resource planning where everything is fluid, and people are constantly moving around. Eventually, the sheets become a quagmire.
A centralised platform that is structured specifically to handle tasks such as scheduling, for example, can show potential clashes and automatically draw up a way around them. You can then share assets across the firm in seconds. Easy peasy!
Jack of all trades
Spreadsheets are flexible, relatively easy to master, and don’t require IT support. But for large and complex tasks such as tracking a team of auditors working on an international project, they’re not up to the job. They’re a drain to update and always out of date as the job moves so quickly, and are prone to errors that are not easily spotted or rectified.
No matter how fancy the macro, a spreadsheet won’t update you with the progress of a project or remind you of conversations you had around the start of a job regarding potential stumbling points.
It won’t be able to continually update whoever needs to be in the loop, or inform you of who could be critical to the project if someone else drops out.
Automated scheduling solutions are designed to move with the project, pinpoint resources, and provide updates on the immediate state of a project, where it is heading, and what needs to be tackled immediately.
Time is money
There’s another business case to be made for investing in resource management software which doesn’t revolve around headline-grabbing mistakes. Spreadsheet junkies are a rare and valuable breed who can turn huge amounts of data into magical insights. However, their documents often need a lot of updating, care, and attention.
Devoting endless hours to custom spreadsheet maintenance costs time and money, which can be far better spent on the project itself.
One final example: having automated intelligence software crunch future headcount requirements allows for live forecasting of surpluses, and can help you weigh up shortfall versus demand. The system is constantly looking for optimal project plans to save you cost and risk, so you don’t have to.
With a click of a button, you can see what a team is up to, or uncover the perfect person with the perfect skill for an urgent job. None of this is possible with a plain old spreadsheet, no matter how many macros you dream up.
Given the popularity of Excel, accounting executives would be forgiven for having their heads buried inside scheduling and budget sheets all this time without realising the world, and the market, has moved on.
Big data and real-time information are two significant advances that have fundamentally altered business intelligence, and their adoption inside big firms is consigning spreadsheet use in these areas to the past.
Put simply, 35 years after Excel was first launched, it’s time to think beyond the spreadsheet. The software was magnificent for its time, but it wasn’t built for the kind of large, complex resource management requirements that drive modern accounting and audit.
Adopting new technology and managing change can be hard, but doing so will allow you to make a step-change in your teams’ effectiveness and success. And who knows, maybe eventually, it may mean the end of all those pesky spreadsheets.