Every person regularly working with Excel reflected on how some of their spreadsheet work could be done better. Whether to avoid boredom, potential errors or scale some processes, automation could be helpful if not revolutionary. How to approach it?
What does Excel automation really mean?
It's simply limiting manual work done in spreadsheets to receive specific outputs. It may (but doesn't have to) involve Visual Basic procedures (macros) or external tools and programming languages different from VBA. In many cases, Excel automation may be achieved through process improvement and standardisation, such as template origination.
Before diving into specific solutions, it's necessary to define the automation expectations. And they can vary greatly, depending on our goals. A home budget spreadsheet needs to be practical but not excessively aesthetical. Simultaneously, the profit & loss sheet of a banking institution or most of the financial spreadsheet solutions have to ensure utmost accuracy even when it implies complexity.
Usually, the objectives fall into these categories:
standardising & structuring output
aligning cross-software processes.
In turn, they help to scale processes, accumulate expertise and make work and decision making better informed and structured. It's no longer enough to rely on the colleague who's Excel Expert in their team. Specialised spreadsheet solutions can bring outstanding business results while keeping processes user-friendly.
Automating spreadsheets with templates
Templates can save immense amounts of time. Surprisingly, the main driver of that is the clarity of how to progress with Excel work. Well-crafted model files define what has to be done and prevent errors by design. They also initiate the improvement and documentation of related processes.
They also use optimal formulae combinations that will work for all expected cases and integrate the file with other spreadsheets if needed. And those are just a few of the many benefits of using Excel templates.
Reducing manual work with Excel macros
The programming language called Visual Basic is an integral part of MS Office spreadsheets. Although relatively not many Excel users can code VBA macros, every one of them can use them. It's often as simple as clicking a button and waiting for the work to be done!
Macros can do everything that can be defined with clear rules. Think of moving data across workbooks, worksheets and cell range, using formulae, adding charts, formatting tables... You can even deploy VBA to export and import xls files, create PowerPoint presentations, migrate data from different sources and integrate Excel with other software packages via API and much more.
Deploying RPA and programming solutions for Excel
It is also possible to speed up the spreadsheet work by deploying robotic process automation or using programming languages alternative to VBA. Although Visual Basic macros are the native solution for automating Excel, spreadsheet workflows may play a secondary role in some cases.
You can use multiple specialised pieces of software and RPA programmes such as Blue Prism, UI Path or Microsoft Power Automate to scale enterprise processes. Also, you can deploy more universal programming languages such as Python for that purpose. In some cases, the external solutions can also trigger VBA macros or vice versa. It's pretty popular to query external databases (e.g. on SQL server or Access) with Visual Basic that activates SQL code.
When to automate and when not?
If you thought about automating something, it's probably worth it. As a rule of thumb, any process or work in Excel you can describe in a structured way can be automated. The profitability of it is mainly defined by how much time can be saved, other benefits of scaling it, and how severe the consequences of manual error are.
How can I start automating Excel?
You can either start approaching Excel from the process improvement point of view. That's actually what this entire blog is about. You may also learn VBA or just have your Excel projects evaluated by our Excel consultancy.