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  • Writer's pictureMichael Sena

When Excel is not the best solution?

Excel is omnipresent in the corporate world and not less popular among SMEs. Yet, it's not always the best software choice.

A grid-shaped view can feel like a prison...

On the one hand, artificial intelligence and machine learning are now much more impressive branches of analytics than spreadsheets. On the other hand, there is no shortage of Excel "gurus" that prefer to never step out of Excel, even when they want to play a game or create a website... Yes, we've seen games and websites done in Excel - not recommend it.

But machine learning is often an overkill

Advanced technological solutions are costly, and if IT tech is not your company's industry, they can only benefit you when used at scale. The leading social media giants handling billions of clicks or requests have that scale, and improving their sophisticated systems by a few per cent can make a difference.

Just like in the case of Google, which saved $200 mln after testing 41 shades of blue for the best ad click results. Such a test for the non-tech and not large company would be more costly and bring much less significant nominal savings or revenue growth. Similarly, a sophisticated solution for medium-size business forecasting wouldn't be commercially viable.

Excel limits for data

Excel is one of the best tools for front-end use. Relative to other tech solutions, everything is clear and traceable in well-structured spreadsheets. You can view the formulas, quickly make sense of formatted data and trace the insights back to their source and granular data.

Excel is like a store with products (data) displayed on the shelves and summarised in neat catalogues.

It's convenient when you shop on a small scale but not when you procure 600 tones of aeroplane parts of 90'000 types.

A warehouse that efficiently stores them (SQL/cloud database) is then a much better solution, and you can still visit the store (Excel) to view the (data) samples or see their (management dashboard) overview.

Excel has a hardcoded limit of 16'384 (2 to 14th power) columns and 1'048'575 (2 to 20th power) rows. Despite that, it usually becomes sluggish when we go over 100'000 rows by 20+ columns, especially when formulae-intensive and heavily formatted. Still, Google Sheets usually break down before reaching those numbers.

Limitations to Excel functionalities

Excel is extremely versatile in its capabilities. It has a galore of built-in functions, making it an easy to use tool for financial valuation, statistical analysis, mathematical and engineering projects. And that's on top of the range of text, positional and date/time functions.

Still, it is not a piece of software created with a sole focus on specific advanced analytics areas. Leveraging certain less common statistical models, tests or performing advanced optimisation calculations impossible but sometimes cumbersome in Excel. In many cases, it can be done with some user-developed tools like this statistical extension pack for Excel created by a Mathematics Professor, Dr Zaiontz.

Collaboration on Excel files

Although available also in the cloud, Excel is predominantly used offline. And that is to blame (at least in part) for difficulties in version control and the use of external links. Simply put - if two people work on the same file taking turns, forgetting to send the up-to-date version or plugging locally saved files may cause troubles.

If you just need to make a short attendance list or distribute tasks between a small group of people, you should use Google Sheets or a designated software such as the product management tool Chisel. And that's said by an Excel Consultant for whom spreadsheet-related work is the main revenue source.

When your work is more complex, the choice between Excel and other tools would usually be reduced to evaluating the trade-off between the collaboration features and ease of use plus versatility.

When to use Excel and when not?

Use Excel if you need a tool with a wide range of functionalities. It will handle analytics, finance and most business domains really well unless you have to analyse millions of data rows or compute complex integrals.

You can collaborate on Excel files, but working simultaneously on the same files would be better in Google Sheets. Treating Excel as a database is also convenient if it's not a vast database (millions of cells). And if your IT colleague bullies you for storing your highly curated 5000-row set of data in Excel, ask them how they are going to use that 1 MB of saved disc space after migrating it to the cloud...

But above all else, Excel is just a tool and should be neither fetishised nor stigmatised but evaluated based on whether it's fit for purpose. Only when it's not you can consider other technologies and tools. Also, you can always try Excel automation to boost spreadsheet efficiency.



1. Lack of awareness
2. Budgeting constraints
3. Status quo
4. Case study
5. Equilibrium
6. The remedy
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