It’s Time to End Spreadsheet Abuse

Spreadsheets are great – when you’re creating a spreadsheet. But software like Excel isn’t the right tool for a lot of tasks, and vast sins have been committed in the name of using this hammer for things that emphatically are not nails.

What software do you use for formatting a resume, running a presentation, a rudimentary word processor, drawing pictures of a network’s infrastructure connections, a simple database, or drawing a map? I have seen people use a spreadsheet for each one of these purposes. (The presentation used a separate worksheet for each slide. Ewww.)

Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston invented the lowly electronic spreadsheet with VisiCalc for the Apple II in 1979. I remember my first time using VisiCalc back then. I thought I had died and gone to digital heaven: It became my go-to mathematical modeling tool, calculator, and general analysis workbench. Many of you had similar experiences.

It is amazing that spreadsheets have had such a long and fruitful life – and, dare we say, such an abused life as well. Part of the spreadsheet’s allure is that it can be so useful and flexible – to a point – even in situations where we have a lot more appropriate software and collaboration tools (such as QuickBase, if you permit me a gentle product plug).

But just because a tool is good at one thing (crunching numbers) doesn’t mean it’s the right tool for every task. A good example comes from the early days of Trek bicycles. Their product team held status meetings two to three times per week, during which the team assembled in a conference room and would update project spreadsheets one line item at a time. Via phone. That has got to be one of the most painful ways to collaborate. I guess this was before the Internet was in wide use.

Sure, spreadsheets have long been the go-to database program for those who were confounded by SQL, Microsoft Access, or even FileMaker. That’s understandable: It’s visually clear how to put in rows of information and organize them, even if a “real” database adds several benefits (such as data validation). I guess it is a testimonial to the power of the spreadsheet that so many databases were built using them over the years.

But databases aren’t the only spreadsheet abuse. Many of you have come to use them in more interesting ways. A few years ago, I asked my readers on to tell me their favorite spreadsheet abuse stories. One reader used a spreadsheet’s “formulas to write webpage HTML, where I had a lot of data that needed to go in a repeating template.” Again, that seems excessive to me. Another one wrote in: “One retail store HQ I worked for used it to print price tags for furniture since you could create a consistent layout. The buyers also used it as a word processor since they didn’t know how to use Word.”

That seemed to be a common thread: If you don’t know how to use the right tool, jury-rig the one you’re familiar with, even if the workarounds are awkward or dumb. I remember one colleague, back in the early days, using his spreadsheet as his only word processor, and putting an entire line of text into each cell. It made for formatting challenges when it came time to edit this “document,” to be sure. But that practice has plenty of history; back when Lotus 1-2-3 was the big game in spreadsheet town, an add-in from Turner Hall called 4Word allowed Lotus 1-2-3 users to write notes, memos, and letters without leaving the spreadsheet.

Not every spreadsheet use beyond number-crunching is a bad idea; some are downright innovative. For example, one collegiate football team uses a spreadsheet in its process of recruiting high school football players. Scouts use tables to track prospects’ data such as height, weight, football stats, and SAT scores. The information is shared among the front office team management and continually updated as the scouts roam around the country looking for talent. That isn’t spreadsheet abuse, just darned clever.

However, cloud applications can make some spreadsheet “extensions” an even-less-sensible idea. Online tools (again, such as QuickBase) add an important collaboration component to shared data, particularly when tracking progress towards a team’s goal. It extends beyond mere rows and columns into something more powerful and sharable, whether you care about customer relationship management, logistics tracking, or marketing plans.

So think, the next time you are about to build the world’s greatest spreadsheet, and maybe start your application with an online version first.

And perhaps you might have a few examples of your own for “They used a spreadsheet to do what?!” Share them with me in the comments.

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