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Excel: Finance's Universal Language

  • By Bill Myers, Multimedia Content Manager, FP&A at AFP
  • Published: 1/29/2018

BLOG-2018Jan-Excel_AFP

Late last fall, the Wall Street Journal kicked open a hornet’s nest. An 800-word story headlined, “Stop Using Excel, Finance Chiefs Tell Staffs,” created such a furor that the Journal published a second-day lead headlined, “Finance Pros Say You’ll Have to Pry Excel Out of Their Cold, Dead Hands.”

The Journal’s coverage didn’t ignite a debate over the importance of batch spreadsheet software for FP&A professionals, but it revealed it. For decades, spreadsheet software has offered a fairly simple, very flexible approach for gathering and analyzing data.

Some experts are grateful for Excel’s role in the financial revolution that started in the late 1980s. “Excel’s transparency has played a big part in the democratization of financial information,” Bloomberg Gadfly columnist Nir Kaissar recently wrote. “For decades, financial data was controlled by Wall Street and academia. Both realms had armies of analysts to pore over the numbers. But beginning in the 1990s, the internet made much of that data publicly available, and Excel allowed a single user to do the work of many analysts.

“Seemingly overnight,” Kaissar added, “anyone with a computer could challenge the claims long made by Wall Street—about the accuracy of analysts’ market predictions, about the skill of active fund managers and about the effect of fees on the performance of financial products. It’s no exaggeration to say that Excel paved the way for indexing, ETFs, smart beta and all the now widely accepted ideas that Wall Street once tried to stamp out.”

All that may be true but increasingly, finance professionals are worried that the flexibility doesn’t answer for the ever-more-complex job. In January, AFP published its annual risk survey. It found that 97 percent of corporate practitioners used spreadsheets to manage their companies’ risk, but only 28 percent viewed spreadsheets “as an efficient risk management tool.”

“Excel should be viewed as a fantastic productivity tool, but organizations get into trouble when it becomes a financial system,” said Mitch Max, a partner at consulting firm BetterVu.  

So far, most practitioners have elected to stay with traditional spreadsheets. Fully 70 percent of all companies rely heavily on spreadsheet reporting across all their business units, according to a recent survey by CEO.com. And 40 percent of companies surveyed by KPMG in 2015 said they relied on spreadsheets alone to produce their forecasts.

While there are other companies offering spreadsheet solutions—Google has been particularly aggressive in promoting its Google Sheets—Microsoft’s Excel remains the dominant player. Fully 80 percent of companies surveyed by BPM Partners in 2016 reported that they relied on Excel for their spreadsheets.  

Some folks’ devotion to Excel can seem a bit eccentric. We talked to one practitioner who used Excel grids to recreate a portrait of his wife. But the consensus among practitioners seems to be that Excel offers flexibility, ubiquity and economy, but is a little trickier for complex or sophisticated data analytics. Third-party vendors—or home-built tools—can either patch those gaps or obliterate them, but at higher cost—either in dollars, or time, or both.  

If Excel were a language, it would be one of the world’s largest, with close to 1 billion “speakers,” says Khaled Chowdhury, FP&A and corporate FP&A manager at KMG Chemicals in Fort Worth, Texas.

“If you take an Excel away, the business is going to come to a stop. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that,” Chowdhury said. “Excel is not going away.”

Perhaps not. But we’ve heard that kind of language before.

In 1987, the New York Times told its readers about a brewing battle over spreadsheet software. The incumbent had dominated the market with an “approach that seems natural to anyone” that had “become a much copied industry standard,” allowing “spreadsheet maestros” to use it “like a master pianist plays a keyboard.”

The challenger, meanwhile, was “something of a grand experiment in the software industry” that would “have to be not just a little better but a lot better” if it was going to have a chance against the incumbent.

The incumbent, of course, was Lotus 1-2-3. The challenger was Microsoft Excel.

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