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It's time to say goodbye to spreadsheet hell

You might know already that the biggest competitor to most software companies is the humble spreadsheet. That’s because a huge number of businesses continue to use spreadsheets to organize their data, track projects, manage finances, and more. 

But this doesn’t mean a spreadsheet is the best tool for the job. And even the most ardent Excel or Google Sheets fans admit that “spreadsheet hell” can quickly become a reality. 

Sure, spreadsheets can be useful for storing and analyzing basic information — but if you want a scalable platform that facilitates complex workflows, improves team collaboration, and limits human error, they consistently fall short.

Here, we take a look at the shortcomings of spreadsheets, the downsides of relying on them, and highlight a more effective alternative.

The shortcomings of spreadsheets

We’re all creatures of habit. If you’ve been relying on spreadsheets for a while, it can be tough to disentangle yourself from your tried-and-tested ways of working. 

So, take a step back for a minute, and look at your processes critically. You’ve probably encountered one or more of the below spreadsheet issues before.

1. They’re not ideal for scaling

Your business might begin as a close-knit startup team, but this rapidly changes with each new customer and every new recruit. It’s hard for your spreadsheets to evolve with fast growth. Of course, they’re important for data analysis. But when it comes to assigning tasks, coordinating projects, and organizing clients, for example, they’re not sufficiently flexible or adaptable and quickly become unwieldy.

If your business already employs hundreds of people, you’ll be all-too familiar with these scalability limits. In large and complex environments, spreadsheets simply don’t work for certain tasks. One (usually untraceable) error can throw a whole sequence of important formulas out, which you’ll then need to remedy. Which brings us to…

2. They’re prone to human error

Raymond Panko, an author and IT management professor, has written prolifically on human error in spreadsheets. According to his research, approximately 88% of spreadsheet formulas have errors in them. Yes, you read that right. 

This can be an issue if you’re using a formula to keep track of overdue projects that need attention or clients who are due for renewal. An incorrect formula might mean that these critical milestones get missed. 

These errors only get worse as spreadsheets become larger and more complicated and as more people contribute to them. The risk of having someone interfere with a spreadsheet when they don’t have adequate knowledge can be serious. And even if they do know what they’re doing, mistakes will continue to creep in — quite simply because there aren’t enough guardrails. 

3. They’re static and uncollaborative

Different versions of different spreadsheets get saved locally on people’s computers and shared across a variety of channels — including email, Slack, and in work drives. But who holds the master? And why is version 13 suddenly circulating when you thought everyone was still working on version 10? What changes have been made between then and now?

While collaborative spreadsheet platforms like Google Sheets have solved this to some extent, they’re not without problems of their own. Even if you have editing, commenting, and access functionality included, people can still override each other if they’re both working on the same sheet, and data can easily be changed or deleted without anyone noticing.

These version control and collaboration issues will also make it difficult to tell whether the right people have reviewed the information that’s relevant to them. This increases the chances of errors continuing unchecked. 

4. They don’t offer a single version of the truth

This is perhaps the most concerning issue of all. If they’re difficult to scale, susceptible to human error, and difficult to control, how can you trust your spreadsheets? 

Are you really comfortable making a deal if you don’t know if your data is accurate? Can you guarantee your business’s sustainability and success if you’re dealing with unknowns?

5. They don’t allow for different types of content

Spreadsheets are great if you want to create a really big table with lots of information. But what if you need to link to other platforms, connect users to different resources, allow for detailed commenting and updates, and make important notes?

If you’re looking for efficient ways to organize your work in an easy-to-use and centralized space, spreadsheets are likely to frustrate you time and again.

What are some practical examples of spreadsheet hell?

It's easy to mistake these issues for minor irritations or inconveniences. Sure, going through your spreadsheets and sorting out mistakes will cost you a bit of time, but that’s probably it, right? Maybe it’s worth the risk, especially if it’s a platform you know well? Think again.

There are countless horror stories of spreadsheet problems having a real and material impact on businesses — including among some of the largest organizations in the world.

In an ironically asynchronous turn of events, the 2012 London Olympic team sold 10,000 more tickets to the synchronized swimming event than it had available. The mistake? Someone typed up 20,000 rather than 10,000 in a spreadsheet that detailed the tickets available.

In its 2008 purchase of Lehman Brothers’ assets, Barclays hid, rather than deleted, certain cells in a spreadsheet and ended up buying 179 more contracts than it intended. Barclays had to file a legal relief motion to get out of the mess this spreadsheet error had created. 

And JP Morgan’s now famous London Whale disaster cost the company a whopping $6.2 billion when a manual copy-and-paste error led to a problem in its value-at-risk model.

These are just some of the most high-profile examples. 

How to escape spreadsheet hell

Sorting out broken spreadsheets is exhausting, resource-intensive, and expensive. And failing to fix the mess is even worse long-term. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The first step in escaping spreadsheet hell is to ask yourself whether it really is the best tool for the job. Is there another platform that might do the job better, quicker, and more accurately?

We’re not advocating here for another pitfall — SaaS sprawl — which is when you build up an out-of-control software stack in your search for the “right” tools. On the contrary, the point is to streamline and consolidate your systems by using something that manages your people, operations, and knowledge effortlessly. Something like Qatalog.

Qatalog offers a bespoke centralized system that is scalable, connected, collaborative, and reliable. In other words, it’s all the things spreadsheets are not. It’s tailored to your unique needs (to the point of using your internal terminology), evolves side by side with your business, facilitates communication, and ensures that everyone has access to the information relevant to them. Ultimately, it offers a holistic view of your business that you can trust. 

What’s more, you can set it up and get started in no time at all. Simply tell us about your business, and Qatalog will adapt your Work Hub to your requirements straight away.

Book a demo to get started and make spreadsheet hell a thing of the past.

Product Marketing Manager @ Qatalog
Zachary is a Product Marketer at Qatalog.
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