So, you're wondering if you need Excel? Regardless of the size of business you're in that's a good question.
Increasingly businesses are turning to the new kids on the block, some using only Google sheets while others spend great sums of money on bespoke data solutions. The great thing about Excel is that it's truly a one size fits all application, useful for small start-ups and global corporations alike.
Chances are your business is better off with it than without it. Here's why.
Microsoft Office has around 1.2 billion users. It's been around since 1990 and Excel itself was launched in 1985 and has ever since been the de facto standard for spreadsheet software. It's safe safe to say it's here to stay.
With such a long history (in the software world 32 years is an eternity!) the program is extremely well supported with dozens if not hundreds of support forums and a large community of developers happy to share their experience.
Given the prevailence of expertise it's relatively easy to find capable staff and even if they're not initially Excel experts the support is there for them to develop their skills on the job.
These days Excel is far more than just a spreadsheet. With the VBA programming langue at it's core Excel can be pretty much anything you want it to be. Need a web browser embedded in your spreadsheet? No problem. How about an animated chart? Sure! Why not?
A wide range of official AddIns extend it's capabilities even further to allow for statistical analysis, Power BI and much more, while a huge range of developer created AddIns offered either as freeware or for sale bring a dizzying amount of new functions and capabilities.
Because of this flexibility there really are few limits to what can be achieved.
"Why pay again for another application when you have a perfectly good one already?"
For small businesses that don't require enterprise licences a few copies of Office 365 can be picked up very cheaply, compared to the cost of bespoke BI solutions which can potentially amount to tens of thousands. There are also permanent liceses available for products like Excel 2016 that don't require a monthly subscription fee that represent good value for money if you're not interested in always having the latest version.
For larger businesses the costs can add up to be sure and other solutions that offer a lower cost per seat can start to look attractive but consider this: you're likely using MS Office already. Why pay again for another application when you have a perfectly good one already?
#4 Internal Development
A major factor in it's flexibility and eventual cost is the ability to develop or edit in-house. Even when you have project developed for you initially by a third party chances are you'll be able to make small edits and changes yourself.
While off-the-shelf reporting tools are becomming more popular they may represent false economy as any changes required will usually fall outside of any SLA you have with the provider and thus be chargeable.
Furthermore it's very difficult in a situation like that to actually take ownership of and to understand your data when it's sitting on some server to which your only access is a front end reporting system. Knowing that any new report the business requires is going to require additional funds often means those reports never get produced.
Related to it's flexibility is Excel's ability to scale with a business. As the business grows there can be a natural progression from Excel to Access to SQL Server as it's very easy to move data between them and even use them in tandem. Any database administrator will happily take .xlsx or .csv files as the source format for constructing a new warehouse.
Excel data is easy to share and it doesn't have to cost the recipitent a penny. Microsofts Excel Viewer is a free download. Files can be emailed, viewed (and created) online for free while the (you guessed it, free) Excel Android App can read and create files too.
As well as Windows, Excel is also available on the Mac and (using a 3rd party wrapper) Linux too.
"The companies behind many bespoke solutions provide no way to access the information directly... you may well be locking your data away behind a paywall."
Being part of the MS Office family Excel has the level of integration with other MS applications you'd expect. Moving a chart from Excel to PowerPoint is as simple as copying and pasting (top tip: import them as a metaobject if you want a static chart with no link to the source data). Excel communicates nicely with Access, SQL Server and even Word and Visio.
Outside of MS Office but still within the Microsoft family there is native support for Excel built into programming languages like C# so if you need an application built that reads your source data it's relatively simple for a skilled programmer. On the other hand the companies behind many bespoke or customised solutions keep their source code a close secret and rarely, if ever, provide an API for programmers to be able to connect with your data. In short: you may well be locking your data away behind a paywall where the developers can charge pretty much what they like to allow access.
Excel can read and create dozens of different file formats but Comma Seperated Values files (.csv) are the industry standard for moving data between applications. While many applications can view .csv files few developers would disagree that Excel is the go-to tool for reading, manipulating or in fact creating them.
Excel has over 460 built in functions ranging from the mathmatical to the quizzical and that's without AddIns! The math and trigonometry functions are extensive as you might expect but there are also a huge number of statistical functions such as FORECAST and NORM.DIST. and of course great extensibility with VBA.
Traditionally there's the perception that if you need some heavy duty analysis carried out then you must use a statistical package like SPSS, R or Matlab, or pay for a bespoke reporting tool. While there's a lot of truth to that, particularly in scientific disciplines for most small to medium businesses this is overkill. Even if that kind of analysis is required Excel can recreate tests like ANOVA, Chi Squared or carry out Pearson Correlations and the like almost as well.
For the most part the differences are a question of scale and, in the case of the stats packages, a less generalised user interface. It's worth thinking before you invest in one of these packages (and the very well paid staff who use them) whether you really need the extra horsepower, particularly if you already have licences for MS Office.
A point to note: the financial and pharmaceutical industries commonly carry out their analysis work just using Excel. If it's good enough for two of the richest industries on the planet it might be good enough for your business too!
Most MS Office applications, including Excel, have at their core a powerful programming language called Visual basic For Applications (VBA) which allows a skilled developer to do some pretty amazing things.
VBA is at the heart of Excel's power and flexibility, letting a user extend Excel's capabilities far beyond the default application. For instance, if one of the 460+ built in functions doesn't quite do what you need then a custom function can be written.
Automation is handled through VBA and is one of the most useful features of the language. Over the years I've lost track of the amount of time and money I've saved businesses by implementing automation routines. Tasks which previously took staff most of the day have been handled at the click of a button.
VBA can extend beyond Excel itself to control not only other Office applications but the operating system itself. For instance it can move, copy or delete files, open files in their default applications, access the internet to download data or access advanced function built into the operating system's core libraries.
#10 Easy To Use, Hard To Master
One of the reasons Excel has become the industry standard is it's inital simplicity. It's fairly intuitive to use; one can perform simple tasks without ever reading a help file. It's a forgiving application and lends itself well to trial and error learning. The unlimited undo helps!
It is however a very mature application and mastering it, along with VBA can take a lifetime. The rabbit hole is very deep indeed! I've used Excel for over 15 years now and I'm still learning almost daily.
Increasingly businesses are turning to BI solutions like SSIS and SSRS as well as the myriad of newer reporting solutions out there. For large businesses this makes sense as the amount of data gathered by such enterprises can be staggering. For small to medium businesses however it may be a costly form of overkill, especially when you consider the ongoing costs of subscriptions, appropriately trained staff, development and access to your data.
Excel is an extremently capable workhorse and - as mentioned - does scale well should a business grow. Before purchasing a ready-made reporting system consider if Excel can carry out these functions just as easily, with less cost, more flexibility, and most importantly allowing in-house control of your data.