Spreadsheets: great for mathematical calculations, organising your personal finances, or for planning your weekly schedule. But not necessarily the right answer for advanced, high-stakes data collection and analysis.
This has become increasingly clear after a range of Excel-related nightmares for well-known organisations. If you have seen the news in the past 24 hours, you will know what we are referring to.
You wouldn’t use spreadsheets to monitor the financial performance of your large organisation, so why would you use it to quantify your social and environmental impact?
85% of executives believe that being a purpose-driven company drives profit. Meaning your social impact is just as much – if not more – important than financial performance. They are inextricably linked and social impact is only rising further up the agenda as time goes by.
So with this in mind, shouldn’t it get the attention, investment, and high-quality tools it deserves? If you are still on the fence about spreadsheets, let’s look at some of the key moments where they proved they weren’t quite up to the task.
Public Health England (PHE)
Microsoft Excel’s million-row limit proved costly for PHE when they lost nearly 16,000 COVID-19 test results because of a flaw in the number of rows the software can handle. The slip up meant 15,841 positive results were left off daily UK figures and up to 50,000 infectious people are estimated to have been missed by contact tracers and consequently failed to self-isolate.
This begs the question: why were labs still manually sending PHE spreadsheets of their results? Why was a tool as basic as Excel being trusted for such a high-stake task?
Back in 2013, an Excel error at JPMorgan led to the loss of £4.6 billion in profit after a cell was mistakenly divided by the sum of two interest rates, rather than by the average.
News of this mistake led James Kwak – a professor of law at the University of Connecticut – to deem Excel “incredibly fragile”. Seven years later and we seem to still be seeing the same issues.
Photography business Kodak had to restate two quarter’s worth of financial records in 2005 because an employee added too many zeroes to the pension and termination benefit records of another. The spreadsheet’s calculations resulted in an overstatement of $11 million in severance payments.
The company’s stock fell significantly once this error was made public, reiterating yet another way unreliable software can prove costly to an organisation.
And finally, over the past few years, around 27 human genes have been renamed. This is because Excel repeatedly kept misreading their symbols as dates.
For example, MARCH1 – or Membrane Associated Ring-CH-Type Finger 1 – became 1-Mar. This was an error born from the belief that simple spreadsheet applications could be used to manage complex, intuitive tasks relating to the human genome.
All of these examples show the fundamental limitations of spreadsheets and software like Excel. They definitely have their place in the world. But they shouldn’t – and can’t – be relied upon for critical aspects of an organisation’s infrastructure. There are too many technical limitations as you and your data grow in size.
Just because software like Excel is easy to use and simple enough to make work for complex tasks, doesn’t mean it is suitable for every task. If the above examples show anything, it’s the clear restrictions spreadsheets present. For example, there’s no audit trail with spreadsheets or a way to test that spreadsheet software is working correctly. In short, there is no reliability or back-up.
And with something as important as your organisation’s social value or social impact reporting, errors like these can prove costly in terms of investment, reputation, and profitability. If you are missing masses of data from your reports or making big, high-stake decisions based on inaccurate figures, your organisation will soon suffer.
So maybe it is time to consider an alternative to spreadsheets and start investing in your social value generation just as much as you do financial performance.
At Impact, we offer an intuitive platform to make your data collection, analysis, and reporting simple and reliable. You benefit from much more seamless, efficient, and professional reporting. If you have any questions, or are interested in a demo, get in touch on