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The Folly of Blaming Excel

Problem in Chair, Not in Computer
Sep | 8 | 2014


Sep | 8 | 2014

“The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.”

—B. F. Skinner


The three killer apps of the Internet era are e-mail, the browser, and Microsoft Excel. Go into just about any office in the corporate world and you’re likely to find them all not only installed on laptops and desktops, but concurrently in use.

When an application reaches critical mass, you’ll find no shortage of detractors. Excel is no exception to this rule. Add Stephen Gandel to the list. As he writes on Forbes in Damn Excel! How the ‘most important software application of all time’ is ruining the world:

In the wake of last year’s $6.2 billion JPMorgan Chase trading loss, traders have been fired, top executives have been hauled in front of Congress, and the FBI, among other regulators, is investigating. But you know who really needs to be questioned? Bill Gates. According to an internal report on the trading loss released in February, the model that was supposed to monitor and limit the amount of risk the bank’s London traders were taking was “operated through a series of Excel spreadsheets, which had to be completed manually, by a process of copying and pasting data from one spreadsheet to another.” One key measure was added when it should have been averaged. [Emphasis mine.] The result: Risk officers at JPMorgan believed the credit derivatives bets were half as risky as they actually were. So, I guess, CEO Jamie Dimon can pass $3.1 billion off on Excel. The rest is still on him.

Microsoft’s Mixed Bag

Microsoft birthed Excel in 1987, and it became part of the Office productivity suite in 1998. In the last 16 years, Microsoft has added many features. Some have been amazingly useful (e.g., 1993’s introduction of pivot tables), but others have failed, quietly moved to the morgue. I’d argue that the term bloatware isn’t totally inapplicable. Design-wise, Microsoft is the antithesis of 37Signals.

For my part, I’ve been been critical of Microsoft products in the past and of Excel in particular. In The Visual Organization, I argue that Excel doesn’t promote true data discovery. I hate the new UI. The ribbon (introduced in in 2007) sucks, a sentiment shared by others.

I could go on but you get my point.

We can debate the merits of different features, but the fact remains: Office today is a multi-billion dollar franchise with more than 1.1 billion users. I challenge you to name three tools that have lasted as long as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. You can bet that, if developed today from scratch, these applications would look very different and do things differently. The ability of users to make their own mistakes, though, would still exist. There’s no way around that one.

Either get people to look at key spreadsheets or build something with greater controls.

Articles with titles like Gandel’s minimize the much larger and critical point: it’s not the tools; it’s us. It’s easy to blame Excel; it can’t very well blame us back. (If only computers could talk to us.) It just has to sit there and take it.

Simon Says: Look in the Mirror

You can’t design a spreadsheet—much less an enterprise system—without people. People sometimes make mistakes. Mature programs like Excel sometimes don’t work as expected. The culprit the majority of the time is the user, a not true bug. (See PICNIC.) Demonize Microsoft all you want, but no program is foolproof.

Intelligent systems and applications contain safeguards, audit trails, and feedback mechanisms. Relying upon manual data entry and copying and pasting, as JPMorgan employees did, only maximizes the chance of user error. Either get people to look at key spreadsheets or build something with greater controls.

IBM sponsored this post.

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