4 tips for optimizing spreadsheets

Spreadsheets play a vital role in enterprise data management, but the nature of that role is changing. The sheer amount of data enterprises need to find, scour, digest and turn into something useful significantly raises the bar for information crunching and analysis. While traditional spreadsheets do offer a slew of high performance, complex tools, it is evident that they have shortcomings. Statisticians and analysts in many industries have long agreed that the spreadsheet represented a functional tool, if not a perfect one. However, new challenges are bringing those imperfections to light. From avoiding errors to improving the self-service end-user experience, here are four tips for developing and using spreadsheet tools.

  1. Don't prolong the love/hate relationship: Spreadsheets have been regarded as a flawed technology for some time, but their innate simplicity - as well as user familiarity - have enabled them to stick around for longer. As Engineering.com contributor Scott Wertel pointed out, organizations in specialized sectors such as design and engineering should use software designed for high-level analysis, but instead rely on the "trusty spreadsheet" for complicated tasks. There are better tools out there for data crunching, many of which can be customized to the analytical and modeling tools a specific sector demands.
  2. Eliminate the possibility of human error: While they're easy for people to use, spreadsheets simply leave too much room for human error. CounterPunch contributor Dean Baker recently recalled the "Excel spreadsheet error that shook the world" one year ago, when a graduate student discovered an error in the Reinhart and Rogoff calculations for the relationship between economic growth and government debt. The report based on this calculation had since been used as a cornerstone in the advancement of high-level economic theory, which all had to be called into question when evidence of such a large oversight appeared. It's a reminder that no spreadsheet is immune from human error - and the corresponding havoc it can wreak when it is only found much later - and the traditional model simply leaves too much to chance.
  3. Focus on protecting spreadsheets: Going hand in hand with human error are potential data security issues, which can be propagated by organization insiders - whether they mean to create vulnerabilities or not. It's important not to equate user-friendliness with lax security, noted Forbes contributor Michael O'Dwyer. Organizations can take several steps to significantly reduce the potential of a spreadsheet's compromised integrity, including defining proper usage parameters, adding layers to document protections beyond those that come with the program and well thought-out sharing practices. This is especially important as spreadsheets become increasingly adopted by self-service end users. With IT unable to directly manage all spreadsheets at all times, safeguards must automatically fall into place.
  4. Invest in high-level report designer tools: With better applications for using spreadsheets out there, organizations are doing themselves a disservice by sticking to the traditional model. Emerging report designer solutions vastly improve the level of flexibility and control that a user has over grid and calculation functionality. Spread Studio for .NET, for example, is a spreadsheet and grid component suite that can be leveraged for a variety of Web development frameworks, including Microsoft Visual Studio Windows Forms, WPF, ASP.NET, Silverlight and WinRT. Not only does it offer customizable spreadsheet architectures, a high-performance formula library and advanced charting, it can be easily integrated into Microsoft Excel. This provides end-user reporters with the look and feel they're accustomed to while adding on powerful functionality, which benefits risk analysis, financial modeling and a slew of other data-crunching applications.

The spreadsheet can continue to be an immensely useful tool in the enterprise, but it's important to recognize that there are areas in which performance can be dramatically improved.


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