It’s hard to keep track of all the software that has been announced as Excel or spreadsheet killers. Yet Excel still has 750 million users, now 31 years after it launched, and it’s still by far the most used business software. The running joke has become that “export to CSV” is the most used feature in any business application. (I didn’t say it was a good joke.)
At ActionDesk we believe spreadsheets are here to stay and will remain the central nervous system for most business teams. Here’s why:
Most of us have a love/hate relationship with spreadsheets
Sure, there’s some deep-rooted hatred for spreadsheets, and for good reasons. Let’s be honest:
- Excel and Google Sheets are ugly af
- There is a steep learning curve to understand how a spreadsheet works
- Some features are the opposite of intuitive (looking at you “Freeze panes”, the one thing in the world that you cannot undo with ctrl + z)
Yet I’ve yet to see a business where spreadsheets are not widely used for key functions such as:
- Data analysis
- Business planning / forecasting
- Project / Task Management
- Data entry / storage
We say we hate spreadsheets but we constantly use them. Why?
1/ History / network effect
Spreadsheets benefit from a strong network effect that is still widely felt (even if their network effect is a bit different than the ones we’ve come to understand with social networks).
The definition of a network effect is when an additional user of a product / service increases the value of that product / service for others. The more businesses that use Excel, the more sense it makes for me to learn and master Excel, because mastering it will enable me to have impact and to increase my value on the job market. So the more users there are, the more I personally get value from using and mastering Excel.
Network effects are hard to break (which is why investors love marketplaces). Current spreadsheets users won’t want to switch unless there is something 10x better (and there isn’t). So new people in companies will keep on learning how to use spreadsheets, etc, etc.
2/ Independence and flexibility
This is the reason why non-technical users love spreadsheets, and also why your IT team hates them.
Spreadsheets are the most powerful of non-technical products. Once you master it, you can do pretty amazing things with it - and that all on your own, without needing anyone’s help or permission. I’ve seen non-technical people build mini-web applications with spreadsheets! And some of them are masterpieces :) It can turn anyone into a builder.
Furthermore, spreadsheets are very flexible. If you want to change something in your data crunching, it takes a few seconds and the result is immediate. You don’t need to go through a complicated process to make something new happen.
So why doesn’t IT like them? Because data can be inconsistent, ungovernable and error prone.
3/ Real-time Validation
Lastly, when you change something in a spreadsheet, you see in real-time the effect of your change. This enables you to test and iterate very quickly. If you make a mistake, you’ll see it immediately and will be able to change it. Not many tools have those features, and I think they’re very important to non-technical users.
What is missing in current spreadsheet software
My whole point here is not that Excel or Google Sheets will live forever (or the very long future), but that spreadsheets will. Spreadsheets are just the best way for business teams to collaborate when manipulating, calculating and combining data. So the format and most of the features will stay.
That being said, I do think there are a few crucial things missing in current spreadsheet software.
- Two were partially solved:
- Real-time collaboration was a big problem, which was solved by Google Sheets.
- Some simple database logic (such as having a unique id for each row of a sheet, types) was and still is a big problem, although Airtable is doing a great job at offering a product that addresses this.
- Two that are yet to be solved:
- Easily interacting with business applications and data sources. There has to be something better than the constant import / export to csv.
- Handling big volumes of data. No need to point out that the volume of data is increasing in every business every year. Spreadsheets should enable business users to handle large volume of data, and no, you shouldn’t have to use and pay for yet another tool (Hi Power BI!).
At ActionDesk, we are tackling those two last problems by melding the best workflow automation tools with the ease of use of spreadsheets. You’ll get to:
- Schedule imports and exports of data from and to various data sources and business applications
- Manipulate and retreat your data using all the formulas and features you already love and are familiar with: vlookup, pivot table, etc.