Getting more reliable data
Cohen says the collaborative nature of the tool has improved the timeliness, accuracy and accountability of his division's reports because each person is now responsible for inputting his or her own data. "Ninety-five percent of our spreadsheets are gone, and we've completely eliminated the delay in receiving critical reports. Our business leaders also know that the data they have in hand is accurate and dependable," he says.
Cohen's frustration with spreadsheets is not unique. As decision-making becomes more collaborative and workforces grow more distributed and global, the days of compiling a spreadsheet, mailing or emailing it to colleagues, then manually inputting updates and re-sending it seem antiquated.
Moreover, in recent years there has been concern about user error creating mistakes in spreadsheets that could cause trouble for companies -- particularly those in heavily regulated industries.
Microsoft, for one, says it has new features in Excel that address some of those concerns. (See "Microsoft responds," later in this story.) For example, there are ways to enable Excel to accept real-time data feeds, but that solution doesn't help when there are multiple updates from individual employees who aren't necessarily adhering to a regular update schedule.
Instead, some companies are tossing aside traditional spreadsheets in favor of more targeted software and services. Or, at the very least, they are seeking out add-ons to Excel to support real-time sharing, viewing and reporting among both internal and external users and a variety of devices.
Rob Kugel, an analyst at Ventana Research in Pleasanton, Calif., says his firm's research shows that when it comes to doing analytical tasks, nine out of 10 people use spreadsheets all or most of the time. "They use other tools as well, but -- especially for general business users -- spreadsheets are the default tool and have been since the 1980s," he says. He adds that Microsoft's Excel overtook Lotus as the dominant spreadsheet in the 1990s and today has an overwhelming share of the market, with 750 million enterprise and home users.
Spreadsheets 'spread too thin'
Kugel says the problem for Excel and other traditional spreadsheets lies in the fact that they have been spread too thin -- they're being used for everything from analysis to reporting to data storage.
John Burke, an analyst at Nemertes Research, agrees. "Excel and other traditional spreadsheet programs are considered the Swiss Army knife of ready data analysis, but there are limits as to how far they can go," he says. "Therefore, we're seeing a lot of shaving off of what they are made to do into specialized packages such as project management suites or higher-end data analysis."
Drew Sellers, president of the Utah Flash, an NBA Development League franchise, says he had been consistently frustrated by Excel's limitations. "We had our spreadsheet of season ticket holders on one person's computer. Sometimes people would leave Post-it notes on that person's monitor with sales updates or email him [piecemeal] updates. Regardless of how efficient the spreadsheet holder was, that system was completely inefficient," he says.