Is Excel’s Bad Rap Warranted?

Microsoft Excel gets a bad rap! Is it warranted? All too often I hear negative comments about Excel in the work place. Statements like:

  • Someone keeps messing up the formulas!
  • The data is out of date!
  • There are too many copies of the same workbook all with different names!
  • Who has the latest “good” copy?

Excel has a long, strong history as an excellent decision support tool that provides figures that translate to meaningful information. But, nothing can be more disruptive to the decision process than the presence of multiple versions of the same workbook and everyone in the meeting believing their copy is the most current. Thus, the bad rap!

Like in the field of medicine—where following proven guidelines to administer the correct drug in the right dosage can work wonders and yet prove fatal when the guidelines are ignored—Excel, when deployed for business on its own, can be frail and is susceptible to failure. Excel needs the support of Company-directed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to be a truly effective business tool.

The first step in developing effective SOPs is assessing the strengths, weakness, and current workflows of the specific resource, as well as cataloging related circumstances contributing to any undesirable results. Armed with a clearer perspective of the various components, the next step is establishing a sound regiment of checks and balances to leverage the strengths, mitigate weaknesses, and reduce the probability of errors and omissions associated to the human factor with the objective of delivering repeatable, sustainable, and desirable results.

What makes Microsoft Excel so popular?


Excel is truly an amazing product. It is one of a few applications on the market that:

  • Is tailored for use by individuals with little to no professional development knowledge.
  • Provides access and control to the User Interface Layer for clearer visualization of the message (Objective specific presentation),
  • Facilitates defining the Business Logic Layer to manage the data appropriately (Predictive Results)
  • Offers a full suite of tried and tested functionality within the Program Logic Layer to aid in rapid deployment (Formula, Graphs, Pivot Tables, Output & Sharing options, … etc.)
  • Includes a Configurable Data Storage Layer, defining multiple Data attributes (Add/Edit/Delete/Save/Re-call)

All of this and more in one self-contained application!

Excel’s strengths are providing these levels of flexibility and control. There is justification to state that they also contribute to Excel’s weaknesses.

Kudos to the Excel development team for acknowledging and then providing an abundance of tools to address perceived weaknesses. Weaknesses that are within the control of the application. These include: (not a complete list)

  • Data entry validation at the cell level,
  • Cell, range of cells, worksheet, workbook – Add/Edit/Delete protection,
  • Formula – Visibility/Add/Edit/Delete protection,
  • Track Changes,
  • Share and distribution protection,
  • Trust Center – Macros, Add-ins, Active-X, Trusted Publishers, Locations, Documents
  • Privacy Protection
  • Version Control

However, none of the Microsoft development activity can address the real problem, which is “related circumstances contributing to undesirable results.”

Microsoft Excel + SOPs

I purposely used “related circumstances” as a big umbrella term that engulfs any number of events, actions and activities that influence a desired outcome. The list below is specific to the management of workbooks within the business environment. When developing your SOPs, equal consideration should be given to each related circumstance catalogued in the discovery process.

Examples of SOPs to deal with management of workbooks within the business environment are:

  • Discourage copying existing workbook containing data as the starting point for a new workbook. Instead use structured Excel templates with formats and formulas but no data.
  • Mandate the use of a formalize, structured naming convention.
  • Mandate the visibility of Workbook attributes (title, file location, date/who last modified, … etc.) on all printed output with proper worksheet header and footer discipline.
  • Mandate a centralized repository for all distributed or collaborative work.
  • Invoke strict Version Control management.
  • Restrict ad-hoc distribution and sharing of workbooks. Deploy distribution groups to ensure one-version-of-the-truth is sent to all project partners.
  • Destroy (or at least archive) outdated workbooks and remove them from visibility to avoid confusion.

Even without further discussion the list above provides ample justification that Excel needs the support of Standard Operating Procedures to be a truly effective Business tool.

In my opinion “related circumstances” should be the recipient of most of the bad rap and not Excel!

The Evolution of Managed Code
Microsoft Excel workbooks are so ubiquitous they frequently become heavily entwined with a company’s enterprise software that is used for financial management and day-to-day operations.

Most modern enterprise solutions provide Excel import and export functionality. To many providers this represents just another check box on the functionality list with no additional thought required. Other providers actively advocate reducing Excel dependency to a minimum.

The more progressive enterprise solution providers acknowledge and embrace, rather than shun, the important role Excel plays as an effective decision support tool. These providers invest development resources to deliver the infrastructure to properly manage Excel workbooks and dramatically increase their value to the company.

Instead of being islands of information, Excel workbooks transition into a theater of operations referred to as “managed code”. Below are two examples of how managed code can incorporate the flexibility and strength of Excel while delivering repeatable, sustainable, and desirable results.

Example 1

In this model, structured workbooks are stored as BLOBs (Binary Large Objects) in the database and benefit from the routine database maintenance activities like backup and archiving. The term “structured workbook” simply means that all the presentation and business logic needed to properly present data has been completed in prior steps. The sample data used as a proof of concept has been removed leaving just the shell or structured workbook. When used, a copy of the structured workbook is populated with the appropriate data either manually or automatically. This can be repeated multiple times with different data sets without affecting the original template workbook. The resulting functional workbook, when saved, is stored with the associated data as a BLOB in the database. When recalled the entire workbook with the same data as at the time of the save is returned. This model is popular in the Spitfire Project Management System when preservation of the source data for a specific time is required.

Example 2

In this model, as above, the structured workbooks are stored in the database and benefit from routine database maintenance. However, in this model the data is NEVER stored within the workbook. The data is written to and recalled from the database. Each time the workbook is called into action the data is current. This ability to electronically populate the workbook with any system data dramatically increases the workbook’s reach and usability. Add to this the ability to Add/Edit/Delete/Drill-into the database data from within the workbook and this model of manage code reaches a new tier of usability. This model is used in the Spitfire Project Management System for applications like Budgeting, Forecasting, and Schedule of Values billing where the data set is current and the user makes changes to update the database.

Win-Win-Win

The combination of Microsoft Excel’s strengths with the security and strength derived from a relational database and the structure protocols of managed code is a decisive win-win-win in any discussion related to Excel’s “bad rap”.

In conclusion, Microsoft Excel is like any tool. How the tool is used and what protocols are in place dictate the outcome. What works at a home-DIY site would most likely fail minimum requirements at a commercial job site where management and/or OSHA has oversight. Yet the tool could be as simple as a hammer.

Intuitive UI. Really?

Spitfire Management recently released V2017 of its Spitfire Project Management System. One goal in this version was an easier-to-use, more intuitive UI (user interface). While we think we achieved the goal of making the software “more” intuitive, the truth is that whether a user thinks an interface is intuitive or not depends largely on that user’s experiences.

According to Everett McKay at UX DesignEdge, a UI is intuitive when “users understand its behavior and effect without use of reason, experimentation, assistance or special training.”  Mr. McKay then goes on to define Intuitive UI as one that has an appropriate combination of

  • Affordance- clues indicate the interaction
  • Expectation- the result is predictable
  • Efficiency- minimum effort is required
  • Responsiveness- clear, immediate feedback of success is given
  • Forgiveness- mistakes are not big deals
  • No Frustration- users are satisfied

What Mr. McKay does not talk about is just how varied users’ prior knowledge (from experience in the real world or other software) is, and how challenging that variation is when designing an intuitive UI.

As an example, I have encountered frustration in both video games and phone apps because I couldn’t figure out how to do something I wanted to do. My millennial sons, however, always seem to know: “just click here…”  When I ask, “how do you know that?” they shrug, “That’s how it is in other games/apps.”  So, because they have grown up using applications that have increasingly put the onus of learning on the user (through trial-and-error more than documentation), my sons quickly try things and learn how to do everything possible in any new app. They now find most apps very intuitive.

On the other end of the spectrum, I find a number of Baby Boomers who struggle with the idea of “just click here”.  They ask, “how would I know to do that?” If you ever see the words click here followed by a hyperlink, instead of just the hyperlink with its implied “click here”, you know that either the author or target audience is less comfortable with current technology.

So how to improve our software to be more intuitive for most users while not being confusing to any users? It isn’t easy. A survey asking our users to identify which icon best conveyed the idea of “click here to expand and get to more details” proved that there is no clear consensus on such matters. People who are used to certain software will say one thing, and people with different backgrounds will say something else. We are never going to be able to be 100% intuitive for all users.

Still, we do think V2017’s click-to-edit and click-to-filter functionality will prove to be intuitive once users realize that “just clicking” now allows them to edit or filter quite easily.

If you’d like to see our new interface yourself, contact us for a demo of the Spitfire Management System V2017.

 

The 3 Most Important Tools in Project Management

Project Management is such a huge topic and everybody has their own perspective, but each Project Manager is primarily concerned with three essentials:

  • Get the job done right
  • Get it done on time
  • Get it done on budget

And if you are a Project Manager, what are the three essential tools that you need to achieve those goals?

Number 1:  Project Plan – Statement of Work – Job Description – Contract

Whatever you call it, you need that written confirmation that defines the job. As a Project Manager you need to be acutely aware of what the job is. Don’t embellish it. Don’t diminish it.

In the Spitfire Project Management System, this signed agreement is available to you anytime, anywhere from any device. Being catalogued in a web-based product, your files are accessible from your workstation, your tablet or your smart phone.  You can just open your browser and enter the URL to your Spitfire site. If your company is using cloud storage (Box, Drop Box, etc.), your Spitfire files can be accessible in your cloud storage site. Cloud Storage is great functionality, but it lacks tracking and monitoring of changes—two functions that Spitfire provides for every file you upload to Spitfire. By integrating your cloud storage with Spitfire, you get the best of both: sharing files in the cloud and seamless file management tracking changes and versions of your files.

Number 2: Budget 

Breaking the job down into its cost components is essential to knowing if the job is even possible. Without a budget, you do not have a map for getting the job done.

Spitfire does monitor and track your budget, but it also gathers data from other functions and displays it line by line alongside your budget. When you view your budgeted dollars, you’ll also see the dollars already spent and the dollars already committed to subcontractors or suppliers. Your Spitfire Budget gives you the whole picture, not just your original planned budget, but your current budget and all of your actual and committed expenses. When you open your Project Dashboard, you see your budget numbers vs. your Actual + Committed numbers side-by-side, and you have the tools to drill-down and see all the details for those numbers.  It’s your roadmap with all the side trips, toll booths, and pot holes along the way.

Number 3: Change Order

Change is inevitable. This is the Project Manger’s survival tool. Without it, you cannot achieve the essential goals of “done right, on time, and on budget.”

When changes happen, this is your get-out-of-jail-free card. Most jobs, even ones with meticulous plans and budget, run into a change. It could be a new city ordinance, or a discontinued product, or even a customer with a color choice. And Spitfire is where the you can manage and track those changes.

Spitfire’s Change Orders are flexible. They can handle the usual up-charge to your customer, but they can also handle an internal, non-billable change and schedule change. The Change Order will also update your budget and create Sub Change Orders, too.

For Project Managers, Spitfire handles all three of the PM’s Most Important Tools. If you would like to schedule a free demo, contact us.

Communication

One of my sons is a .NET developer (a.k.a. software programmer). He recently told us about a task he was given that proved challenging and time-consuming. But he used some problem-solving skills and completed the task, feeling pretty good about his accomplishment. He then sent an email about it to the appropriate persons. Afterward, his supervisor surprised him with high praise—not for the job itself, but for the well written email!

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