Spreadsheets are still used throughout businesses in the UK – but they’ve also been blamed for some of the biggest slip ups.
The problem is that spreadsheets are only as accurate as the information typed into them, and the slightest slip in a formula can cost a company literally millions of pounds.
The trusty old spreadsheet, dating back to the eighties, is still the go-to IT application for keeping vital records in many businesses – but should it be?
Brian Stokes, Managing Director, of ITCS (who were recently named the top IT support company in Wales) smiles at the number of applications he’s seen spreadsheets being used for over the years.
“At ITCS, we’ve seen Excel being relied upon for all manner of critical data, including HR information, company accounts, customer data and even legal document tracking.”
“I appreciate the power in Excel’s calculations, but it offers no audit trail and it’s 100% reliant on the skill of the user to not delete critical data or make a mistake in the formula. Like most IT support companies, we regularly get support calls along the lines of ‘Help – I deleted my data!”
“Technology has come on in leaps and bounds and for most tasks there is now a tool specifically designed for the job – and almost all of them do it better.”
However, if you are one of our customers who’ve rang us for support on Excel – it could be worse. Here’s some of the world’s most famous, spectacularly simple spreadsheet blunders:
Health charity The King’s Fund were left red faced when their Chief Economist John Appleby reported 11 per cent cuts in Wales in the well-respected British Medical Journal. The cuts were slated in the media, but a simple spreadsheet error had exaggerated the real figure of -8.3%
The London 2012 Olympics organisers oversold the synchronised swimming sessions by double!
One staff member incorrectly typed a ‘2’ instead of a ‘1’ – and 10,000 unhappy spectators were left without a poolside seat because ‘20,000’ seats were sold instead of ‘10,000’. You could say it was somewhat unsynchronized….
Outsourcing specialists Mouchel were hit massively by a spreadsheet error in a pension fund deficit. The error, blamed on external actuaries, hit the companies profits by £4.3 million (ouch). Share prices dropped and their chairman resigned.
To truly mess up, ask a statistician
Reinhart and Rogoff’s paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt” was one of the world’s most quoted research statistics.
So quoted, in fact, that students at the University of Massachusetts tried to replicate the results.
The students discovered an error whereby Reinhart & Rogoff’s spreadsheet formula was averaging the wrong columns…meaning economists worldwide were publishing flawed statistics… including…
Chancellor George Osborne
In case you are feeling bad for placing an Excel support call, feel better.
The former Chancellor used formulas based on Rogoff and Reinhart’s work to calculate his budget cuts. This meant that a debt-to-GDP ratio of 90% saw growth of -0.1%, instead of 2.2%!
We don’t yet offer IT support to the UK Government, but if he’d given us a call, rest assured we’d have helped him correct the error and kept it secret.
Sadly the error was shared with the world. The Guardian described the results as ‘embarrassing’.
What should we use instead?
The best software for you will depend on the task at hand.
For example, we’ve seen estate agents using spreadsheets to manage instructions and listings.
Our software for estate agents and lettings agents, AgentPro, covers every aspect of the business, from handling complicated financials to marketing brochures. It manages clients from valuation to completion and ensures best practice throughout, and interfaces with the UK’s leading property portals, enabling estate agents to offer service online and on the High Street – without any of the risks caused by spreadsheets.
Can ITCS provide my software?
Often we know of a good solution and if we don’t, we can create bespoke software for you. However, many industries already have great software designed specifically for their niche and we understand that.
If ITCS are providing your IT support, we will still be happy to offer you advice on your chosen software – anyone can call themselves a software developer and string software together, so it’s important to choose a reputable provider. We’re IT experts, here to help and we’re already familiar with your business.
If you’re looking at a new solution, before you sign on the dotted line, feel free to give us a call and we’ll be happy to check out the software provider for you.
Until then, we’ll continue to offer you support on your spreadsheets – and reassure you that no matter how bad the error feels, someone, somewhere messed up far more spectacularly!