Can you win the battle for hearts and minds?

4th April 2016

You never finish a spreadsheet, you just stop working on it. If Excel were a car it would crash two or three times a day for no apparent reason.  There are two ways to develop error-free spreadsheets; only the third one works. Jokes about spreadsheets are almost as plentiful as spreadsheets; which just goes to show that all spreadsheets are good for something – even if it’s just raising a chuckle.




Joking aside, there are good reasons why old faithful remains so popular. “It is the accountant’s most powerful tool. Nothing else I’ve seen is anything more than an incremental advance,” says Gabriel Zubizarreta, CEO at Silicon Valley Accountants. “I love Excel and I haven’t met an accountant who doesn’t,” says Trisha Haughey group finance development director at Rentokil Initial, a global service organisation. 

However, not everything we love is good for us. “Excel is good for individual productivity but not for collaborative processes, or for handling the different types and amounts of data now available,” says Alice Allegrini. She’s managing director at prevero UK, a provider of business intelligence and corporate performance management software, so you would expect her (and other providers of spreadsheet-superseding specialist software) to make this assertion; but self-confessed spreadsheet fan, Haughey, broadly agrees. “People in finance need to move away from believing that Excel is the only tool that they are ever going to need. It is not a tool for the future,” she says, particularly in areas where people want to maximise the benefits of working collaboratively, such as budgeting, forecasting and planning. 

Traditionally, these processes have been owned by the finance people who pull everything together, but this is changing. “Now, we need tools that allow any and all parts of the business to contribute, to engage with these processes. I don’t think you can do a proper budget or forecast or look at a plan if you haven’t got other operational colleagues involved. You can’t do it all in finance and you can’t do it all via Excel either,” says Haughey. Her perspective is echoed by Arthur van Bergen, aftermarket supply chain director with automotive component manufacturer Bosal, which struggled to align its manufacturing and sales forecasts back in the days when they were spreadsheet-based. “The biggest problem with our old Excel process was that none of us were ever talking about the same data,” he recalls, because it came from so many sources. 

A disconnect between sales and manufacturing made it difficult to coordinate their forecasting and planning – and made accountability elusive. When there was excess stock, sales blamed manufacturing for producing too much and manufacturing blamed sales for not selling enough. Replacing spreadsheet-based forecasting and planning with a software platform that offered a single, unified view of the relevant data, made sales forecasting (for regions and items) and factory responses (individually and collectively) more accurate. It also led to changes in behaviour, because the (Anaplan) replacement system helped to “put responsibility in the right place”. This is something Haughey has been trying to achieve at Rentokil Initial – where hundreds of P&Ls are operated at a branch level with branch managers responsible. 

“The way we operate, as a branch-based business, I was absolutely determined to make the managers in the business feel responsible for the forecasts and the budgets and feel like they owned them,” she says. Replacing spreadsheet-based budgeting and planning with a more modern integrated system has facilitated this. But change is rarely easy, and nor was this transition; though matters related to scale, practicality and even the technology did not throw up the biggest challenges; this was people. “It is very important to influence people. You have to take people with you. You have to change their mindset,” says Haughey. This is also true of regional finance directors, when you are trying to take away their favourite toys. 

Moving Rentokil Initial away from multiple, complex, finance systems, towards something more automated and standardised, has met with resistance. “You can get all the finance directors in a room and everyone will nod and say ‘Yes, we need a single chart of accounts. Yes, we need to standardise processes.’ But absolutely none of them believe that this applies to them,” says Haughey. The constant refrain that “Excel is free” doesn’t help. “As accountants, we look after the bottom line, so we must have something cost effective,” she says. But the biggest barriers to change may be emotional. “The people side can be a challenge. You have to influence your way through,” she says, “because if people believe that Excel is the only tool they are ever going to need, you can stick any tool you like on top of it and you will just have burnt a ton of cash.”