October 17, 2018 is National Spreadsheet Day, a remembrance of the first shipment of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program for the Apple II computer back in 1979.
The milestone is an important one because the spreadsheet has been the one piece of software that has seen consistent widespread adoption by business users over the last four decades. What’s even more amazing in an age of constant upgrades is that the simple formula language and user experience from VisiCalc have remained fundamentally unchanged over the years and has carried over into the modern-day Excel and Google Sheets applications, as well as the robust cloud-based financial planning applications that are widely used today.
For finance professionals today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine what it must have been like to crunch numbers before the days of spreadsheets. Back then, finance teams worked with rigid applications to perform basic functions. And many of those required the assistance of computer programming specialists to perform the most basic of calculations.
Simply said, the ability to autonomously tabulate data and perform calculations has defined the way finance and other business users work today – especially in a world where those processes are fundamental to every budget, plan, and forecast. For example, the ability to utilize standard spreadsheet formula language doesn’t just benefit those who create budget templates. The budget holders also benefit because they’re able to use the same spreadsheet formulas to get a jump start on budget submissions.
Still, the agility and autonomy that spreadsheets have given finance and business professionals have come at a cost.
As part of the business operations, the finance process has clearly-defined roles and responsibilities, approval workflows and requirements around auditing. Yet, the spreadsheet itself has never really evolved to offer support for user roles or approvals. Organizations resort to emailing files around the organization to get approvals, often resulting in version control issues. And data is often loaded into spreadsheets manually from the general ledger, a process that can be both time consuming and prone to user input error.
To address those potential short-falls, Enterprise Performance Management applications were created to ensure that planning, budgeting, and forecasting processes were supported by software, instead of email. Once implemented, many of those applications did a good job of supporting the business process.
The problem was that very few of those applications adopted the spreadsheet formula language and user experience. Rather than simple point-and-click formulas that any finance user could define in a few moments, these specialty applications introduced proprietary scripting languages that were more suited to computer programmers than business people, making finance teams once again dependent on specialists and third parties to perform their core duties.
It’s unclear why these applications went that route but based on our own survey of hundreds of finance professionals, we know that a large majority prefer to use spreadsheet formulas over proprietary scripting languages. Only 19 percent expressed a preference for scripting languages.
We believe that’s because users should be telling computers what they want them to do, not how to do it. The computer can figure out the details while your FP&A staff works on other projects that can benefit the organization.
At Planful, we have adopted the widely used spreadsheet formulas because we believe the spreadsheet formula language is a better way to express the calculations that FP&A professionals need. At the same time, we understand the importance of the business processes – something that spreadsheets alone do not handle – and the need for applications that address that.
As we commemorate National Spreadsheet Day, it’s OK to recognize and point out the limitations of spreadsheets in supporting mission-critical business processes. That’s because we can also celebrate the convenience and familiarity of the formula language and user experience that spreadsheets have given us and continue to provide at the heart of a new generation of cloud-based budgeting, planning, and forecasting applications.
Download our white paper, 5 Signs You’re Abusing Excel for Planning to learn more.