How to avoid the business risk of depending on spreadsheets for project management

Posted by Greg Warner on November 10, 2016

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Spreadsheets are an instant productivity tool, but can get quickly out of control for even small projects

We love the convenience of firing up a spreadsheet to keep tabs on list items and perform ad hoc calculations. I’m not saying spreadsheets don’t have a place in business, they do, however the problem for many organizations is those little spreadsheets can quickly turn into unmanageable behemoths. And from a project management viewpoint this introduces several risks to the organization.

I’m now spending more time helping companies large and small migrate off spreadsheets to modern task and project management tools like JIRA Service Desk. Let me explain why. 

The risks of depending on spreadsheets

Spreadsheets – first designed in the eighties – have come a long way, but still carry quite a few legacies.

Siloed knowledge. Does anyone know what this cell does? No. Is it documented? No. Can other people use it? No. These are some of the common questions (and, unfortunately, common answers) raised when spreadsheets become entrenched in the business.

Lack of workflow or change management. To get around this you’ll find spreadsheet version “2016_V2.0_Final_0023_JDoe”. It seems crazy how so many important business processes – from financials to bridge-building projects – are dependent on an information system not designed with workflow in mind. When one person makes a change a new version of the file is created and so on. This is a big deal when important updates get lost in the version forest.

Limited scalability. To get the part number you need to go to cell AA3450 on sheet 567. Sound familiar? Spreadsheets make perfect sense to a database, but not to most of us who just want the right information at the right time. Large spreadsheets are a complex, error-prone usability nightmare.

Limited extensibility. As mentioned, spreadsheets are a relic of the eighties when a cloud was something you looked up to the sky to see. Sure you can write custom scripts to automate spreadsheet features and integrate data, but, like complex cell formulas, these tend to be siloed and are not designed with online data exchange in mind. And, in case you were wondering, no, the new generation of cloud-based spreadsheet applications don’t solve the fundamental problems. They just allow more people to contribute to the siloed knowledge and processes found in spreadsheets. 

Structure project information and processes

I’m pleased to be part of a team that helps organizations migrate their projects away from the fundamental risks of spreadsheets. Using a modern application JIRA Service Desk (JSD) is a structured and collaborative way to manage projects and track changes.

JSD is collaborative, tracks changes, is scalable and can be extended with many add-ons. And with your most important data centralized you can back it all up at once to reduce the likelihood of data loss – yet another problem with spreadsheets.

Every customer I work with wonders how they ever got anything done with spreadsheets once they have moved over to a modern work management application.

Take a look at how your organization’s most important projects might be heavily reliant on spreadsheets and consider reducing the risks with more suitable tools. 

Topics: Spreadsheets, Jira Service Desk, Project Management, Excel

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