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Why do Excel errors persist?

17 July: There’s never been as much attention on the uncertainties facing businesses as there is today. Excel is the engine underneath many funding applications and management accounting processes – so why do so many still get the basics wrong? David Lyford-Smith, Technical Manager of ICAEW’s Excel Community, looks for answers.

Excel is almost synonymous with accounting – and spreadsheets are recognised as the lingua franca of business. But spreadsheet training is inconsistent across the profession, and most users are self-taught. Academic studies into spreadsheet use show that we make mistakes 1-2% of the time we fill in a cell in a spreadsheet – which means that 75-100% of our spreadsheets have at least some kind of error in them. But electronic spreadsheets are decades old – so why do these errors persist?

One barrier is certainly that Excel and other spreadsheets simply aren’t taken seriously. They’re used every day for all sorts of prosaic tasks – so it’s easy to assume that they aren’t important, or that they’re simple enough that mistakes are rare or inconsequential. These beliefs certainly don’t match with reality – there are a litany of spreadsheet mistakes in the news, such as those collected by the academic conference on spreadsheet risk, EuSpRIG. Complacency is a big barrier.

If you are alert to the realities of spreadsheet risk and misuse, what can you do about it? ICAEW has several free guidance documents on best practice, chiefly the Twenty Principles for Good Spreadsheet Practice. And there’s a wealth of training, advice, and demonstrations available through the Excel Community. In the next blog in this series, we’ll examine some of their key lessons.

This article is brought to you by the ICAEW Excel Community. Excel Community membership gives you access to exclusive premium content including webinars, eight suites of Excel online training, regular eBulletins and extensive online resources focused on technical and soft skills to support your career. For more information about Excel Community membership, including our latest joining offer, please visit www.icaew.com/joinexcel