One day our descedents might very well take a tour at some museum of natural history, and wandering into the wing housing the exhibit on early 21st century humans, they might observe interactive images of office workers hunched over glowing desktops with open windows of email and Excel. They’ll likely gaze in the same kind of wonderment as we do of Neanderthals wielding primitive stone tools. We can’t take that guided tour at the Smithsonian just yet. While we’ve been heralding the death of spreadsheets and email for years and will continue to do so, the truth of the matter is they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Sometimes we just need to see them for the tools that they are.
Email is Growing
A study by the technology market research firm, The Radicati Group, finds that the total number of worldwide email accounts is expected to increase from nearly 3.9 billion in 2013 to over 4.9 billion accounts by the end of 2017. In 2013 business email accounts totaled 929 million, with that number expected to reach over 1.1 billion by the end of 2017. According to Microsoft, more than 1.2 billion people worldwide use Office, the software suite that includes Excel. As rudimentary as they might be in certain tasks, we use them all the time. In their ubiquity and utility email and Excel are the hammer and nails of the office world, but just like those tools they’re severely limited in the scope of what they can efficiently accomplish.
In a cloud-based world of integrated and automated software systems, there are places across every industry and profession still relying on email and Excel as integral components of their workflow procedures. As hard as it is to accept, it’s easy to understand why — they’re the tools most readily available that everyone can fairly easily use. So when a team needs to “plug a hole”, or they hit a stumbling block with their workflow management, the solution is to email someone on staff that day (sometimes referencing a hard copy work schedule), or enter it into Excel and attach the spreadsheet in an email, and send it as urgent so you get their attention. Everyone (hopefully) knows that this is an inefficient process, but it’s the quick fix, the path of least resistance, the “easy” solution.
Manual Processes Cost Billions
The problem with a quick fix is that after we put a band-aid on one thing, we move on to the next, forgetting that a proper solution was never implemented. This kind of thinking isn’t unique to healthcare, and it can have serious consequences. After the JPMorgan Chase & Co. “London Whale” trading case — where all told, roughly $6.2 billion was lost by the bank — the company issued a report which cites a number of contributing factors like lack of oversight and bad risk management. The biggest thing gleaned from the report that gives one pause isn’t that banks take risky bets, but that in certain cases they were calculating risk by manually using Excel, and cutting and pasting data into form fields, and using an incorrect formula in Excel. Hearing that a multinational banking institution was manually using spreadsheets in these matters is like the captain telling you that loose rivets on your Carnival Cruise liner were spotted with the naked eye and banged in with a trusty hammer.
Here are the words from the report: “The Model Review Group noted that the VaR [value at risk] computation was being done on spreadsheets using a manual process and it was therefore ‘error prone’ and ‘not easily scalable.’ Although the Model Review Group included an action plan requiring CIO to upgrade its infrastructure to enable the VaR calculation to be automated contemporaneously with the model’s approval, the Model Review Group had no basis for concluding that the contemplated automation would be possible on such a timetable. Moreover, neither the Model Review Group nor CIO Risk followed up to determine whether the automation had in fact taken place.”
Perhaps the bank was solely relying on email to project manage their risk management initiatives. Ask yourself if you’ve ever been told in person or by phone that you were emailed some pertinent information and you had no idea what that person was talking about. It randomly falls into various folders, or gets lost in a long string of email chains, ping-ponging between departments. Phil Simon is a business consultant and the author of “Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It.” In an interview with MIT Sloan Management Review he notes: “The ‘one-tool’ argument has contributed to today’s problem. People use email as a catch-all: personal communications, business communications, de facto project management, task management, and the like. In a perverse way, the status quo actually makes sense. When email is the epicenter of our lives, it’s logical to constantly check it, consequences be damned.”
This isn’t an indictment of email and Excel in the workplace. There are a number of good reasons for their use, and it’s a testament to their flexible utility that after all the advancements in technology since their inception, (the first email system was developed in 1971 on the ARPANET; VisiCalc was the first computerized spreadsheet in 1979) their use is still widespread and growing. But, when it comes to data management and project management, there simply are better ways to get the job done. By its very nature Excel is a data silo, and email is a black hole for project management. As long as these tools are used wisely within their limited scope, long live them both.