Even major banks still use archaic Excel spreadsheets for complex tasks


blog If you’ve ever worked inside a major organisation, you are likely more than aware that the insidious virus of Microsoft Excel is still prevalent throughout corporate Australia when it comes to complex tasks. Many of us have spent many hours wrestling with the most insanely convoluted Excel spreadsheets … I still have nightmares when I think about it. The horror!

Excel is fine for many purposes, but when it comes to very complex calculation or record-keeping — of the type commonly carried out by corporations — for most point tasks there are solutions which are infinitely more capable and specialised — including many software as a service platforms. Despite this, Excel is still the first ‘go to’ tool when organisations need to carry out many calculation or record-keeping tasks, due to its flexibility and familiarity. It is normally on everyone’s desktop.

Evidence of this can be found in this article published today by ZDNet, in which the media outlet outlines an Excel to Tableau switch which has saved Queensland financial services giant Suncorp a packet (and its staff ongoing headaches). ZDNet tells us (we recommend you click here for the full article):

“Mark Nelson, Suncorp Group performance analyst, explained that when the company introduced its WOW (week-on-week) performance reporting platform it was initially built on Excel … The weekly results and summary relied on 25 different metrics that was delivered from the company’s internal Cognos system …”

What I find extraordinary about this situation is that the Excel system that Suncorp was using appeared to be already pulling a huge amount of information — 25 separate metrics! — from Cognos to be able to get this job done. Did nobody think at any point, when this level of integration was already required, that Excel *might* not be the best platform to bring all this complex information together, on this kind of scale? Obviously someone eventually did.

I would count as a hero any IT professional who could get this kind of migration done in a major organisation.

It will require quite a bit of work done up-front … but it will no doubt resolve many issues down the track as well as getting rid of the pain of dealing with Excel for really complex work at scale. The reality is that although Excel is an excellent tool (which I used on a daily basis), it is no longer necessarily the best tool for these kinds of complex and large tasks. I hope this Suncorp example can serve as a stimulus for other organisations to shift off Excel in these kinds of situations as well.

Image credit: Microsoft


  1. The issue is as you state is its on ‘their’ desktops. Also rarely do people consider their hourly wage as a cost to a company so spending ages banging a square excel into a round hole seems fine. Also it makes them look busy, if they’re the only ones that can wrangle it that’s job security thrown in as a bonus!

    Also hiring someone external to improve or automate will still be seen as a cost above and beyond … the time and wage savings rarely will factor in to offset that in peoples minds.

    I see it one of the industry my company deals in where we quote for an hours work it gets refused as they’ll just spend the day ‘doing it in excel’ usually because that’s seen as ‘for free’. I another (Govt.) they actually do CBA’s.

  2. I worked in an organisation where i have to use excel to create master data from 8 different sources, each with over 100 thousand rows of data. All driven by over 50 thousand lookup formulas. It takes over 50 minutes everytime it recalculates. A nightmare when i need to add a new column have to change all references…reason being everybody in the place knows how excel works….do i win a price…

  3. A few years ago, I did a risk assessment in a major financial institution.
    The most scary find was in excess of 50,000 Excel spreadsheets. Most in the finance department.
    None of these spreadsheets were subject to IT audit nor formal testing. Who knows what went on in the spreadies.

  4. One of my very first paid tasks after graduating Tech College was to write a BASIC program which would generate a FORTRAN program which would generate the 3D pipe network plots for output to the UWA CalComp Plotter… Naturally, we asked The Question. “Because we don’t understand Fortran.” I left after 2 weeks.

    My current employer (like my previous employer) uses a spreadsheet to allocate daily tasking. It must access a non-Windows database for many of its lookups. 2 people in the company understand databases, and I’m one of them.

    And Australia is supposed to be a “clever country”?

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