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Sloppy Spreadsheets: Readers Speak Out

Readers make some pointed additions to CFO.com's "worst practices" list.

The recent detailing of “Spreadsheet Worst Practices” on CFO.com clearly tapped deep-seated emotions among our readers, who shared their reactions in dozens of comments and E-mail messages and offered their own pet peeves from the world of finance.

Today we present a “best of the worst” selection from readers, from formatting faux pas to basic ignorance of good spreadsheet mechanics. The authors of our original article agreed to provide commentary on reader observations, and to suggest some possible corrections. Shahid Ansari is a professor of management accounting at Babson College, while Richard Block is a Babson adjunct professor of management accounting, as well a CFO Leadership partner at Tatum LLC. Also adding her thoughts is accounting professor Janice Bell, who holds the Weiner Family Term Chair at Babson.

“We highlighted six major areas where spreadsheet problems arise,” said Block with a laugh as he reviewed the reader contributions. “Guess what: There are many more.”

We continue to welcome feedback of all kinds: stay tuned for our next article, based on reader tips for better spreadsheet use. —The Editors

Printing Pratfalls & Formatting Flops

To CFO.com:

The worst practice that I see every day is sending spreadsheets out to people and not setting up the sheet to print. I received a simple spreadsheet today that, when printed, came out as a three-page portrait, when it should have been a one-page landscape. So after printing the garbage, I had to take time to re-format the entire print function.

I require that my staff format every spreadsheet before it’s sent out. I tell them to assume I am forwarding it to the president, and he will just print it.

It is a challenge because no other department operates this way, and I end up wasting countless hours to be able to print reports that are readable. Nearly every new college grad I hire has no idea how to actually create a spreadsheet that is ready to publish! I have a million examples I could forward you. —Dale Hosack

To CFO.com:

One of the most annoying issues is the numbers not being in a common format, which makes the reading of numbers on the screen or on a printout very difficult. The numbers can be formatted to a single decimal or no decimals, but if there is no format and there is a table to read through, it’s an annoying situation. —Prashant Agarwal

Comments from Richard Block: The lack of printability is far too common in the world of spreadsheets, and will be added to our growing list of worst practices.

Your comments viscerally touched me, Dale and Prashant. I teach a graduate-school evening class in which the students submit spreadsheets as answers to case studies. I give no specific instructions on labeling, formatting, or other submission requirements, assuming I will receive spreadsheet answers that are well formatted, easy to read, and easy to grade. Yet, even from these mature graduate students, holding significant corporate positions, I receive spreadsheets with tons of numbers in a variety of fonts, in columns and rows that are without labels, in multiple tabs without names other than the default names, such as Sheet 1 and Sheet 2, and with a non-descript file name that forces me to rename the file in the student’s name as I download it.

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