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Spreadsheets: Formula for Success

Notes from the spreadsheet summit.

“It’s a strange feeling speaking about spreadsheet design to a group that actually might find it interesting.” That’s how Dick Moffat, president of Canadian software house Personal Logic Associates, opened his presentation to the annual gathering of the European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group (Eusprig) last week in London. (For an account of last year’s gathering, see “Fear No Evil.”)

This year’s theme, “In Pursuit of Spreadsheet Excellence,” placed an emphasis on training and education. To this end, Mbwana Alliy of Microsoft noted that “we’re not a training company, we’re a software company.” He suggested that Excel training be included in the continuing-education requirements for qualified accountants. Later in the day, Patrick O’Beirne of Systems Modelling, an Irish software and consultancy firm, noted that the accountancy body in his home country was considering just such a move.

More training and public debate about the role of spreadsheets at companies is sorely needed, several Eusprig board members noted over coffee during a break on the conference’s second day. Corporate managers are probably more willing to discuss their sex lives than the state of spreadsheet controls within their firms, one of the organisers said. For this reason, Pat Cleary of the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff noted that this year’s event marked a “turning point” for Eusprig, with representatives from AIB Capital Markets presenting a paper about how the Irish bank is bringing its spreadsheets under control.

It is fitting that AIB should be the first company to present an insider’s view on spreadsheet management to the group, given the role that spreadsheets played in a rogue trader scandal (the subject of a paper presented at the 2002 Eusprig meeting).

In “probably the most important paper to date,” as Cleary described it, Andrew McGeady and Joseph McGouran of AIB explained how the bank revised its “end-user computing” policy. The existing policy “suffered from a lack of consistency” in the scope and application of controls. Project teams were assembled, consultants hired and applications categorised. Now, “the development of a critical application, whether by a central IT department or by a junior clerk in the front office, must adhere to certain basic principles.” Though business units—and not the IT department—retain responsibility for the applications that they use, an “automated spreadsheet auditing solution” is now installed.

In a similar vein, Jamie Chambers and John Hamill presented the results of a project to control end-user computing at an anonymous, “mid-sized international bank.” To address a “depressingly inefficient”—and potentially dangerous—reliance on tools like Excel, they ran a series of two-hour workshops “to provoke staff to think about their use of Excel, both from risk and productivity perspectives.” Few participants had any formal Excel training, with most unable to use anything more complicated than the “IF” command. The combination of productivity training with education about the risks of spreadsheet use proved successful in engaging employees, the presenters said.

Spreading the Gospel

Three French academics—François-Marie Blondel, Éric Bruillard and Françoise Tort—took a more fundamental view of spreadsheet education. With assistance from the French research ministry, they ran a three-year study of spreadsheet use at secondary schools (grades six to 12).

They discovered that the use of spreadsheets in class was “rather sparse” and essentially non-existent at home, concluding that “student competencies are weak.” To prove their point, Bruillard presented slides that featured screenshots of how students fared on various basic tests, such as sorting a list of names alphabetically. The youngsters’ arduous, manually-intensive solutions drew chuckles from the power users in the audience.

On a more serious note, the academics hope to convince educators to include spreadsheet training in curricula, as there is no guarantee that once the current generation of “digital natives” hits the workforce, they will make the same spreadsheet errors as those who grew up with slide rules and paper ledgers.

The Eusprig conference proceedings, presentations and related material should appear on the group’s website soon.

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