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Sloppier Spreadsheets: How Bad Can They Get?

Readers weigh in again on Excel sins and solutions. Tips include totaling at the top, while traps like poor version control can even threaten to force restatements.

Tip: Publish Your Standards

To CFO.com:
If some advantages of spreadsheets are flexibility, and ability to personalize, they can become a disadvantage if one is preparing a spreadsheet that must meet certain conventions and/or legal requirements. Common sense should dictate a minimum of structure in the preparation of spreadsheets. But unfortunately, even when you have official structure as a requirement, you will find significant deviations.

One solution is to publish a set of standards with detailed structure and requirements for the company. I have striven all my professional career to encourage this, but have encountered strong opposition.

One saving grace is that under Sarbanes-Oxley IT documentation, including spreadsheets, can com under scrutiny, particularly if they provide key information, such as calculation estimates—to mention one that may have material effects on financial statements. Perhaps this will be the impetus to better spreadsheet design and preparation. —Eduardo Casas

From Richard Block: Eduardo, don’t let the masses keep you from publishing your spreadsheet standards, assumptions, and other documentation. Spreadsheets are too often used as critical parts of the accounting and financial reporting process. Thus, they should designed to be able to sustain the same critical scrutiny and audit review that is applied to all other accounting and operational processes as part of a Sarbanes-Oxley internal controls review. Sadly, most spreadsheets do not pass muster. So tell your “strong opposition” that unless they don’t want their area to pass an audit, they should listen to you…and allow you to document profusely.

Trap: Where Did We Leave Off?

In Lotus123 and Excel “.xls” workbooks, the file opens at the point where it was last saved. If you want the recipient to see the conclusion or summary or some pertinent point or data, save the workbook so it opens to the appropriate worksheet, at the proper point. (I hate searching for the answer over numerous rows, columns and spreadsheets.)

Also, with over 200 PCs in our office network, and unlimited numbers of vendors, customers, consultants, sales “demos,” etc., I receive spreadsheets using various software and software versions. All are not compatible with each other. You cannot assume that recipients have the same version as you, or can open any other version. Find out what format is appropriate. The standard “.xls” file can be opened by the new Excel version and Lotus123. The new Excel “.xlsx” file cannot be opened by either Lotus123 or previous versions of Excel. —Ronny Reed

From Richard Block. Ronny, you bring up a great point — and one that exposes major frustration when creating and sending spreadsheets during that long period when Microsoft, et. al., update their software. I cannot tell you how often I’ve had to ask senders of spreadsheets formats in the .xlsx convention using Office 2007 to resend them in the .xls convention because I had only Office 2003. Yes, it would be polite for new Operating System users to be more considerate of users who might not have that latest version. But just as there is no accounting for good taste, one cannot legislate politeness and thoughtfulness.


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