On Spreadsheet Day 2019, Celebrate the App, But Acknowledge Its Limitations

Mary Ellen Biery
October 17, 2019
Read Time: min

 

Proving that there really is a day for everything, Oct. 17 is Spreadsheet Day – a day that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet for personal computers.

Spreadsheet joys and challenges

Excel tips blogger Debra Dalgleish on her Spreadsheet Day blog claims credit for starting the holiday in 2010 after realizing that despite plenty of other obscure holidays like Pickle Day and Pi Day, there was no designated day to celebrate Excel and other spreadsheets people use in their everyday lives. She created the Spreadsheet Day blog that year, started promoting the event, and then began submitting it to event-calendar websites.

Spreadsheets can be awesome tools, to be sure. In fact, Abrigo’s solutions integrate many of the data points often stored in spreadsheets, and data generated by the company’s solutions can be exported to Excel.

However, virtually everyone who has ever used spreadsheets regularly has had at least one fiasco with them. Perhaps it was a computer restart when you hadn’t saved the spreadsheet in a few hours, or the dreaded message, “Microsoft Excel has stopped working. Windows can try to recover your information and restart the program.” Or maybe it was the time a new employee overwrote a spreadsheet by accident, wiping out three days’ worth of work, or a 100-tab file that suddenly shows as corrupted and hasn’t been backed up in a month? Even Dalgleish says Spreadsheet Day is a day to celebrate “the joys and challenges of working with spreadsheets.”

In banking, particularly, spreadsheets have historically played a large role in several areas, including:

  • credit analysis
  • customer relationship management
  • asset/liability management
  • stress testing
  • tracking BSA/AML/OFAC compliance
  • tickler tracking
  • exception tracking
  • other loan data tracking, such as charge-offs and recoveries
  • calculating the allowance for loan and lease losses (ALLL).
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The problems with spreadsheets

But some of the same characteristics that make spreadsheets so useful can also make them risky when it comes to using them in financial institutions. For example, spreadsheets allow users to relate a cell or a group of cells to others in order to execute formulas and perform functions. If someone changes one cell or formula, it can potentially affect others, but it isn’t always easy to detect errors. Mistakes on one spreadsheet can create errors in spreadsheets that rely on the first spreadsheet’s numbers, and so on, creating “cascading errors.”

Indeed, a 2008 analysis of multiple studies found that 88 percent of spreadsheet documents audited in those contained errors. “All in all, the research done to date in spreadsheet development presents a very disturbing picture,” wrote the author of the analysis. “Every study that has attempted to measure errors, without exception, has found them at rates that would be unacceptable in any organization.”

With financial institutions having multiple users of spreadsheet data files with many tabs and complicated calculations, there are also numerous opportunities for version-control issues and questions about transparency and security.

The fact that a bank or credit union employee can create a spreadsheet to track BSA/AML compliance or calculate the ALLL is wonderful – until that employee retires and hasn’t thoroughly trained their successor on the inner workings of the file.

Newer solutions, improved processes

Some financial institutions have realized that continuing to use Excel for certain functions, such as calculating the ALLL, isn’t practical. The Bank of San Antonio, for example, was growing quickly and realized that automating the ALLL and stress testing made sense in order to get bigger. With an automated ALLL, the bank has also been able to transition for the current expected credit loss standard, or CECL, well ahead of its 2023 deadline.

So while Spreadsheet Day is a good opportunity to recognize the many ways financial institutions use spreadsheets, it’s also a chance  to examine some of the vulnerabilities they pose in the form of errors and inefficiencies. In the 40 years since VisiCalc released the first spreadsheet, other software solutions have made it possible to, in some cases, replace spreadsheets and in others, to integrate with them for more efficiency, accuracy, and transparency.

About the Author

Mary Ellen Biery

Mary Ellen Biery is a Senior Writer and Content Specialist at Abrigo.

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About Abrigo

Abrigo is a leading technology provider of compliance, credit risk, and lending solutions that community financial institutions use to manage risk and drive growth. Our software automates key processes — from anti-money laundering to fraud detection to lending solutions — empowering our customers by addressing their Enterprise Risk Management needs.

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