When common Excel mistakes have gotten people into trouble – and how you can avoid them

May 17, 2017 12:30:00 PM BST

Back in 2010, 137 people in the UK had their telephones wire-tapped by MI5 – the British intelligence service. Applying for a wire-tap is serious business and needs to be approved by a sitting judge, police inspector or minister depending on the circumstance.

The numbers were approved as part of a criminal investigation. The problem? M15 found that it was bugging the wrong phones.

According to the official report on the incident, an Excel error rounded all numbers to the nearest 1,000 and “caused the [security] service to apply for data on the identity of telephone numbers ending in 000, rather than the actual last three digits.”

The most dangerous program on the planet

Forbes wrote an article with the headline that, “Microsoft’s Excel might be the most dangerous program on the planet” – and it may well be right. During the 2012 London Olympics, tickets for the stands during the 100 metre finals were hugely popular.

The cheapest corporate ticket for the event started at €32,000. Given that Usain Bolt won the race in 9.63 seconds, that’s around €3,200 per second.

But some of the fans in the crowd hadn’t paid anywhere near to face value for their ticket. In fact, they hadn’t even bothered trying to get tickets for the event. Instead, these punters had successfully bought tickets for the heats of the synchronised swimming event – which isn’t too high up in the grand scheme of Olympic popularity. So why were they at the 100 metre final?

When the organising committee went to send out the tickets to the synchronised swimming event, they realised that they had sold 10,000 more tickets than they could accommodate in the arena.

The Telegraph reported that, “a member of staff made a single keystroke mistake in Excel and entered ‘20,000’ into a spreadsheet rather than the correct figure of 10,000.” So the organisers had to offer buyers any tickets they had remaining – including a whole host of tickets for the 100 metre final.

How to avoid your own Excel catastrophe

A researcher in 2008 concluded that a whopping 90 percent of Excel presentations contain errors. The problem has become so prevalent that the European Spreadsheet Risk Interest Group (the snappily-titled EuSprig) is dedicated to highlighting and minimising the instances of Excel spreadsheet errors.

Patrick O’Beirne is the chairman of EuSprig and he says that while Excel is necessary for business, people don’t seem to take the proper precautions when it comes to checking their data.

“There’s no question that spreadsheets are a powerful tool, essential to the functioning of the modern world,” he said. “Chainsaws are also a very good tool, but who would use one without a chain guard? People don’t take safeguards to ensure their work is correct — in fact, in many cases all it would take to catch these errors is a second set of eyes.”

From a marketing point of view, if you are used to producing content, be that in the form of blogs or social media posts or even brochures and pamphlets, you are probably getting a few people in the office to edit them before you even think of publishing them. O’Beirne says the same approach should be taken when it comes to Excel spreadsheets.

“Peer review is the gold standard in academic research, and the best self-protection for business users of spreadsheets,” he says.

Excel is just a fact of life for most marketing professionals. You were employed to bring creativity and spark to your business but you spend half your time chasing data in Excel and trying to make sense of it. You’ve probably got country reports, product reports, sales figures, invoicing and loads more besides. Everyone has their own system – but you are swamped by the figures.

That’s where an integrated marketing analytics dashboard comes into its own. You plug your spreadsheet into the dashboard and it will give you real-time results of your marketing efforts.

You don’t need to dig into Excel as deeply – and if you do happen to make a mistake, it will show up in your results so you can remedy it and avoid a catastrophic mistake like MI5 or the London Olympic Committee.

Want to escape Excel hell?

If you want your marketing team to channel their efforts into creativity instead of chasing data in Excel, then get in touch today to see how we can help you increase the ROI of your marketing efforts with a digital marketing dashboard. Feel free to check out our solutions for digital marketers too.

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