We’ll highlight some of the best software solutions that companies who are outgrowing Excel should consider. Along with some ways that they may be able to get more out of Excel without having to learn entirely new platforms.
While Microsoft Excel is the superhero of data analysis at many organizations, there is a point at which it no longer meets all of a company’s needs. To determine what to do when you outgrow the capabilities of Excel, the first thing you need to do is identify what the biggest pain points are.
Let’s look at the problem in more depth and cover some of the solutions available today!
Table of Contents
How to Tell if Your Company is Outgrowing Excel
There are a number of common causes that companies begin searching for solutions to data problems which drive them to begin looking for alternatives to Microsoft Excel Some of the most common ones that we see include.
- Data Size – Microsoft Excel is limited to 1 million rows per sheet. The data needs of organizations continue to grow beyond what is capable in Excel.
- Labor Intensive – As companies grow so does the need for information. Accounting and analysis departments can spend large parts of their week trying to keep up with reporting needs in Excel.
- Difficulties in Real-Time Reporting – Preparing data in Excel can be a time intensive task. Because it takes so much time it limits how quickly data can be presented to managers capable of taking action on it.
- Reports Crash – Even below the theoretical data size limit of Excel, reports can be slow to load or even worse cause Excel to crash when attempting to update or refresh them.
These are just a few of the considerations to keep in mind as we highlight some of the additional software to consider when looking at ways to augment Excel.
Augment but Don’t Replace Excel
Beware of software salespeople that promise to replace Excel and replace spreadsheets entirely within your organization. They typically lack a functional background in completing work and only have a surface level understanding of your organizational requirements.
Rather than replace Excel, we recommend looking for solutions that will compliment Excel. Afterall, most of the solutions we will highlight will be more niche. Excel has hundreds of millions of users because of the extreme flexibility that it offers.
With these things in mind, we’ll highlight some of the ways these tools can work together.
YouTube is also a great resource for getting an overview of the different platforms that we will talk through.
Data Visualization Tools
The two biggest players in data visualization are Power BI and Tableau. Many people will recommend either as a natural progression from Excel. However, there are key limitations to data visualization tools. Primarily, they present data in summarized view that is more visual in nature than most Excel workbooks.
Excel is great at presenting grids of information while data visualization tools are great at presenting interactive charts, graphs and tables.
While they can be a great way to automate and augment Excel reporting, they can be more complex to learn and may not fit with your organization’s reporting needs.
The following video compares Microsoft’s premier business intelligence tool Power BI with Excel.
Microsoft Power BI
In many ways, Power BI is a natural progression from Excel. Power BI is designed to allow users to create interactive dashboards and reports that are connected to live data sources. It can connect to over 200 different systems, automate reports to be sent on a schedule, supports advanced data governance, and the software works will with Excel as a data source.
Power BI has very high limits for the size of data that it can work with. It uses Power Query to perform data transformations, which is a very approachable interface if you’re used to using Get and Transform in Excel.
The following video highlights how Power BI and Excel can be used together.
Pay close attention to the dashboard examples used, as Power BI becomes more limited when attempting to re-create the formatting of an Excel workbook.
Tableau and Tableau Prep
Tableau is one of the biggest competitors to Power BI. It’s backed by Salesforce and has many overlapping features with Power BI. However, one of the greatest advantages of Tableau over Power BI is Tableau Prep. It can perform many of the same functions as Power Query in Excel but has a much better user interface when working with multiple data sources.
Another big advantage of Tableau is that you can write directly to Microsoft Excel files along with Tableau dashboards at the same time. This allows users to take advantage of reporting dashboards but still output data into Excel workbooks that people are already familiar with looking at.
The following video highlights how Tableau Prep can be used to write to Excel files.
Alteryx is an enterprise grade solution for preparing data and automating data processes. It has many similar features to Tableau prep, but can also perform much more complex and advanced data transformations. It’s widely used within the public accounting industry.
Users can setup Alteryx workflows to connect to multiple data sources, consolidate Excel spreadsheets, and export them to multiple tabs of the same workbook or into a cloud data source. Alteryx also has the ability to connect to many popular ERP and Acccounting systems.
The biggest drawback to Alteryx is that enterprise grade functionality generally comes with an enterprise grade price tag putting it out of the reach of many organizations that are just starting to feel the limitations of Microsoft Excel.
Excel Reporting Add-ons to Connect to an ERP or Accounting Software
When companies begin to feel as though they are outgrowing Excel, they may not feel like dashboards and data transformation software is quite right for their needs. An alternative option is to explore reporting add-ons for Excel. With a large established community of support, you can typically find an Excel add-on that will integrate with your existing accounting software.
Many add-ons will let you directly import data into Excel, or they will allow you to push a query back into the source system, summarize it, then import it into an Excel spreadsheet. The benefit of this method is that you can maintain your existing reports within Excel while introducing a level of automation.
One of the most popular add-ons for accountants is Spreadsheet Server which integrates with a number of different accounting systems. There are also similar tools available from different vendors that may be a good fit for the systems you are trying to extract data from.
Purpose Built Tools to Replace Excel Reporting
Another option to augment Excel in the workplace is to bring in new software that is purpose built for the problem that you are looking to solve. An example might be an accounting process that requires a team to create a budget with many different inputs and outputs several times a year. The process to consolidate data sources in Excel and present it in a way that can be interpreted and acted upon by different departments can be incredibly time intensive.
As an alternative, a company could invest in implementing financial planning and analysis software that is purpose built for this use case. These solutions can range greatly in price, but often have features that exceed what you would be able to build on your own using a dashboarding and data preparation tool.
Purpose built tools often have business grade support, and integration features that give you more flexibility in the future.
Getting More out of Excel
Prior to completely accepting that your organization has outgrown Excel, you should ask your employees how much time they have invested into learning some of the advanced features of Microsoft Excel. Features like Power Pivot, Get and Transform, and the ability to connect to SQL or other live data sources often go under-utilized.
Investing in Excel training programs for employees can be highly cost effective and allow you to complete many reporting tasks without having to find employees with niche skillsets to run the new software.
The following video gives an overview of how to utilize Power Query to automate common tasks.
Microsoft Copilot for Excel
Another way to get more out of Excel is to utilize advanced AI features powered by the same technology that is behind ChatGPT. Microsoft is hard at work creating an AI interface for Excel that allows users to ask questions about their data and to perform common tasks.
It promises to make Excel much more user friendly, and enable users to take advantage of advanced capabilities of Excel with less technical knowledge. The only drawback is that there has been no announcement of Copilot in Excel fixing some of the key limitations that the platform has.
The following video highlights using AI to manipulate data, answer questions, and make changes in Excel. We also covered how to use ChatGPT and Excel together in-depth while people wait for the general release of Copilot.
Which Solutions Should be Avoided?
There is a lot of great information available on the internet for ways to extend the usefulness of Excel at growing businesses. We wanted to point out that we left several items off of our list because we do not consider them to be viable alternatives for most organizations.
- VBA / Python – While these are great skillsets to have, we don’t believe that people should have to learn computer programming to complete daily business tasks. It’s a very large ask for the majority of non-technical users that use Excel every day.
- Macros / Office Scripts – Both of these rely on computer programming to automate tasks in Excel. They can save time but do not address any of the core limitations of Excel related to data size, and compute power.
- Power Automate / Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – RPA is a big buzzword around the tech industry, and while it has many use cases for automation most tools require some level of computer programming knowledge to use. The tools work by recording step by step instructions that a human performs to prepare a spreadsheet which is highly inefficient.
One of Excel’s greatest strengths is how easy it is to use, try and scope a solution that is similarly approachable for your employees and coworkers.
There are many great options to augment the capabilities of Microsoft Excel as organizations outgrow spreadsheets. From data visualization tools like Power BI and Tableau, to purpose built tools specifically for financial reporting, FP&A or anything in-between.
We are also at the forefront of a potential revolution in the way that people interact with computers as AI becomes a greater part of our lives.
While testing out new solutions try before you buy. Look at a lot of YouTube videos and see how people actually interact with the system, and search for videos that show you how to complete common tasks. It will give you a feel for how much community support there is and if the system really is easy to use.