More than three decades after its debut — and despite the subsequent introduction of innumerable other accounting tools — Microsoft Excel is still the go-to software for most financial professionals across the globe. It was one of the earliest electronic spreadsheets, first developed for the Apple Macintosh in 1985. But it wasn't until the release of Excel 2.0 for MS-DOS, on Halloween 1987, that the now-ubiquitous program really took off.
The 2017 Benchmarking the Accounting & Finance Function report, a joint effort of Robert Half and the Financial Executives Research Foundation (FERF), shows just how widely used this software is today. Of the U.S. executives surveyed, 69 percent said their company continues to use Excel as their primary budgeting and planning tool — up one point from last year’s survey.
Download the Benchmarking report and find out how your company compares in how it uses accounting tools like Excel, along with how it handles the critical, everyday workings of the accounting and finance function.
Among Canadian respondents, Excel enjoys even more popularity (78 percent). Smaller businesses find this software especially valuable: 78 percent of American and Canadian companies with annual revenue under $25 million rely on it, compared with 35 percent of those netting $5 billion or more.
Reasons for Excel's popularity
The answer behind Excel’s continued dominance is threefold: affordability, simplicity and flexibility.
- Low cost — An annual subscription to Office 365, which includes Excel, Word, Outlook, PowerPoint and two other applications, costs just $8.25 per month, and a single license covers five computers. The suite of software is still available for a one-time purchase, as in the good old days. The latest version, Office Home & Business 2016, costs $230 from the Microsoft Store but can be purchased for much less from other retailers.
- Ease of use — The basic functions of Excel are mostly intuitive and simple to learn, and templates save time and effort. Take, for example, setting up a spreadsheet to track and update payroll. It’s as easy as opening one of Excel’s many native templates for payroll registers, calculators, timesheets and more.
- Templates — Another option is to use one of the dozens of Excel payroll templates offered by firms such as ADP, a major provider of HR services, or Vertex42, a company that specializes in spreadsheet templates. Once the spreadsheet is set up, all you have to do is enter the hours employees worked during the pay period (this process can be automated) and any changes in pay rate or deductions.
As a part of a larger suite of applications, Excel works seamlessly with other Microsoft business tools for word processing, databases, presentations, graphic design and email. This means accounting and finance professionals don’t have to spend time converting or exporting files before using it with other software.
Read one CPA's take on 5 Excel Skills You Need to Become a Fanatic Like Me.
Limitations of Excel
Despite its popularity and numerous upgrades over the years, Excel is still rooted in the last century. It lacks some useful features that ease the load for accountants and payroll specialists. Collaboration is one such area. While the cloud-based Excel web app does allow multiple people to work on one spreadsheet simultaneously, it’s a bit clunky to use. The web version also doesn't have all the advanced features of the desktop version.
Even though competitor Sheets doesn't have all those advanced features either, the Google tool does have a nifty chat window and a robust comment feature. For truly seamless real-time collaboration on basic spreadsheets, especially with remote colleagues, Google Sheets is the clear winner.
Scalability is another issue for Excel, which is why the larger a company is, the more likely it is to use a budgeting and planning tool like Oracle Hyperion or SAP Business Planning and Consolidation (BPC). Although Excel’s capacity to handle large data sets has improved notably in the last few years, massive Excel files still severely drag down most computers.
Excel is good for basic graphing but isn’t quite robust enough to customize and combine diverse data sets and graphs. For payroll professionals and accountants who frequently create complex charts and graphs, using Excel alone could mean wasted time. Better options for such power users are Google Sheets, Zoho Sheet, Numbers (Apple) and Corel Quattro Pro.
Long live the king
Excel has aged fairly well, unlike other similar software that arrived on the scene during the 1970s and ’80s. (Does anyone remember VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3?) For about 30 years, the granddaddy of spreadsheet programs has helped countless businesses keep track of payroll, inventory, budgets, expense reports, cash flow and accounts receivable/accounts payable.
Excel has its limitations, but the multinational tech giant behind its development has the resources and resolve to keep it relevant and indispensable. That means this application is likely to remain the primary tool for payroll and accounting departments for many years to come.
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