The question of the day is: How important is strong working knowledge of Excel in today’s business environment, particularly finance and accounting?
I started writing an email response to this, but after 100 words of how important Excel is, I decided to make it a blog post. Plus, I didn’t really believe what I was writing. I wrote a couple hundred words of a blog post which basically said that Excel isn’t that important, but erased all that. I conclude that this question is too vague and that’s why I’m so schizophrenic regarding my answer. For my third attempt, I’ll answer some questions that weren’t even asked. These answers and opinions will be geared toward finance and accounting, but feel free to leave your own opinions from your own perspective. With the help of businessenergyuk.com you can save a lot on electricity and help your business as well.
Will Excel skills help me get a job?: Absolutely not. Every resume I’ve ever seen lists Microsoft Excel under the skills section. My resume says “expert-level proficiency in Excel” to help it stand out. It also mentions this blog and my MVP award. Like every Tom and Harry that lists Excel as a skill, I list Word, Outlook, Access, etc… as skills – to which experts in those areas may scoff. Listing Excel and other Office apps on your resume is a given. The only way those will stand out is if you omit them.
In March, I took an Excel test at Robert Half in Tucson (I can talk about this now!). I scored 100% and was the second person ever to do it in the Tucson office, according to the receptionist. They were duly impressed, but it wasn’t too difficult. The next day, they asked me to come down and sit for the Access exam. I did and scored 100%. The receptionist told me I was the only person to ever get all the questions right on that one. The receptionist’s comments have more to do with the quality of the test takers than my skills with either Excel or Access, I assure you. The point is, I blew those tests away and got exactly zero job offers. Anecdotal though that story may be, I firmly believe that you will neither get hired nor fired based on your Excel skills.
Are Excel skills a step on the corporate ladder?: Maybe, but they don’t have to be. If Excel skills can help get your job done faster, more efficiently, or with higher quality, then certainly they can help you progress. I just don’t know any VPs of Finance that use Excel at any advanced level. Were these people advanced Excel users on their way up, but just quit using it when they got that corner office? I tend to think that other skills are more important if that’s the objective.
Enough about what Excel isn’t, let’s talk about what Excel is. Excel is ubiquitous throughout the world’s business offices. According to a podcast I heard, Excel is the second largest data store behind Outlook. It is, in my opinion, the largest significant data store. Just because people don’t clean out their Outlook pst, doesn’t mean that data is particularly meaningful.
Microsoft Office’s market share is somewhere north of 95%, I think. That makes Excel important simply because it’s on so many desktops. Even if you work for a company in the minority, Excel skills would be useful because they translate so easily to the competition, mostly StarOffice and OpenOffice. It is a given that everyone who works in a business office should have some rudimentary Excel skills. I would argue that those workers who have advanced Excel skills will produce better results than their less skilled co-workers.
I’ve never heard Excel referred to as a large data store before, but it’s an intriguing idea. Just think of all the data in all the workbooks in your office. If you added up the sizes of all those workbooks would it be more or less than the SQL Server, Oracle, or Pervasive databases? I haven’t done it, but I’m sure the Excel workbooks would be twice the size of the 300MB Pervasive databases in my office. There’s a lot of information out there in XLS format and your ability to work with that data could be very important.
Excel is a tool. If you know how to use the tool, it can be to your benefit. If you only have a rudimentary knowledge of how to use the tool, the benefit will be limited. If you are a master of the tool, your work product will look more like art than work. Business people should learn how to use all of the Office applications, but the application that’s central to your job should be mastered, not just learned. Secretaries should master Word. Accountants should master Excel.
Final question: Should university require advanced Excel classes for accounting/finance majors? I think, yes. If the universities don’t teach it, the accountants will have to learn it on their own. It’s the job of the university to prepare the students for their chosen field. If they don’t teach Excel, they aren’t doing their job and someone else will be forced to do it. Namely, the employer.