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Still Trying To Move Off Excel? Here’s Why That’s the Wrong Problem To Solve

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Microsoft Excel: On the desktop of modern finance professionals, it’s akin to Michelangelo’s chisel, or Shakespeare’s quill. 

Though Excel first hit the market way back in the early 1980s, the spreadsheet software remains tried, true and tested—in the minds of many in the finance world, no alternatives or competing products have been able to supplant it. This, despite many finance leaders trying to move away from Excel and embrace other tools. 

But the truth is this: Excel isn’t dead. Far from it, in fact. Finance leaders would likely do well to embrace Excel and tools that work with it, rather than look for alternatives.

Just take a look at the data: 70% of all companies rely on spreadsheets to operate their businesses. More than two-thirds of roles in FP&A require advanced Excel skills, too. Finally, 80% of companies who opt to implement alternative corporate performance management (CPM) software end up turning back to Excel at some point.

There’s no getting around it: Excel is the preferred tool of the trade for finance professionals.

Even so, many alternative software options have popped up over the years in an attempt to disrupt or replace it. While Excel may have its limitations, it’s still ubiquitous in many corporate settings and remains the reigning champion for financial modeling, analysis and reporting.

And even if your company or CFO is ready to upgrade their financial planning suite or software, there’s good news: You don’t necessarily need to give up Excel, as there are solutions (like Vena!) that allow you to keep what you love about Excel while making up for its constraints in scalability. 

Key Takeaways

  • Companies stick with Excel for compelling reasons. Cognitive friction, continual improvements and investment in the tool and the fact that many companies have built their entire financial workflows in Excel, make it hard to move off the tool for good.
  • CPM platforms with Excel plug-ins offer limited options, with limited capacity for integrating data sets, financial modeling and collaborating across the business.
  • Vena is a Complete Planning platform with a native Excel interface, which means finance teams don’t have to abandon Excel to get the stability and scalability they need for managing their core finance operations.

Why Replace Excel?

Let’s start at the top: Why would a company want to move away from Excel, anyway?

There may be a few reasons, and Excel does have its weak points. Chief among them is the fact that Excel itself was never designed or meant to be a full-enterprise application.

While it may be a great productivity and modeling tool, once you get to a certain scale, Excel can start to falter. Too many people may be collaborating, making version control a nightmare, and there may simply be too much data than can be reasonably contained within it.

In other words, Excel wasn’t built to be used as a database, even though some firms try to use it as such.

That leads to inefficiencies and can slow operations down. You could have numerous Excel workbooks that need to be compiled, for example, or data that needs to be manually transformed. Certain financial models may even need to be recreated from scratch to support practices like scenario analysis

At that point, it may make sense for a CFO or team leader to start looking at other options.

There are many technologies out there to support FP&A processes, too. A lot of the tools presented as alternatives to Excel have their own proprietary spreadsheet interfaces—they may even be emulating Excel’s look and feel, and try to market themselves as such. 

Yet, finance professionals don’t seem willing to leave Excel, even with other options at their fingertips. Surveys of finance professionals show that more than 80% of them continue to use spreadsheets even after their firms purchased other business performance management software or platforms, according to BPM Partners’ 2023 Pulse Survey.

So, even as companies are spending resources to theoretically replace Excel, workers are still using it. Its staying power is undeniable. That’s why it’s important to look at planning solutions that leverage the power of Excel, not abandon it.

Inside Excel’s Staying Power

Cognitive Comfort and Familiarity

For finance professionals, it’s fairly simple as to why Excel is so hard to quit: Using a new platform or software means relearning everything.

There are new formulas to memorize. New shortcuts to become familiar with. And often, these Excel alternatives with their own proprietary spreadsheet grids won’t be as flexible when it comes to their modeling capabilities.

Accordingly, many finance professionals find themselves reverting back to a familiar tool, and one that they’ve been accustomed to working with for years in many cases: Excel.

It may simply come down to the fact that learning or relearning the ins and outs of a new platform is a heavy lift, and it’s easier to stick with what you know. In effect, it’s like asking an auto mechanic to give up their favorite wrench, or a carpenter to try a new hammer—why not just stick with what works?

In that sense, Excel’s staying power may boil down to cognitive comfort and flexibility. There’s little incentive for finance teams to try and learn something else when they’re already firing on all cylinders with the tool they’re already using.

Continued Innovations in Excel and the Microsoft Ecosystem

It’s also important to note that Microsoft is well aware of how critical Excel is to many companies’ operations, and dedicates significant resources to fine-tuning it. Microsoft is a massive company with the resources to employ hundreds of employees to Excel, and Excel alone. A scrappy startup looking to replace or disrupt Excel can’t keep up with that type of power.

Microsoft continues to innovate with Excel and the rest of its Office Suite, and can keep up with changing workflow needs and issues that arise with its software—something competitors may not be able to do with the same speed or efficiency.

Excel users can even use Python in Excel, among other things. And, with the rollout of Microsoft Copilot, there’s even more reason to continue working within Excel, as you get to benefit of using AI to get more insights from your data


A preview of Microsoft Copilot in Excel shared by MicrosoftSource: Microsoft

With Microsoft Copilot in Excel, you can ask the AI chat assistant questions about your data and it’ll identify trends and correlations for you. 

Maintaining What You’ve Already Built

It’s also important to realize that with Excel having been around for decades, many companies have built numerous models and forecasts in the software. 

Effectively, their entire business may live, in a certain sense, in and on Excel spreadsheets. If they were to look at switching to an alternative, it’s possible they could lose all of those models and forecasts, which could take days, weeks, or even months to recreate.

Platforms With Excel Plug-Ins May Not Cut It

Looking at the market for viable Excel alternatives, you’re likely to come across some that do offer Excel functionality—often through a plug-in or something similar. 

That can obviously be attractive to finance teams or CFOs looking at their options, but in practice, these solutions often fall short. That’s because, for many of those alternatives, the ability to rope in Excel is an afterthought. This can create interruptions in your workflow, as you won’t be able to use the full functionality of Excel in tandem with your CPM platform.

You can retrieve data, perhaps, but the functionality that many finance professionals have grown accustomed to in Excel may be lacking. In other words: Your mileage may vary.

Here’s an overview of what you’ll get from a CPM platform that uses a native Excel interface (directly integrated with Excel) vs. one that accesses Excel via a plug-in.

Native Excel Approach to CPM Software Excel Plug-In Approach to CPM Software
All Excel capabilities are built into the platform Limited Excel features and formula functions
Supports complex and seamless model building, through the full power of Excel’s formulas and flexibility Limited modeling capabilities, as you can only access core financial data and are limited in the dimensions you can add to your financial model
Full ability to slice and dice data from your source systems in Excel Loss of granularity, as you have to import summarized data between systems
Enables you to share your work with ease by distributing reports and sharing budgets business-wide Limited sharing capabilities for those who don’t have access to the platform
Data is fully synchronized between Excel and the CPM’s database Data management challenges, making it difficult to move data between Excel and the CPM platform
Allows you to import existing Excel templates quickly Existing Excel templates you’ve created will have to be built from scratch, as they can’t be directly mapped to the system’s database


Continue to Excel With the Right CPM Platform

Ultimately, the secret to Excel’s staying power in finance is fairly simple: Old habits die hard. For that reason, finding a solution that augments your current teams’ skills may be a better option than looking for a replacement tool.    

“In my experience, you always end up reverting back to Excel to slice and dice data, no matter what system you’re using,” said Clement Marlin, WWF-Canada’s Senior Financial Specialist. “With Vena, I’m happy to have software that really embraces that idea because it’s allowed me to create one template structure for all of our different programs.”

While some platforms allow for Excel plug-ins or similar tie-ins, Vena embraces Excel from the beginning, allowing finance teams and enterprises to use Vena’s central database to augment Excel. 

You can take your existing Excel spreadsheets and easily map them to Vena to populate data from your source systems automatically—all your company’s logic and models are easily ported, and there’s no loss of functionality. 

“Excel itself is a very robust tool outside of the box,” said Dominic DiBernardo, former Chief Business Intelligence Officer at Cumming Corporation. “There's just some weaknesses that I think Vena fulfills. It acts as that multidimensional database on the back end that allows for two-way communication, and then that single source of truth, which eliminates a lot of the Excel or spreadsheet issues that you have with formula issues or version control, audit control and workflow.”

In short, Vena leverages the power of Excel, rather than trying to move you away from it. And with CubeFLEX, our analytical database technology, all your templates, models and data are dynamically mapped back to one central repository to power your planning as your business scales. 

Anything you can dream in Excel, you can build with Vena.


An Excel spreadsheet with a line chart and bar chart spotlighted
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