Is Excel Right for Managing Tasks? 5 Key Questions You Need to Ask

By Mark Pendolino – Smartsheet

Ignorance may be bliss, until we realize there is something drastically more efficient and effective out there. Then, ignorance becomes a costly, time-consuming oversight. Case in point: Excel spreadsheets.

The traditional spreadsheet has been around for nearly 30 years and almost a billion people use them today. But, their usage has evolved from being a data analytics and number crunching tool with formulas and functions to a work and project management tool.

In fact, 60% of spreadsheets in use today contain no formulas. Instead, Excel spreadsheets are being used for list management, project tracking, and basic work coordination.

Excel may be one of the most widely used tools for work management, but is it really the right tool for managing your tasks and projects?

Here are five important questions you need to ask yourself before using Excel for your next project:

1.  Can my colleagues and I work on a sheet at the same time?

Excel is locally hosted, whether it’s installed on a server or on each user’s individual machine. This means that the file must be constantly synced or carefully sent around via email to ensure all members of the team have access to the most up-to-date version. If one person forgets to email out some changes, a whole team could be out of sync. Some people rely on using a shared server like Microsoft Sharepoint to ensure version control, but that process can be time consuming for users and only one person and can work on the file at a time. And unless everyone accessing the file uses the proper methods of Sharepoint (i.e. ‘checking out’ and ‘checking in’), then it becomes a moot point. Microsoft has launched its Office 365 version of Excel, offering services in the cloud, but it still lacks the advanced sharing and collaboration features that you need to truly work real-time with other team members and it only works for the Windows platform.

Solution: You need to make edits at any time, and update those changes for everyone else working on the same platform. And you need to have things like the ability to have more than one person working at one time on the project plan, options to start discussions, ability to attach relevant content files, and the option to link to content that lives on other cloud-based apps like Evernote or Google Drive. Most importantly, the tool you use needs to accommodate work done on multiple devices, with multiple platforms, from any location.

2.  Can I identify who made changes or additions to a file?

Excel sheets are constantly being modified and change hands across emails dozens of times a day. As such, it can be extremely difficult to keep track of where the project was six months before, let alone years ago, and identify who made certain changes and when.

Solution: Look for a tool that offers full project history and can automatically notify you each time someone makes a change, so you always know who is working on what.

3.  Do I have easy, customizable tracking capabilities? Or the ability to visually see who’s working on what and with whom?

Excel has no built-in reporting, so project managers need to manually generate reports and graphs. In addition, certain reports you can build in Excel (like Gantt charts and project roll-ups) may be beyond the skills and capabilities of some project managers.

Solution: Save valuable time with software that has one-click reporting and customizable tracking abilities. For example, the capabilities to identify work patterns, track employee productivity, and monitor tasks to help set individual or team priorities. You can even have the ability to create a visual workmap: a graphical, interactive way to show who is working on what, with whom, and with what content. This gives you a quick way to see what projects are getting the most attention, who your high performers are on the team, and the status of who’s engaged from other departments.

4.  Can I quickly view project status and progress in a dashboard?

Managers often need an easy-to-digest overview of what is happening. Excel does not lend itself to a quick understanding of project status. You would need to create additional views or reports to see summarized information from Excel, or sift through detailed information to find the one number you need.

Solution: Choose software that features a dashboard where you can view the most important information in one place. As an added bonus, look for a customizable dashboard, where you can choose what information shows up (reminders, assignments, to-do lists, or recent files).

5.  Can I create specific to-do lists for different team members?

Excel is great if you’re flying solo as it only shows one view, typically for the project manager. It doesn’t provide individual team member with his or her own to-do list for each project. And, everyone has access to the same information in one Excel sheet. An intern can see the same data as senior management and can easily make changes that aren’t tracked.

Solution: You need different views and different access capabilities for different people. The best tools allow you to customize what each user can or cannot see, and lets you distribute specific tasks and to-dos to certain people. It also gives you the ability to set up auto-reminders to each individual so they know when their tasks are due.

Save Excel for the Number Crunching

Excel has always been the tool of choice for deep number-crunching. But as a management tool, it’s limited to a list of tasks with columns detailing specific milestones or target dates. While that information is helpful, it just scratches the surface. Don’t hold back productivity and collaboration by using Excel for important tasks it was never made to do.

 Learn more about Smartsheet as an Excel alternative that will help you get more done, more effectively.

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