The Unofficial History of Spreadsheets in Procurement: Are Reports of Their Demise Greatly Exaggerated?

Posted on June 24, 2022


Like the proverbial broken record, the debate regarding the continuing use of spreadsheets has been going on for years.

In truth, it is really a one-way conversation in which we all lament the inherent dangers and shortfalls of using spreadsheets and emails to procure goods and services but continue to use them. It reminds me of how my mother used to warn me that sitting too close to the television would ruin my eyesight. I would half-listen, shake my head in agreement, and then move closer to the screen.

You can find evidence of this same repetitive exercise in a series of posts here on Procurement Insights, starting with the latest “Finally, An Answer To Why Procurement Professionals Still Use Spreadsheets.”

However, if you type the word spreadsheets into this blog’s search box, you will find 19 separate posts on the ubiquitous tool, starting with the first one in 1979. That’s an average of 1.266 posts per year since I launched this blog in May 2007.

That’s 15 years, and despite amazing technological breakthroughs, spreadsheets, like Jason Voorhees, are hard to kill because we are still talking about them.

Ironically, the first article in this blog about using spreadsheets was a guest post by Glenda Leatherman, a change management consultant, in March 2008. Ironically, the post actually champions the use of spreadsheets when merging “three procurement organizations together into one functioning organization.”

Guest Author
Glenda Leatherman

It was not until the end of that year that the first negative rumblings regarding the vague limitations of spreadsheets began to surface. In discussing eSourcing, the guest author of the October 2008 post suggests, “It is perfectly possible to prepare a company’s annual accounts on spreadsheets, but it is much less time consuming and error-prone to do the same job with an accounting software package.”

The subject of spreadsheets didn’t come up again until January 22nd, 2014, when Buyers Meeting Point’s Kelly Barner did a Dragon’s Den review of the GroupRFx solution. By the way, I don’t think GroupRFx is still around – a case of blaming the messenger?

A few months later, the co-founder of Scout RFP (now Workday), Andrew Durlak, shared his thoughts in a post titled New Wave Company Update: Scout Co-Founder provides his view on the Internet of Things. In that post, Durlak questioned the viability of continuing to use spreadsheets in an IoT-connected world. Coinciding with Andrew’s point of view was the release of the Supply & Demand Chain Executive‘s white paper “Are Spreadsheets Sabotaging Your Supply Chain?” Interesting timing? By the way, Chris Crane was the other co-founder of what was once Scout RFP.

Andrew Durlak
Co-Founder & VP of Business Development

It wasn’t until five years later, in February 2019, that a Procurement Insights poll asked the question “Tell Us What You Think (POLL): Excel Spreadsheets Is Still A Thing?

In the November 12th, 2019, post regarding the use of spreadsheets titled “What is your organization’s digital readiness and what it means to your future employment?” the article opens with the following question: “Do you, as a procurement professional, still use spreadsheets to do your job?” The later reference to a survey indicating “62 percent of CPOs believe that their team lacks the necessary skills to deliver on their procurement strategy” does not bode well for the columns and rows crowd.

Two days later, the “Spreadsheets and email: RIP (Live Recording)” post shared a recording of a panel discussion with the main theme being “When it comes to using spreadsheets (you need) to find out when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.” Kelly Barner, Market Dojo’s Alun Rafique, and Sourcing Solved’s Iain Campbell McKenna joined me on the panel.

Kelly Barner

On the same day, Sarah Scudder provided a summation of a Zycus Horizon 2019 panel discussion on leadership best practices. She made a simple statement: “Stop relying on excel spreadsheets.” I was the moderator of that panel which included: Brian RocheGeorge CharalambousMatt Mehalick and John O’Connell, MBA.

Sarah Scudder

In the fourth of the five November 2019 posts on the subject, I referred to spreadsheets as being a “security blanket.” I did, however, say that “giving up our security blanket is not an unwillingness to change or, for that matter, a lack of recognition of the spreadsheet’s limitations.” The real obstacle I continued “is not knowing the answer to the question; so, I stop using spreadsheets, now what?”

The following month on the December 11th post regarding the recently released Deloitte CPO Global Survey, I reported that “a large percentage of companies that have fully implemented these modern technologies are not actually satisfied with the results.” This revelation no doubt was the driving factor behind my statement that the disappointing results of digital initiatives came down to “poor data governance, an unwillingness to move away from the familiar, i.e., the continuing reliance on spreadsheets, and a reactive versus proactive approach to formulating and implementing a digital strategy.” However, and in explaining their continuing use, I added that until we clearly answer the “what’s the alternative” question, spreadsheets will continue to be a significant obstacle to digital transformation.”

In a February 2020 post, I referred to ProcurePort’s Jemin Patel’s quote that the majority of the medium to large size enterprises are “still struggling to implement procurement automation, even in its most basic forms.” Patel adds, “Excel, Word and email are still dominating the buyer/seller interaction for all transactions.” His is hardly a statement of support for the continuing use of spreadsheets (and Word/email).

Jemin Patel
  Director at ProcurePort

In the follow-up post, Benchmarking And Beyond: The New Metrics For Measuring Procurement Success In The Digital Age, I wrote the following:

“But here is the catch. Similar to the recognition that spreadsheets hinder more than help with the procurement process, in the absence of a clearly viable alternative, you stay with spreadsheets. In short, until people realize that there is not only a viable digital alternative to spreadsheets but fully understand what it is and how it works, then they will stand pat.”

I don’t think I have to add much more to the above statement.

In a video on August 5th 2020, I ask Velocity Procurement’s Michael Jasper, “are spreadsheets still a viable tool?” I think you will find the 3:43 interview interesting.

Michael Jasper
  Director at Velocity Procurement

After taking a hiatus from writing about spreadsheets in 2021, so far in 2022, I have posted five different articles on the subject. If you haven’t already read them, here they are for your convenience:

April 29th, 2022 – Stuck In The Seventies: When It Comes To Digital Transformation, 77% Of Organizations Are Still On The Sidelines (POLL RESULTS)

May 28th, 2022 – When Will Procurement Bridge The Gap Between Digital Promise And Realization?

May 31st, 2022 – Why do procurement professionals continue to use spreadsheets?

June 14th, 2022 – Finally, An Answer To Why Procurement Professionals Still Use Spreadsheets

June 23rd, 2022 – Are budgets really the “top barrier” to digital transformation . . . really?

Given that we are only halfway through 2022, I have a feeling that there will be a few more posts on the subject of spreadsheets, and maybe for many more years to come? Or is this the year we relegate the columns and rows to footnote status and finally (and fully) embrace digital technology?

Thanks to all those who contributed to this Unofficial History of Spreadsheets in Procurement post.

Posted in: Commentary