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Jan 6, 2020

How spreadsheets are used at work

Matt Robinson
co-founder & CEO

At Spreadsheet.com we believe the spreadsheet is still in its early days as a medium for collaborative work, with potential to evolve into one of the next great enterprise software platforms.

Over our collective decades of experience in the software industry, we’ve developed a deep conviction about the staying power of spreadsheets and the massive opportunity that awaits a next-generation spreadsheet purpose-built for collaborative work. Ultimately this conviction led to the creation of our product and company.

Yet strong as our convictions are, until recently they were based primarily on anecdotal evidence — our personal observations and experiences combined with those of hundreds of people we talked to. In order to better quantify the magnitude of the Spreadsheet.com opportunity, we needed more than anecdotal evidence.

2019 Spreadsheet.com spreadsheet usage survey

That’s why we recently created a survey to collect data on how people use spreadsheets at work. In November we sent this survey to over 8,000 people who registered for early access to Spreadsheet.com, and received more than 1,150 responses.

While these responses are biased since they came from people known to be interested in Spreadsheet.com, we believe they are broadly representative of general spreadsheet usage and provide a qualitatively useful view of user needs that are currently not well served.

In short, here’s what we found:

  1. Over 90% of respondents use spreadsheets for work on a daily basis, which aligns with earlier academic research, discussed below, showing as much as 90% of business workers using spreadsheets on a daily basis, often for several hours per day.
  2. The top uses for spreadsheets (i.e. those selected by 50% or more of respondents) are the following, in order of prominence:
    * Managing lists (63%)
    * Managing tasks within a plan (62%)
    * Financial analysis (59%)
    * Creating a budget (58%)
  3. Nearly ¾ of respondents, 73%, said their spreadsheets are shared with other people as much as, or more often than, not:
    * All of them are shared (15%)
    * Most of them are shared (30%)
    * About half of them are shared (28%)
  4. Even among users of modern collaborative work management (CWM) tools, spreadsheets are used more often.
  5. The top reasons for using spreadsheets instead of other tools (i.e. those selected by 50% or more of respondents) are the following, in order of prominence:
    * More flexible (69%)
    * Well known by others on my team (52%)
    * Easier to use (52%)
People choose spreadsheets over other tools because they are more flexible, better known by teammates, and easier to use.

2019 Spreadsheet.com early access emails

In addition to our survey results, we received over 500 emails in November from early access registrants, with detailed use case explanations describing how they want to use Spreadsheet.com. We consolidated these emails, in a spreadsheet of course, and looked for patterns. Here’s what we found:

Dartmouth University Spreadsheet Engineering Research Project (SERP)

Before we decided to run our own survey, we looked for other spreadsheet usage surveys and found surprisingly few. One that stood out was created as part of Dartmouth University’s Spreadsheet Engineering Research Project (SERP). This survey was run in 2007, just one year after Google Sheets was launched, and several years before Microsoft launched Excel online — in effect, before the spreadsheet was brought online at any meaningful scale.

The SERP survey received nearly 1,600 responses and Dartmouth researchers wrote three insightful papers about the results, available here. In short, the highlights for us from this study were:

  1. The broad use of spreadsheets was high: “Slightly over 90% of the sample indicated that at least some of their time at work was devoted to creating spreadsheets.”
  2. Diversity of spreadsheet usage was strong, ranging from financial planning, budgeting, and analysis, to tracking data and managing lists: “It is generally acknowledged that spreadsheets are used in just about every area of business.”
  3. Sharing spreadsheets at work was common: 87% of respondents reported that their typical spreadsheet was shared with one or more other people.

Conclusions

Based on survey results, early access emails, and years of anecdotal evidence, we can confidently say that spreadsheets remain broadly and frequently used in virtually every industry, business function, and region of the world, enabling teams to collaborate on many different kinds of work. Their flexibility, familiarity, and ease of use give them tremendous staying power, despite a lack of significant collaboration features and the increasing number of products designed to replace them for specific use cases.

The simplest way to categorize spreadsheet usage is with two broad and dichotomous use cases:

Traditional spreadsheets such as Excel and Google Sheets are excellent tools for analytics, which is what they’ve been designed for since their creation. By contrast, these products are not designed to be used as shared databases and project management tools for managing collaborative work. Yet based on our research, we believe hundreds of millions of people use them this way today — as much as, maybe even more than, for analytics.

This is why we believe the world needs a more capable spreadsheet for collaborative work. One that maintains fidelity and backward compatibility with traditional spreadsheets so people don’t have to sacrifice flexibility, familiarity, and ease of use in order to gain new capabilities. One that reimagines the spreadsheet for a new era of collaboration.