Unlocking Excel: using Excel to influence others in your organisation

Go beyond Excel's basic functions and discover its hidden powers

Liam Bastick, an Excel MVP, is on a mission to uncover Excel’s hidden powers

By Lachlan Colqhoun

For a software program that runs on just about every computer in the world, Excel is often scorned, or at least undervalued and taken for granted.

Experts purporting to be in the vanguard of new database and modelling technology sniff derisively at companies which still rely on it, implying that they exist in some outdated technological backwater.

Dr Liam Bastick is not one of these people. Originally from the UK, with a background in financial modelling at EY, Bastick is now an Excel MVP (Most Valuable Professional) who spreads the word about the value, and ongoing relevance and adaptability, of Excel through his Melbourne-based company SumProduct.

Bastick’s point is that Excel is now almost a universal standard, “part of the furniture,” but one which has grown and adapted since it was first introduced by Microsoft in 1985, ironically as a program for Mac.

How many functions does Excel really have?

Between 2003 and 2007, Bastick points out, new software releases made each individual Excel page sheet potentially 1024 times larger, while many new functions were added.

While Microsoft now claims that Excel has more than 350 functions, with a burst between 2010 and 2013 that added PowerPivot, Power Query and many other functions, Bastick and his team estimate that in reality the number is closer to 600.

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“It is giving people self-service business intelligence, and that is aimed at all the SMEs [small to medium enterprises] who don’t have the megabucks to afford other solutions and need to do this stuff themselves,” says Bastick.

“The release of these ‘Power’ functions was the most dramatic stuff to come out in 20 years.”

Unlocking Excel’s potential

At the same time, Bastick says that Excel’s potential is woefully underutilised by the majority of users, and his “evangelical” mission is to spread the word about its capabilities.

It is a path he has been on ever since he responded to an article in a UK accountancy magazine which criticised Excel’s relevance.

“I was ‘Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells’ and wrote in putting a counter point of view, and I’ve run with that ever since.”

Bastick recognises that the vast majority of people use Excel simply for keeping lists.

Discovering Excel’s hidden powers

Most users never look at Excel instructions, and the average is for people to know just the basic functions.

Only an estimated 4 per cent of spreadsheets used in business use built-in formulas, one of the more advanced capabilities of the program.

“Developers at Microsoft once told me that if you know 30 functions, you are an expert,” says Bastick, who knows many more than 30.

Users, however, don’t need to be experts to get more value out of Excel.

Often, simply understanding a keyboard shortcut can save hours of otherwise laborious work.

For others, it can be a new function which opens the way to solving an ongoing business problem.

"It’s amazing how I can have somebody come up to me two years after they attended a session, and say ‘you know that thing you showed me, it can be such a godsend’,” says Bastick.

Using Excel for forecasting

Excel, he says, has multiple uses but one which he thinks is particularly relevant is in forecasting.

Used effectively, this can break down the barrier between the forecasting and budgeting members of the finance team, and get them to buy into a set of numbers which both sides can acknowledge as beyond dispute.

Excel has several forecasting functions which take numbers prepared by the finance team and extrapolate them into forecasts. Excel’s great strength is that it is always on the side of logic, and it now allows for a high degree of automation.

“So you go and talk to the office manager and instead of saying ‘I want the budget for next year’ you say ‘this is what your numbers are telling me and if you agree, sign here’,” says Bastick.

“If they don’t agree, just get them to give you the right numbers and change them accordingly, and it can make everyone’s life easier because the forecast is based on something which is mutually agreed.”

Although he is a mathematician by training, Bastick’s sessions skip the maths theory “which puts everyone to sleep” and go straight to charts and examples of how Excel’s capabilities can be harnessed, practically and also objectively.

“It’s all about that old saying ‘teach yourself to fish and you’ll feed yourself’,” he says.

“And there are a lot of fish out there.”

Read next: 8 ways to improve your Excel skills


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