How to be a good Excel user

What do you need to learn to be “good at Excel”? What Excel training should be mandatory for finance teams?

I really rate the ICAEW’s spreadsheet competency framework as a tool to use to diagnose where you and your team are at and where you should be. It breaks down users into four types – Basic, General, Creator and Developer – and allocates the skills that each level should have.

This is much more helpful to me than users saying that they are “intermediate” or “advanced” users. When I recruit for roles I often use the framework in the job description.

There are other really good guides for how to train yourself in Excel. For example, I like this overview from Chandoo as a curriculum with linked lessons.

However, the ICAEW framework makes you think about your team and the organisation as well as your own skills.

It’s not just about me

This is what being a “good” Excel user boils down to for me. It isn’t about my own competence, but more about how Excel is used in the organisation I’m working for.

Underpinning the ICAEW’s competency framework is the twenty principles for good spreadsheet practice.

These include important planning considerations such as “Before starting, satisfy yourself that a spread-sheet is the appropriate tool for the job” and “Ensure that everyone involved in the creation or use of spreadsheets has an appropriate level of knowledge and competence”. There are also principles for designing a workbook, such as never embedding anything in a cell that might change.

I refer to these principles frequently, and use them when I’m training finance teams in appropriate use of Excel.

A team approach is better

I believe that it’s much more useful for an organisation to have several people operating at a Creator level and consistently applying the right principles than having one person operating at a Developer level.

Not only does this make for better future proofing, but it encourages the team to continue to learn and challenge each other. In the worst case, having someone who is really good at Excel can put off the development of the rest of the team as they end up leaving the complicated stuff to the Excel whizz. The Excel whizz, meanwhile, gets used to doing their own thing, and working on the assumption that no one else will use the workbook. This in turn can result in them taking shortcuts, for example, mixing up inputs, calculations and outputs, and not including any instructions.

In my last two permanent roles, I used both the principles and the framework to make sure all the finance team were at least at General User level and that those that needed to be were at Creator level. I also encouraged the team to try new things by starting an “Excel Club”. At Excel club we got together for half an hour once a week to share something we’d recently learned.

Questions I ask myself

Linked to the twenty spreadsheet principles, I’ve evolved a few check questions I use to check my own behaviours:

  • Am I doing this in Excel because it’s the best tool or just the one I know the best?
  • Did I use that formula because it is the most robust and future proofed or because it’s familiar?
  • Am I using that chart because it’s the clearest way to present that particular piece of data?
  • Would it be better to redesign this from scratch?
  • Will someone else know what I’ve done here?
  • Am I building this because only I can do it? If so, could it be a really good learning opportunity for another member of the team?

In conclusion, being a good Excel user is not about learning the most flashy formulas. It is about using the right tool for the job, and doing it in a way that others can follow. It is about sharing your knowledge and training with others, and being open to new ways of working.

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