A&E and Consulting firms: is it time you moved beyond spreadsheets?

May 25, 2021

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Spreadsheets play a pivotal role in Architecture, Engineering and Consulting companies. But for many firms, they may have reached the limit of their usefulness. Here’s why.

Love them or hate them, spreadsheets can be a great tool. They can be versatile, flexible, and offer a simple way to organize and analyze data. And in architecture, engineering and consulting (A&E and consulting) firms, they’re still widely used. In fact, in our 2020 Clarity Survey, 76% of Accounting and Finance leaders report their operations depend on manual data entry or spreadsheets.  

However, spreadsheets have their shortcomings for project-based businesses. Operations are becoming increasingly complex, so for many, spreadsheets just don’t have the right capabilities to effectively regulate key processes, or manage growing volumes of data.

But what exactly are these shortcomings, how can you tell when they’re impacting your business, and what alternatives are available? To help answer these questions, we spoke with finance leaders in A&E and Consulting firms about their spreadsheet challenges, and how they moved beyond them.

You can find out everything they said in the full white paper. But if you can’t wait, here are a few of the common issues to look out for.

No single point of truth

One of the biggest spreadsheet shortcomings shared by the finance leaders was around version control – and, subsequently, having no single point of truth.

As spreadsheets are shared across teams, you may find people creating and sharing their own versions. Each one is then edited and saved independently of the others, and knowing which one is most up to date or accurate becomes near impossible.

And the more your company grows, the bigger the problem can get. Data may get replicated and teams can end up working from different sources, which can have a knock-on effect on project delivery and execution. As Steve Slade, Finance Director at Buro Four, put it: “It’s death by a thousand cells.”


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Inconsistency and errors

Working with multiple spreadsheets can also introduce errors, impacting projects further down the line. And the more people manually edit a document, the higher the risk of inaccuracies becomes.

For many firms, the number of errors and spreadsheet data inconsistencies depends on how many ‘spreadsheet wizards’ are in each department. These are the people who have a really good grasp on how spreadsheets function, and how to get the best out of them.

You may have a fair few in your companies, and have higher data quality as a result. Or, you may find that you have a few colleagues who are less experienced, and you need to spend time checking data and formulae. Either way, if the quality of your data depends on the expertise of a few individuals, you may find that bottlenecks occur, projects are delayed or difficult to manage precisely, and business decisions aren’t always fully informed.

More time wasted

Spreadsheets are known for their flexibility. But when it comes to collaboration – within a company, or beyond it – that flexibility can become a burden.

Once your spreadsheet leaves your hands and is edited by another user, the data that’s put in isn’t necessarily trustworthy, especially if it’s been touched by one of your less spreadsheet-savvy colleagues. That means you’ll need to double check every cell and every formula.

And as spreadsheets don’t offer the same top-down insights as an integrated solution, they can also create barriers around resource allocation. When allocating resource by spreadsheet, our experts found they would spend extra time calling around to understand who’s available, and which teams needed more resource. This made it a challenge for them to make resourcing decisions quickly and accurately.

Move beyond the world of spreadsheets

According to our experts, most A&E and Consultancy firms will reach a clear point where they outgrow their spreadsheets. This drives many to seek an alternative solution.

But knowing what those triggers are, and what solution can help, isn’t always easy. The three challenges we’ve outlined are a good indication, but you’ll find more in our white paper: Beyond Spreadsheets: Achieving Collaboration, Automation, Data Accuracy and Efficiency. It’s packed full of expert insights, as well as guidance on how to move away from spreadsheets to a dedicated, automated, integrated ERP solution.


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