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Don't overlook the many benefits of Microsoft Excel for HR

The maligned spreadsheet tool is no substitute for enterprise apps like HRMS and people analytics, but it will do in a pinch and has at least a dozen advantages you can't ignore.

Few applications used by an HR team -- or an entire company for that matter -- can match the prevalence of Microsoft...

Excel. Though it is often criticized for its limitations and other issues, the benefits of Microsoft Excel are nonetheless substantial, and it remains an underrated tool for HR.

Is Excel the best HR application on the market? No. Are there better applications for reporting and analyzing data? Yes. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have a place in the HR toolbox.

Despite all the impressive HR systems, reporting products and cloud options that are now available, Excel and other spreadsheet applications have remained relevant and necessary. The following features and benefits of Microsoft Excel help explain its value and continued use.

It's affordable

Compared to many other applications used in HR, such as a human resource management system (HRMS), ERP or HR analytics application, Excel is very affordable, regardless of company size. It's often bought as part of Microsoft Office, making it essentially free for most users.

Learning resources

One of the main benefits of Microsoft Excel is that the amount of training information available online is almost endless. If you are new to Excel or trying to expand your knowledge, you can use Microsoft's extensive help system and online support, find videos on YouTube or look on blogs and forums from companies that offer Excel services. If free resources aren't sufficient, you can buy a book or register for online or in-person training offered by a multitude of vendors at an affordable price.

No implementation time or cost

Compared to on-premises or cloud-based enterprise applications, Excel can be up and running as quickly as your computer can finish the install. You can buy and download the application anytime. You don't need a project plan, vendor selection committee or implementation team.

Versatility

Few applications can handle everything that is expected of Excel. You can use it to track simple data, merge data from multiple sources, analyze data using a multitude of functions and features, produce charts and graphs, and the list goes on. Because of its versatility, people from all backgrounds and positions use Excel on a daily basis.

Information sharing

Few applications make sharing meaningful data between people as easy as Excel does. Given the popularity of Microsoft Office, it's rare that someone doesn't have Excel available to open a file. If that situation occurs, you can easily save the spreadsheet in another format, such as PDF.

Abundant features

It's hard to think of another application that has features for many different professions. There are functions for accounting, finance, date and time, and mathematics, among others. With Visual Basic for Applications, Excel can be expanded to include new functions, automate routine tasks and go beyond Excel functionality to create directories, Word files and password-protected PDFs, to name a few.

Stopgap

Even for companies that have a great HRMS and reporting system, Excel is still of value. Enhancements to enterprise applications often must be scheduled and prioritized among other requests, which can delay their implementation. One of the benefits of Microsoft Excel is that HR can use it to move forward with reports and other tasks until the feature is available in the enterprise system. This gets HR moving quickly and helps ensure the requirements are correct by allowing people to use a report a few times in Excel before IT resources are assigned.

Templates

A number of Excel templates that are useful to HR are free. You may also be able to find templates created by Excel professionals at a minimal cost, saving you time and money. Besides their inherent time-saving value, templates can also help people learn new functionality.

Data analysis

While Excel can become sluggish when analyzing large amounts of data, it can be pretty responsive to smaller data sets. This allows HR staff to quickly and easily generate reports, charts and graphs to help investigate or highlight important information. With each new version of Excel, the features are improving, making it easier to build professional-looking charts and graphs to share with the organization.

Data conversion

Whether you are moving from one system to another or simply need to convert data from your HRMS to something more useful for a presentation, Excel can handle it perfectly. For example, your HRMS may use codes or abbreviations to store data, but when using the data in a presentation, you may want to use full words. You can accomplish this using a simple search and replace in Excel. If you have similar needs on a regular basis, you can use a macro to automate all of the changes, making the data conversion relatively quick and painless. In addition, Excel makes reading data exported in common ERP and HRMS export file formats, such as CSV and TXT, easy because it formats the data by column.

Reduced need for IT

One of the most useful benefits of Microsoft Excel is that it lets the HR team perform many of their ad hoc and basic reporting needs without having to rely on IT. This capability both avoids HR having to wait for requests to be fulfilled and reduces IT's workload, freeing up its time for more complex requests.

Limiting features and functionality

For situations where you need users to fill in a spreadsheet, Excel provides the ability to lock fields and sheets to limit what users can edit. This ensures that only the required fields are updated and formulas aren't overwritten. In addition, with macros, you can enable and disable other features in Excel to guide the users in entering data in the template.

Though it is often underrated, the multitude of benefits of Microsoft Excel should ensure it still deserves a place in many HR departments. It will never replace enterprise-scale applications, nor should it, but it is hard to deny its prevalence and versatility.

This was last published in February 2018

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