Excel for decision makers or Excel for bean counters?

What the heck kind of a list of Excel essentials is this?

  1. Formulas
  2. Functions
  3. AutoFill
  4. “Bucket brigade” formulas
  5. Descriptive formulas
  6. Naming cells
  7. Goal Seek
  8. Data tables

No charts. No pivot tables. No VBA. No fancy formatting. Nothing about making dashboards or supporting data entry. I’ve just spent the last eight posts without mentioning any of the things that most Excel books and classes focus on.

OK, OK, I’ll give you one hint about charts. Often, when you’re doing cost-benefit comparisons, sensitivity analysis or trade studies, you want to see how one value varies with another. Here’s an example. The picture shows a cost-benefit comparison of several cars you’re considering buying. The costs are on the horizontal axis and the benefit scores are on the vertical axis. The points are spread out relative to both cost and benefit, so you can see immediately which car gives you the most “bang for the buck.” Excel has a lot of types of charts, but the only one that spaces out the horizontal axis properly is the scatter chart. Don’t let the name fool you. You can use it to get a continuous line as well.

So, back to the question. These are the Excel skills that decision makers need. Most Excel training focuses on bean counters. Why does it matter?

Bean counters have too much data and they need to summarize it. Decision makers have too little data and they need to make inferences from it. Bean counters answer the same questions repeatedly (e.g., profits this month versus last). Decision makers are continually faced with changing questions. Bean counters generate results to show to someone else. Decision makers generate results to give themselves insights. Bean counters need to systematize data entry for repetitive tasks. Decision makers pull together whatever data they have available at that moment that could give them insights. Bean counters look to the past. Decision makers look to the future.

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