Over the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to observe hundreds of ways that various corporations use Excel. I am continually amazed at their creativity. Many times Excel is used appropriately; however, some applications in Excel are clearly the result of a developer (or otherwise) who did not know how to solve the problem using other technology better suited for the task at hand. In these cases, though I personally would not have chosen Excel as my canvas, I am often impressed that Excel solved the problem. To this I attribute the imagination of the creator and the broad and deep capabilities of Excel.
I have seen or developed Excel applications that are used for a diverse range of activities. Some of the uses that I have seen or developed include these:
Investment research publication A blue-chip investment bank used Excel to pull data from a back-end database, assemble the data in a meaningful manner, and create a printer-ready, 100+ page document that included financial data and statistics, reports, a Table of Contents, and an index.
Sales quote generation A manufacturing company used Excel to create a sophisticated sales quote application. This application incorporated the detailed specifications required by their customers and produced a set of reports that specified costs, engineering specifications, and a quote for the client.
Budget/forecast models Nearly every firm I have had the opportunity to work with uses Excel in some shape/form in their budget or forecast process. These models have ranged from simple one-worksheet models to very complex workbooks that integrate with various other applications.
Complex financial analysis Excel is so well suited for financial analysis that it is no surprise that firms use it to perform many of their most complex analysis tasks. A standout example in this category would be an extremely complex financial model that estimates the gain associated with various portfolios of asset-backed securities. Here's another example: if you're familiar with the concept of Economic Value Added (EVA) and Market Value Added (MVA) developed by Stern Stewart, you may be interested to know that Stern Stewart's own EVA application is an amazingly sophisticated example that is developed using Excel.
Sales commission models A financial services company developed an Excel application that used detailed sales data to determine the commission earned by each sales representative.
Financial proposal generators A large financial services company used Excel, in conjunction with Microsoft Access and Microsoft Word, to develop an application that would allow advisors to assemble a "custom" financial profile of a client along with recommendations that fit the client's risk tolerance and financial objectives.
Many times I view Excel as the Swiss Army knife of the software world—maybe it is not the best tool for all purposes, but it is adequate for most and flat out excellent for many. As much as I admire the versatility of Excel, I must point out one thing, which I can say without hesitation: Excel is miserable as a word processor. Oddly enough, some have tried to prove me wrong on this one, but they've failed sensationally.
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