Abandon common sense all ye who enter here…

by Simon Hurst on 24.02.2010 08:33

Far be it from me to provide Dennis with any more ‘spreadsheet (forces of) hell’ ammunition, but I had a fascinating conversation with one of my accountant clients this afternoon. Referring to an article on Excel’s role in causing the current recession, he recounted a horror story involving one of his clients and another firm of accountants. Dennis will not be surprised to hear that Excel was implicated in the debacle. However, the spreadsheet involved was entirely accurate, reasonably well structured and included appropriate checks and controls. The accountant concerned had simply taken the completely correct answer and made an error of logic in interpreting what it meant, resulting in advising the client that they needed to pay exactly twice what they actually did need to pay.

Before completely absolving Excel, spreadsheets and even IT in general, it’s worth considering the excellent point that my client made: would the accountant have made the same logical error if the information had been presented to them as a hand-written schedule on a sheet of analysis paper?

One of my first tasks as a trainee auditor was to add up stock figures produced by a computer and printed out on yards of green listing paper. I can remember thinking, as I sat there with my hand-crank adding machine (for younger readers, think of a combination of a calculator, cash register and one-armed bandit), what a pointless exercise it was and that maybe I should have stuck with the lion-taming. Although in this case the additions proved accurate, as my career progressed, the more I saw of computers and their output, the more I realised just how far from pointless the exercise had been. For some real world examples of what can go wrong, Patrick O’Beirne’s list of spreadsheet horror stories has been mentioned on IT Counts before and should probably be essential reading for any accountant that uses, or relies on, spreadsheets.

It’s been a fairly common theme running through the various data loss scandals over the past years that the cause hasn’t been any sort of IT failure, but rather a common sense failure. Is there something about IT that creates some sort of impenetrable common sense barrier around it? Is it because some people in a position of responsibility write off anything tarnished by association with IT as someone else’s problem? Or is it just, as my client suggested, that we are more likely to assume something is right when it is well presented and neatly printed?