Microsoft Excel is one of the most commonly used pieces of software in the world, possibly only beaten into second place by Microsoft Word. There is unlikely to be an office worker in the world who has not used Excel in one way or another and usually only scratching the service of its capabilities.
It comes as no surprise then to learn that we regularly talk with customers who are using Excel as the data analytics tool of choice for their internal data analytics. Sometimes this is in tandem with other packages such as ACL Analytics or IDEA, and sometimes it is standalone. It is also one of the few tools that is used both by very basic users and advanced data analysts, which means there is a very broad spectrum of skills to be learned and developed.
We often find that users of Excel are self taught and usually don’t know what they don’t know; this can become prohibitive when we offer training and consultancy work, because there is so much that can be done and something one person might find basic the next finds advanced. So to help users understand their own potential and individual requirements we have adopted the Spreadsheet Competency Framework of the ICAEW Excel Community Advisory Committee.
About the framework – Download the framework
This guide provides a common structure for discussing spreadsheet ability. It standardises a series of skillsets, called levels, which are useful for classifying different degrees of spreadsheet expertise. For recruiters and businesses, this provides a simple way of understanding the difference in ability between different spreadsheet users, both those internal to the organisation and among potential new hires. It also lays out general expectations of what level of knowledge is appropriate for a range of common business roles that touch on the finance function. For individual spreadsheet users, the framework can be used both to provide a meaningful description of their own ability on a CV, and also to help direct the user towards potential learning topics for the future. The levels are based on a broad description of a collection of skills. Naturally, different people will have encountered different tasks in their working life, and will have different sets of experience to one another.
In brief, the levels are as follows. Basic users will carry out data entry tasks in spreadsheets, and will have only the most fundamental knowledge necessary to be able to interact with a spreadsheet package.
General users are those with a moderate level of spreadsheet experience. Finance professionals who use spreadsheets on a regular basis should aim to reach this level in order to be at their most efficient when performing their duties. The primary interaction with spreadsheets for these individuals is to modify spreadsheets, rather than create sophisticated spreadsheets from scratch.
Creators are those with a greater degree of expertise and sophistication. Creators use spreadsheets as a primary element of their role, and need to consider how to create and manage spreadsheets of a greater degree of complexity. The variety of skills appropriate to the ‘creator’ level is considerably broader than for a ‘general user’, and some degree of specialisation is to be expected.
Developers represent the truly expert spreadsheet users, who are familiar with most of the core functionality of spreadsheet packages, and are able to develop high-complexity spreadsheets in a multi-user environment. Developers will frequently be highly specialised, with exceptional knowledge in specific areas.
They will normally be able to self-teach practically any spreadsheet topic if they do not know it already. The following provides a fictitious example of a company that employs Excel spreadsheet users of the different levels.
Boxes Co is a medium-sized shipping and logistics company with 100 employees in its central warehouse and office. These are mostly admin and finance staff, but also include warehouse operations as well as HR and other functions. Boxes Co uses Microsoft Excel for all its spreadsheet requirements.
Sarah works in Boxes Co’s warehouse. She has only an occasional need to use spreadsheets, by updating goods received tracking sheets from a remote terminal in the warehouse office. Robin is an HR administrator, and updates Boxes Co’s logs of daily attendance and holiday numbers in an Excel template. Both Sarah and Robin learnt how to use their respective spreadsheets through on-the-job training.
Kathryn works in Boxes Co’s accounting department as an accounts receivable clerk. She frequently uses Excel to track and summarise the progress of outstanding debts, mostly by using templates but also adding her own formulas where appropriate. Alex is a secretary for the team that organises Boxes Co’s drivers. He fills in jobs, driver availability, and other information in a master team schedule workbook and coordinates HR and payroll information based on the drivers’ submitted timesheets. Kathryn and Alex both attended a half-day basic Excel training course as part of their induction process.
Harshna works in a small team of management accountants and is responsible for producing reports for the management team. She produces many accounting spreadsheets both for her own use and for review by management. Harshna also helps make some of the simpler templates that are used by the other teams
within Boxes Co. Toby is a payroll administrator, has more Excel knowledge than the other payroll administrators, and is responsible for most of the detailed Excel data manipulation that the team does. This includes using Excel to manipulate and summarise the data provided by Boxes Co’s external payroll bureau and checking it against the payroll input data that Boxes Co holds. Harshna and Toby’s job specifications include an expectation of appropriate spreadsheet skills, and their interviews included questions about their Excel knowledge.
Boxes Co employs an expert financial modeller, Bes. Bes is responsible for creating the detailed forecasting models used in the management’s long-term planning, as well as creating models that are used by the logistics team to plan when they need to hire temporary extra drivers during periods of peak demand. She also creates automation macros and VBA for some of her co-workers’ most time-intensive regular tasks. Bes was hired on the basis of her financial modelling and Excel knowledge and experience.
Naturally, not everyone has the spreadsheet knowledge necessary to achieve the basic user level as described below. Our recommendation is that individuals below the basic user level should not be in a position to access an organisation’s spreadsheets, as they are unlikely to use them safely and effectively. Furthermore, spreadsheets created for basic users should be made by creators or higher-level users, to ensure that they
are designed with a clear enough purpose and strong enough guidance and protection to ensure that an inexperienced user will not go too far off the intended track. There is currently no formal assessment process for the spreadsheet competency framework. This document is intended only as a structure to organise the very wide and inconsistent degrees of spreadsheet ability that exist in the marketplace, often hidden behind a throwaway CV line such as ‘proficient with Microsoft Excel’.
By creating a simple structure for assessing spreadsheet ability, the framework introduces the language for discussing what different jobs require, and what abilities different people have. The framework as a whole should be applied with a degree of common sense. For example, there may be specific tools that a certain role requires, which are above and beyond the general level of spreadsheet knowledge which that role would otherwise need – this then provides a sensible case for deviation from the framework.