The first commercial spreadsheets, called VisiCalc, came about in 1978 on an Apple II computer. A huge improvement from number mapping on a blackboard, VisiCalc allowed professionals to manipulate and organize numbers based on underlying formulas. The 1980s brought Lotus 1-2-3 onto the scene with basic database options and faster computing, referencing and graphing integration. In the early 1990s, Microsoft Excel finally overtook Lotus and has since been the preferred spreadsheet application. 

When the only alternative was a piece of grid paper, the ability to reference and calculate quantity, cost and item cells in spreadsheets soon became invaluable to estimators and other construction professionals. The proliferation of the Internet and PCs in the construction workplace introduced a range of technology solutions in the 2000s, including all the functionalities of spreadsheets along with dynamic, real-time collaboration and imaging capabilities.

However, more than 52 percent of commercial construction companies still use static Excel spreadsheets to transfer data between processes and departments, according to the 2012 Construction Technology Integration Report. The main reasons for resisting newer, better technologies include convenience, efficiency and fear of the unknown. 

The Convenience of Spreadsheets
Being one of the longest surviving computer applications—next to notepads and web browsers—spreadsheet applications are programs familiar to all generations of employees. Additionally, historical estimates, budgeting projections and bid project distribution lists produced before modern day construction management, accounting and estimating software often are archived in spreadsheet files. Plus, spreadsheet programs are almost always pre-installed on staff computers, making them incrementally “free” for employees to use. 

The Efficiency of Spreadsheets

Because employees typically are comfortable with spreadsheets, they don’t require extensive training. The exact opposite can be said for trying to introduce new solutions such as estimating or bid software. Perceived cost and implementation time of new technology often outweighs the future cost savings. 

The Fear of Anything But Spreadsheets
Spreadsheets are predictable, mainly because they are static repositories of information that can’t be touched by a cloud service provider or tapped into by any other solution. Their old-school reliability has become a safe zone where anything outside of a spreadsheet is corruptible and shareable beyond control. Most construction software packages look nothing like a spreadsheet application interface; the cells are all behind the scenes and the calculations seem harder to track.

This has created an endemic being fueled by the following pitfalls of relying on spreadsheets. 

Spreadsheets Are Static
A spreadsheet is limited by the data inserted. Sure, it can predict outcomes based on formulas, but no active feedback or predictive modeling exists beyond the information initially entered. Depending entirely on human input means spreadsheets are at the mercy of human error.

Spreadsheets Are Not Software
Other than uploading Microsoft suites to the cloud, spreadsheet files lack the guaranteed back-up and mobile or remote access that cloud-based software offers. Because spreadsheet applications are developed to be used across a number of industries, finding a solution that meets the needs of estimators, accountants and subcontractors is difficult. Back-up solutions exist, but not with the same reliability as commercial-grade software. 

Spreadsheets Don’t Integrate Well

Spreadsheets double as .csv files, and users can import, export, and tediously adjust and match columns all day long—or try to program a more complex Access or SQL database integration—but that data most likely will never be automatically pulled and pushed to or from another channel. Microsoft Excel, for example, can’t be overly customized or automated to fit a project, nor will it easily offer suggestions on quantity cost or integrate with other construction software via an open application programming interface.

These days, most people would not transfer money between accounts by updating a spreadsheet and submitting it to the bank. More than 35 percent of commercial construction professionals do the equivalent of that every day on their projects, spending hours on data input and much more on the inefficiency of sharing static files via FTP and email. It’s time for construction companies to learn to access information centrally with a cloud software solution.


James Benham is president of JB Knowledge Technologies, Inc. For more information, visit sbn.cc/conexec.