Spreadsheets – A History and a Future!

Unchaining Change Leadership

Most of us create, use, present and work with at least one spreadsheet each and every day.  Spreadsheets have proven invaluable.  And many businesses even observe, and complain, that they are run on spreadsheets.

Yet there was a time not that long ago when most people didn’t even know what a spreadsheet was.  In the early 1980s I was given one the first IBM Personal Computers to use, along with the spreadsheet software Visicalc.  Spreadsheets forever transformed my productivity and skill set.


I was transferred to a new job as the Company’s Warehouse Space Planner.  With over a dozen warehouse facilities in operation, pending implementation of a new Automated Storage and Retrieval System (AS/RS), changing product lines and skus, and an increasingly global supply base this was an exciting opportunity for me.

The gentleman I was taking over from did everything manually.  He hand-wrote tables and hand drew graphs on paper showing, amongst other things, how our demand and supply of warehouse space had, and would, change over time.  With so many warehouse facilities being used this was complicated and these tables and charts would have dozens of numbers on them.  And there would also be multiple pages with different types of tables, summaries, and variations.

And when he needed to change any of those numbers he would physically put a piece of white-out tape over the old number, hand-write on the new number, and then use his calculator to re-total all of the columns and rows. This in turn required the placement of more pieces of white-out tape so that the new totals could be put on the page for every single row and column. And changes on one page invariably meant that numbers on other pages had to be similarly manually changed at the same time.

There were inevitably so many changes that any given piece of paper would have spots where the white-out tape was literally a quarter of an inch high off of the page.  The change of a single number would invariably result in at least 30 minutes worth of work to make all of the updates.  It was the only way he knew how to do this work as he was not at all familiar with, or inclined to learn, computers.

That way of doing this work was going to stop with him.  As I took over the job I knew that the most productive way of doing this work was by using a spreadsheet!

At the time most people didn’t even know what a spreadsheet was.  I was given the opportunity of getting one of the first IBM personal computers to work on.  I ordered the software program Visicalc, the first personal computer spreadsheet program.  By today’s standards Visicalc is primitive but back then it was revolutionary.  I marvelled at this technology!

When I first started using it to create and present tables of numbers the reaction from others was of both amazement and cynicism.  Typical questions would be whether I had the Steno pool do this, or whether the totals on the spreadsheets were accurate.  If someone changed any assumptions or numbers they were astonished that I could make updates instantly.


The power of the spreadsheet was incredible.  It replaced so much manual work and did it in a fraction of the time.  And this meant that even more numbers and data could be quickly and efficiently managed.  The productivity improvement was extraordinary.  The value add increased exponentially.  And decision making along with what-if analytics was quick and easy.

I was hooked on spreadsheets!

Lotus 1-2-3

Not long after Visicalc was released came a new and improved spreadsheet software program, Lotus 1-2-3.

Lotus 1-2-3 was even better than Visicalc.  It had colour, it made the creation of graphs and charts very easy.  You could also program macros which made data management and calculations much easier.

It was super cool at the time!  Anyone who could work with Lotus 1-2-3, just as with Visicalc, was on the leading edge of spreadsheet technology at the time.  Easily creating bar charts and pie charts made any work product look highly professional and advanced.  By definition anyone using spreadsheets was more productive, more creative, more responsive, and better equipped than anyone not using spreadsheets.  They could spend more time on intellectual pursuits instead of punching numbers into a calculator.


With the arrival of Excel the spreadsheet continued its evolution.  The user interface improved significantly.  Tasks that were onerous and challenging in Visicalc, or even Lotus 1-2-3 were now even easier.  The look and feel of Excel and the capabilities were outstanding.

By this time people were scrambling to get onboard the spreadsheet train.  If you didn’t know how to use Excel you were going to be left behind.  What only a few years before was a new and unfamiliar technology was now a mandatory capability you needed to master to do your job and run your business.

Spreadsheets were firmly in place!

I recently showed my son the Excel spreadsheet I use to track the activity on, and the performance of, supplychaingamechanger.com.   The spreadsheet has numerous tabs, thousands of numbers, hundreds of calculations, lots of graphs and links, pivot tables and more.  To combine or merge spreadsheets will help you have more organized data. Trying to do this work manually would be a full time job in and of itself.  The spreadsheet makes it very, very simple.

Simple Sheets, for instance, has made it even more simple with 75+ Pre-Built Excel Templates, many designed specifically for supply chain and logistics.”

The Future

I have often heard complaints from individuals that their companies are being run on spreadsheets.  And there is truth in that concern when each spreadsheet is disconnected and manual, duplicative data entry is required.  But does that mean that  there is no room for spreadsheets in the future?

At its core the function of the spreadsheet, the ability to automatically manipulate tremendous amounts of data, is as important today as it was when personal computer spreadsheets were introduced almost 40 years ago.

And just think of the common phrases we hear about today:  Big Data, Advanced Analytics, Cloud Computing!  All of these labels for technology suggest there is a role for spreadsheets in the future.  Even if those spreadsheets are behind the scenes being used by Artificial intelligence engines there is still the need for the spreadsheet structure.

My guess is that spreadsheets will continue to be around for a long time to come.  Integration with new technologies, advanced user interfaces, centralized data warehouses, and end-to-end electronic connectivity are critically important but alongside them will continue to be the trusty spreadsheet!

Originally published on May 29, 2018.