Accountants warn of growing ‘spreadsheet risk’

Accountants are becoming increasingly concerned about ‘spreadsheet risk’ and fear over-reliance on the data produced could result in damaging errors going unchecked, according to research by London-based technology firm ClusterSeven

Its survey of 100 accountants found that two thirds (68%) think it is likely that over the next two years a large company in the UK will suffer financial and/or reputational losses due to a spreadsheet-based data failure. 

More than half (58%) of those polled said the frequency of errors found on spreadsheets was either ‘very high’ or ‘fairly high’. The majority of respondents (90%) believed that over the next two years, regulators and other key stakeholders such as auditors will take an increasing interest in the use of spreadsheets and corporate data management.

The top three reasons cited as to why errors are found on spreadsheets were given as: no system in place for checking/ tracking who has made changes and when (54%); too many people have access to key spreadsheets (42%); and insufficient training/ understanding of how to use spreadsheets (39%). In addition, only half of respondents (50%) said they were able to fully understand the historical changes to formulas, data and macros that have been made during recent usage of spreadsheets.

Richard Anning, head of ICAEW’s IT Faculty, said: ‘We know flawed spreadsheet design and lack of formalised training can lead to significant costs. Errors, however, often remain unspotted which means the damage is difficult to recognise or measure. With nine out of ten respondents agreeing finance professionals will increasingly rely on spreadsheets and data management, this is a major concern for both businesses and UK economy.’

The research found that around one in 10 (9%) reported that more than 30% of their time is spent checking spreadsheets and similar applications for errors.  A quarter (26%) said there is no control policy applicable to spreadsheets at their firms; 41% said there is a manual control policy but it is not always applied, while only 5% said there is an automated control policy that allows them to fully understand the changes between different versions of the spreadsheets.

Ralph Baxter, CEO of ClusterSeven, said: “Accountants and financial professionals are exposed to spreadsheets and similar applications more than most people, and the message they are sending is that the propensity for critical errors on spreadsheets is profound – unsurprisingly, almost three quarters (72%) ranked ‘spreadsheet risk’ as a major business risk.

‘The challenge for businesses and financial institutions is that the quality of data held and managed on spreadsheets, and the processes behind validating this data, are increasingly being reviewed by stakeholders such as regulators as the inherent fallibility of spreadsheets becomes ever more apparent.’

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Pat Sweet |Reporter, Accountancy Daily [2010-2021]

Pat Sweet was the former online reporter at Accountancy Daily and contributor to the monthly Accountancy magazine, pub...

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