What We Know About Spreadsheet Errors

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Although spreadsheet programs are used for small "scratchpad" applications, they are also used to develop many large applications. In recent years, we have learned a good deal about the errors that people make when they develop spreadsheets.

In general, errors seem to occur in a few percent of all cells, meaning that for large spreadsheets, the issue is how many errors there are, not whether an error exists. These error rates, although troubling, are in line with those in programming and other human cognitive domains. In programming, we have learned to follow strict development disciplines to eliminate most errors. Surveys of spreadsheet developers indicate that spreadsheet creation, in contrast, is informal, and few organizations have comprehensive policies for spreadsheet development.

Although prescriptive articles have focused on such disciplines as modularization and having assumptions sections, these may be far less important than other innovations, especially cell-by-cell code inspection after the development phase.


In a special issue on large system development by end users, it may seem odd to see a paper on spreadsheet development. Spreadsheets are often seen as small and simple "scratch pad" applications, and spreadsheet development is often viewed as a solitary activity. We will see that neither view is correct. Many spreadsheets are large and complex, and development often involves interactions among multiple people.

In fact, we would guess that the largest portion of large-scale end user applications today involve spreadsheet development. In addition, the extensive information that has emerged about spreadsheet may highlight development issues for other technologies. Finally, while spreadsheet development may seem "old," our understanding of spreadsheet development has only matured in the last few years.

The title of this paper is rather presumptuous. It assumes that we have a large enough base of research findings to be able to summarize key results from the relatively young field of spreadsheet errors. Yet we argue that spreadsheet research is indeed sufficiently mature to give useful advice to corporate management and individual developers.

There is far more to be done, but we already know enough to speak outside our research field, to working spreadsheet developers and to corporate managers of end user computing. This is good, because the lessons we have learned may require organizations to begin treating spreadsheet development very differently than they have in the past.

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Autor :

Raymond R. Panko

University of Hawaii, College of Business Administration, 2404 Maile Way Honolulu, HI 96822 USA
Spreadsheet Research (SSR) Website: http://panko.shidler.hawaii.edu/ssr/
This paper: http://panko.shidler.hawaii.edu/ssr/Mypapers/whatknow.htm
Home Page: http://panko.shidler.hawaii.edu
Email: panko@hawaii.edu