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ATD Blog

Stuck on the Spreadsheet Treadmill: How Misused Data Hurts Training Teams

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

I help training leaders find solutions for operational problems, and there is a recurring theme: Overdependence on spreadsheets is hurting growth.

This industry-wide problem afflicts organizations of every size, although enterprise organizations are particularly hamstrung by spreadsheet overuse. I have seen training teams maintain separate spreadsheets for course templates, bookings, learner rosters, cross-departmental charging, instructor schedules, courses they are running, and more. Spreadsheets multiply when every department, course, or initiative requires its own document.

How Spreadsheet Over-Dependence Starts

So how did we get here? Spreadsheets are accessible, and they are usually free. Your computer likely has Excel, and if not, you can use Google Sheets. Training is often asked to operate on a tight budget, allocated to mission-critical tools. A learning management system (LMS) isn’t cheap.

That leaves strapped teams turning to any resource on hand to implement strategy and handle administrative tasks. At first, these are indispensable, and we dump everything into them. But training tends to grow rapidly as the organization grows or pivots into new markets. When teams need to scale, it’s difficult to synchronize a tangled web of spreadsheets.


Why Spreadsheets Can’t Scale

The problem is twofold: Spreadsheets aren’t great for administering tasks or giving you insights into data.

Most training teams agree with the first point. Spreadsheets are error-prone and don’t integrate easily into business systems such as a customer relationship management (CRM) system or human resources information system (HRIS). There is a lot of manual integration work, and teams spend hours just keeping operations running using spreadsheets—managing a growing catalog of courses, expanding programs, and juggling complex schedules and logistics. Your team gets stuck on a treadmill with no time to stop and catch your breath, reassess your organization, and find game-changing training opportunities.

The second point (spreadsheets aren’t great for giving you insights into data) is a little less obvious but true. While spreadsheets store your data, they cannot offload decision making. You typically enter training data manually, maintain it, and revisit it for a snapshot of your program in the past. Spreadsheets can analyze data, but you must find actionable insights. Spreadsheets can’t crunch the data and make a suggestion.


As training teams grow, they feel the pinch of the increased manual work, but the lack of real insight into your data generally goes unnoticed. Once they see how other teams in their organization are using data to drive better business decisions, L&D teams realize they are at a disadvantage. Offloading some decision making to software—solving scheduling conflicts, managing bookings, or identifying quick-win opportunities—frees up as many resources as streamlining daily administrative tasks.

Stepping Off the Spreadsheet Treadmill

Getting off the spreadsheet treadmill requires new tools, but it also requires a shift in mindset around training data—where does it come from and what can you do with it? You can change your mindset regardless of your budget. These are questions to ask your team to evaluate your approach to training data:

  • Will we need this data later? If so, what will we do with it?
  • How can we automate some of our processes while also capturing more data about our programs?
  • Are there any reports we create that can be automated or updated to show advancement against other Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)?
  • Do our training reports show why our program worked? Is there context missing, and if so, where did we lose it?

With that new mindset, you can step off the treadmill. Spreadsheets aren’t going anywhere, but if you depend on them too much, your training operations will stagnate.

About the Author

Eliza Webb is a training technology sales consultant who works with leading enterprise training teams across North America to solve complex training operations problems. Eliza has been active in enterprise technology sales and marketing since 2015. She currently consults with clients for Administrate, a training operations platform provider.

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