Analysis: ICAEW principles for good spreadsheet practice

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Simon Hurst, one of the members who worked to assemble the publication, examines ICAEW's twenty principles for good spreadsheet practice.

For those that haven’t read it already, John Stokdyk’s article on the recent launch of the Twenty Principles is an excellent introduction and sets out the single page overview of the principles together with a link to the full document.

I don’t intend to go through the principles in detail or to try and justify or promote individual elements – the principles were presented for public consultation in advance of the launch as an exposure draft and some of the resultant discussions can be found on the ICAEW IT Counts site and AccountingWEB. Instead, I’m going to set out my view as to what the principles might achieve:


My hopes for the principles are relatively modest. I’d like to think they would help individuals and organisations of all sizes and types avoid some career/business threatening spreadsheet errors.

I also hope that they might save business billions of pounds worth of time and effort wasted through inappropriate or inefficient use of spreadsheets, including making a significant contribution to the reduction in the UK’s structural deficit through improved spreadsheet use within government.

It might be nice to think that everyone who uses spreadsheets, or is responsible for managing the use of spreadsheets, will read the principles and consider adopting them completely and comprehensively, adding them to their existing methods for controlling the quality of spreadsheets.

At least in the short term, this is neither likely to happen, nor necessary for the principles to have a positive impact. The Twenty Principles are a bit like a talking dog: it's not what it says but the fact that it can talk at all that's significant 

How the principles could help

Some of the comments on the exposure draft expressed surprise that such a 'basic' set of principles would be of much use, suggesting that anyone who uses a spreadsheet should already...

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About Simon Hurst

Simon Hurst

Simon Hurst is the founder of technology training consultancy The Knowledge Base and is a past chairman of the ICAEW's IT Faculty.



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By jimeth
10th Jul 2014 11:27

Agreed - a good article


I agree with you.  I was not a member of the group but did contribute to the consultation on the initial draft.  It is a worthwhile set of principles.  Inappropriate and/or inefficient use of spreadsheets is commonplace.  Most users have had no training on spreadsheet use and many are unaware of even quite basic techniques which could improve their use.

How much the twenty principles will achieve will have to be seen - but at least they give a starting point and a benchmark against which to measure.

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10th Jul 2014 12:03

Type of user is the key

Fantastic document, the princaples have been tought to myself over the past few years by an experianced modeller. I became a convert along time ago, but i would stress it is not always necasary in simple work books! There is a risk of becoming conter productive and just following for the sake of it. It is just as important to identify the need as it is to follow these princaples when the are appropriate!

These will not be recived willingly by the masses that do not already follow this logic, it is hard to change years of practice.

The key bit in this document for me was simpley identifiying the type of user "designing, developing or maintaining" """22

The level of knowlage does vary greatly, but for me it is the end users that are the key to getting these princapals as best practise when needed.

Ultimatly they will be much more common and often end up updating or altering spreadsheets even if its not there main role, often without training. If they understand the concepts and can at least read the spreadsheets and formular prior to being in this sittuation to my mind you have removed the biggest barrier.

This would definatly be achived most effectivley as part of a qualification, it could be quite simply fitted in to an existing module or as part of the practical experiance.

This being said some profesional bodies could use some help with IT themselves, particluarly online! 



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18th Jul 2014 09:28


Many thanks for the comments to date - very encouraging!

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24th Jul 2014 15:53

We have a long way to go
This debate is long overdue.
I agree with listerramjet, and concur with Simon's comment that "As far as I'm aware - and I welcome information to the contrary - none of the major professional accountancy bodies cover detailed IT skills in such a formal way. Accordingly, there is a risk that many of those using spreadsheets just don't realise that they lack the necessary skills, and fail to assess their own competence, or lack thereof, correctly." But it's not just accountants, accounting firms and their professional associations who need to lift their game. Ten years ago, accountants (both in practice and commerce) and their unqualified colleagues in Finance were the primary users of spreadsheets. Now, every man, woman and their dog are using them and for a significant proportion of their daily work - yet very few of these users (or their supervisors) recognise how badly and inefficiently they are using it because they just don't know what they don't know. Worse still, they and their employers, do not seem prepared to spend time nor money on training to improve their skills for such an significant aspect of their daily work. Instead, most learn from the colleague next door or by trail & error experience. (Mind you, that's how I learned, but I've now got nearly 30 years of it under my belt!)
Exacerbating this problem is that the development of guidelines, principles, or standards for spreadsheets is still in its infancy, and is fragmented. I'm aware of three sets of "standards" (FAST, SMART, and BPM) targeted at financial modelling (which I view as a significantly advanced form of spreadsheeting), but these vary in their detail and level of "prescription". Now we have the ICAEAW 20 principles added to the mix.
It is somewhat frustrating for me when I see the poor quality of spreadsheets being produced - even from professional accounting firms - but also gives me some comfort that this means there should be plenty of opportunities/work for me in the years to come.

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