Friday, April 8, 2016

Spreadsheet mastery no longer mandatory course-ahead of the curve or eroding competitive advantage of IIM Ahmedabad students?

Recently, I read an article in Livemint by an IIM Ahmedabad professor who described the rationale of no longer keeping the mandatory excel course in the first year. I have reproduced the relevant section below, and I strongly suggest reading the article in its entirity. 

There is no denying the utility of a spreadsheet software, and given the ubiquity of Microsoft systems in organizations, perhaps even unavoidable. It remains useful for prototyping, basic data analysis and teaching elementary statistics, but, in my opinion, it is not exactly suited for large projects and serious scientific research….We have done away with our compulsory Excel course in the first year, and many of us use R and Python in the classroom regularly.

From an academic perspective, IIM Ahmedabad is doing the right thing by being 'medium' neutral and teaching students to handle big data sets with R/Python, and not to depend on an inefficient error prone medium. This is very helpful for students heading to technology or such firms with big data, and to instill a caution for the limitations of excel. However, in my view, Excel is no where near the redundancy path (despite clarion calls for the limited use of it in finance) , and first year MBA students need to learn this for the following reasons

  • Excel is best for 'Small Data'-Excel can handle 1Mn rows and 64,000 columns. Most data sets in corporate life can be dealt with in Excel, or even if analyzed in MS Access, are best summarized in Excel. 
  • Interoperatable with legacy software-Be it a ERP, planning or other application, chances are it will have ability to export in excel or txt. Ability to manipulate this well will save a lot of time. 
  • Self study options limited in first year-Usually, students with corporate exposure especially with accountancy/Big 4 background would have mastered Excel before setting step into the campus but others would not. Realizing after securing that internship that you need Excel, and that your learning it will impact your grades or other commitments, will make you lament not having learnt it earlier
  • Advantage over other colleges-For whatever reason, IIM Ahmedabad students have better excel skills than their peers from other colleges-this may seem a jingoistic statement from this IIM Ahmedabad alumnus, but I think the mandatory course is responsible, and many seniors have attributed this to their outperforming their peers and completing the projects

Instead of scrapping the course, it would be great to add a session on error proofing or best work practices/spreadsheet audit, so that the tool's limitations are well appreciated. Else, it would be great to advise the incoming students to pursue advanced courses from provides like so that they can prepare for something not taught on campus, but needed in India Inc and helpful in general life. 

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