08 Mar The Oscars and Human Error
The debacle at this year’s Oscars may have amused, irritated or angered you, but it did point to a lesson we all have to keep learning: even when under global scrutiny, people make mistakes.
This applies just as much to spreadsheet work as any other form of human activity, and we’ve known this for a long time. Take a look at Ray Panko’s work, for example ‘What We Know About Spreadsheet Errors’ (http://panko.shidler.hawaii.edu/ssr/Mypapers/whatknow.htm), originally published in 1998. Ray’s work, even more interesting than his Hawaiian shirts, shows how often we make mistakes in spreadsheets, and that these mistakes are not in any way special – they are simply human errors.
And we also know that these errors can matter: take a look at the Horror Stories page on the EuSPRIG website (http://www.eusprig.org/horror-stories.htm) for many, many examples of serious problems attributed to spreadsheets. The effects of these range from embarrassment (which in itself can lead to losses from fines, lawsuits and even loss of business), through loss of critical data, to actual financial losses, sometimes in the hundreds of millions of euro.
So we know that people make mistakes in spreadsheets, and we know that these can cause major problems, but what do we do about it?
This is where we run into the same problems everyone faces when dealing with human fallibility: it often seems too hard a problem to solve. Spreadsheets are wonderful tools, and seem to work OK. Finding and fixing the errors in them (and they will be there – ask Ray) doesn’t seem worth the imagined effort and cost, and it is also hard to know what should be done. So, tacitly, most organisations seem to accept the risk and hope for the best. Until, that is, they experience their own PwC moment…
Why is it so hard to do something about spreadsheet risk? My own view (see ‘Controlling End User Computing Applications – a case study’, https://arxiv.org/abs/0809.3595) is that we haven’t yet evolved – in an organisational sense – the frameworks needed to make both safe and effective use of end user tools such as spreadsheets. But a good start is to recognise that users of spreadsheets would benefit by being more aware of potential risks, and by being given the training to avoid them. The Spreadsheet Safe course and certification programme is a major step in this direction.
There may be one more lesson to learn from the Oscars. Within three hours of the snafu, PwC had released a simple but well-worded statement (https://www.oscars.org/news/statement-pricewaterhousecoopers ) which honestly acknowledged the mistake and apologised to all affected. Was this a risk they had conceived of in advance, and so were ready with some form of apology? We will all make mistakes: let’s work to stop them happening, but we also need to be prepared to deal with the consequences when they do.
Dr. Jamie Chambers
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