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In the lore of costly clerical errors, last year’s $24 million loss by TransAlta Corp., a Canadian electricity generation and trading firm with annual revenues of $1.9 billion, ranks high on the list. It began when a TransAlta employee in Maryland made a simple cut-and-paste mistake on an Excel spreadsheet used to submit bids to a New York energy auction. By the time the snafu was caught, TransAlta had purchased–through non-reversible transactions–15 times the number of contracts it had meant to buy. The company’s operating earnings for the quarter were halved as a result, and it was forced to make cutbacks, including closing its Maryland office.

No doubt, to the hapless employee (and several office mates), the consequences were severe. But given the amount of keying and rekeying of figures involved in the use of Excel spreadsheets, it’s hard to imagine that his or her misfortune was that unique–although presumably many more are discovered before multimillion-dollar mistakes become irrevocable. Yet, talk to any treasurer, controller or CFO, and you will unearth an abiding faith in Excel as a reliable, easy-to-use workhorse–one that seems to withstand attack from all manner of technological innovations. “Excel still is and forever will be our biggest competitor,” says Michael Poisson, senior vice president and managing director at SunGard Treasury Systems, the leading producer of treasury workstations. The reason is simple–Excel is hands-on and leaves the executive feeling in control of the numbers he or she is crunching. However, there comes a point when even the best products are pushed to their limits or used in ways that open a company to unexpected human errors. For Excel, that time may have arrived with the current preoccupation with cash flow, cash forecasting and the regulatory demand for real-time snapshots of a company’s financial sturdiness.

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