Are Excel Macros Putting Your Business at Risk?

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with Microsoft Excel. In this data-driven business climate, Excel spreadsheets are an essential tool for organizing and analyzing information. But let's be honest—daily copy-and-pasting to create reports is hardly a fun task.

It's not surprising then, that organizations want to save time by automating Excel. The standard way to do this is using macros—programs written in VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) code, capable of performing specific tasks within Excel.

Like other forms of automation, macros offer several benefits such as increased efficiency and time-saving. However, they might also be putting your business at risk.

Security Concerns

Microsoft Office macros hiding viruses were a big problem in the 90s. The most famous macro virus is probably the Melissa virus that emerged in 1999. Melissa appeared in a Word document, seemingly sent from one of your contacts. As soon as the document was downloaded, it self-replicated to the first fifty people in your Microsoft Outlook address book.

Around the turn of the century, macro viruses (and macro malware in general) seemed to disappear suddenly; by 2005, most macro viruses were virtually extinct, mostly thanks to the security improvements that were introduced into the Microsoft Office products at that time.

Macro viruses seemed a thing of the past... until 2014

For a while, macro viruses seemed a thing of the past. But in recent years, since about 2014, they have been making a comeback. Ironically, criminals often exploit the presence of macros in their documents to suggest that the document is actually more secure; for example, they may claim that the document is 'protected' until you enable macros to decrypt the document. More than half of the malware discovered in recent years contains VBA macros aimed at deceiving the user, rather than code designed to trick Office itself.

Alternative automation methods eliminate confusion about which documents are safe to run.

Although cybersecurity is one of the main concerns of modern businesses, malware is not the only reason to avoid the use of macros.

Management Issues

Spreadsheets can cause more problems than they are worth. The average Excel document is so riddled with errors that a Professor of IT Management at the University of Hawaii called spreadsheet errors a "pandemic". The European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group even maintains a list of horror stories. Of course, using macros for Excel automation can help you eliminate some of the copy-and-paste errors, but they can also exacerbate the problem.

Not everyone who uses your spreadsheets will be a VBA specialist. Depending on macros means that some members of your team won't be able to help with Excel automation, while others know just enough to write bad code.

With macros, your business logic will eventually be scattered across multiple documents. These documents will probably be emailed back and forth, and changed or duplicated in the process. You have no central place to keep your business's Excel automation under control.

And what will happen when you want to update that Excel document that is so crucial to your operations, but the person who created the macros has long since left? Chances are the next user won't understand those macros. Many hours will be wasted deciphering the VBA scripts or creating a new spreadsheet with macros.

Lack of Enterprise Functions

Enterprise automation software includes features for central management, error handling, audit logs, and security measures. It is scalable and easy to grasp without extensive training. If something goes wrong, vendor support is likely available.

At best, you'll have to write new scripts to duplicate enterprise functions. In many cases, these won't be available with Excel macros alone.

Software Robots as an Alternative to Excel Macros

Being dependent on Excel macros can be risky for your company. But if you already have macros that are essential to your operation, that doesn't mean you should get rid of them. The existing macros can indeed be run by Robotic Process Automation software.

Managing your macros with RPA software offers benefits that you can't get with macros alone. You can monitor and control all your Excel automation across your entire enterprise from a central location, and integrate the macros into other workflows with other applications.

You will soon discover that many of the Excel tasks you are used to managing with macros can also be handled by RPA. Robotic Process Automation solutions are easy to use, even if you have no programming experience—you just need to drag and drop building blocks, such as "open Excel workbook" or "set value of cell", to a suitable place in a workflow.

The best part is that your RPA investment will be worthwhile not only for Excel automation. Software robots are flexible enough to adapt to automation needs in every department within your organization!