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I love Microsoft Excel.  Just ask anyone at Common Sense Solutions.  I whiz through worksheet works of art to show how I came up with answers while team members peer back at me frantically trying to keep up.  I can solve any problem with a spreadsheet.  I’ve even used a spreadsheet to keep track of all the major league baseball stadiums I’ve visited (36 so far, by the way, including some that have since been torn down, and only 7 left to see).

Why Do I Love Excel?

Excel makes my work easier.  There are so many features in this product to save time and more easily organize information for analysis.  There are wonderful tools for sorting, filtering and searching.  Combine these features with tables, pivot tables, look-ups, multi-column sorting, data links, etc. to reduce your number crunching time and increase your accuracy.

  • Formulas help.  Solve complex problems in a simpler way without a lot of manual effort.  There are so many formulas and operations in Excel — like finding sum, average, etc.  Excel is a great tool to solve analytical problems or apply mathematical functions on tables containing a lot of data.
  • Excel’s ability for quick graphic visualization makes my presentations more understandable to those viewers who aren’t as passionate about numbers the way I am.  You can easily create charts and graphs, including 3D graphs and pie charts.
  • Most software provides for exports into Excel or Excel-readable formats.  So I can export data and then add the sorts, filters, subtotals that I want.

Why Do I Hate Excel?

Here are a few of the reasons I dislike the idea of managing your company’s business with Excel:

  • Time waster.  It is extremely time consuming to create and maintain Excel spreadsheets.  In a database, data is more streamlined, takes up less space, and data entry is faster and more accurate.  Instead of wasting time looking for the correct spreadsheet locations, a database allows you to keep all that information in one place.  This means much higher efficiency, and a much smaller margin for error.
  • Data integrity.  For starters, databases have an important feature that Excel files don’t – it’s called data validation.  What that means is that a field (Excel cell) that is meant for a date only allows a date, or a Yes/No answer or maybe a dropdown list, thereby verifying the quality of information going in.  This lack of checks and balances that are required by a database program helps “garbage” data to accumulate in a spreadsheet.  Good software does some data validation, generates errors and inevitably asks, “Did you really mean to do this?”
  • Data history.  Even with cloud computing solutions, sharing spreadsheets among team members can be difficult — data can accidentally be over-written, deleted or changed. In the short term, this doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but if the data’s important enough to record, it’s probably important enough to keep for historical purposes.  Since spreadsheets aren’t really designed to store history, companies can end up easily losing their historical data.  This makes it hard to spot trends over time and forecast for the future.  By using a database, you keep your data intact so you can refer to and evaluate it later.
  • Who’s got the data?  Because Excel spreadsheets are essentially meant for one user at a time, I’ve seen spreadsheets get emailed around, posing the problem of information getting lost in team members’ inboxes, with new data overwriting old data and never getting back to the original shared file.  Companies have no way of knowing how many duplicate files have been made, or where the file is being stored besides the “official” location.  Excel doesn’t offer a way to track all versions of a document floating around.  If asked, would you know how many versions of the same spreadsheet are in use in your company?  And where are they located?
  • There’s no going back.  If you try to exit without saving changes, Excel reminds you.  However, Excel won’t remind you to create a backup. Database programs typically are backed up, archived and more easily retrievable.  If you do store a lot of data in spread-sheets, remember — backup, backup, backup!
  • Limited Security.  You can password protect an Excel spreadsheet to keep unapproved people from gaining access to a file, but it doesn’t protect the data from those who have the password.  In Excel, there’s not a good way to track user access or changes.  People who have un-monitored access to the document can change, manipulate, and duplicate data with minimal oversight.  While these changes are generally good-intentioned, it leads to issues with data integrity and accountability.  Passwords offer initial protection from outside eyes, but a manager cannot review who has or has not seen/accessed the data.

If Not Excel, Then What?

More small businesses are seeing the value of good data for decision making in all areas of the business.  Excel is great as an analysis tool and should be part of your business system, but not the entire business system. Managing projects, sales, inventory, etc. requires something more sophisticated.  There are tons of great resources available that are specifically built for the job, the trick is to make sure you’re using the right tool to get the job done.

Using Excel as a database can get you into serious trouble — a database and a spreadsheet are not interchangeable tools. In the end, remember to love Excel for what it’s meant to do, and whatever database program you end up using, make sure it easily exports data to Excel.