There comes a time in every business’ lifecycle when the humble spreadsheet can no longer be relied upon for solely running a thriving business.
What was once used for basic business procedures, like reporting and modelling, can gradually become stretched and overloaded by ever-increasing data types and volume levels.
Spreadsheets are invaluable for basic data management such as storing and analysing data, producing charts and graphs, and creating basic reports. However, there are certain limitations to their utility. These limitations become even more apparent as a business grows, and in some cases, they turn into liabilities.
But bad habits die hard, and many business owners, who’ve become accustomed to their spreadsheets, cling onto them for far too long. They rely on them to not only manage critical business information, but to complete highly complex tasks – even when there are far better options available. In doing so, they manage to turn a once useful resource into a high-risk office tool.
So, how do you know when it’s time to move on from your spreadsheet to a more robust system for managing your business data?
When a spreadsheet is overloaded with too much data, the program can start to glitch. Everything slows down. Not only does it take considerably longer to open the file, but once it’s loaded, it can start to labour.
If you have macros, they can take an eternity to run. Even standard data entry can become tedious. Scrolling up and down the page is drastically slowed and can be a huge frustration, especially when time is of the essence. In some cases, the spreadsheet is so overloaded that even a simple task will cause it to freeze – a frightening scenario, particularly if you’re not a frequent saver.
Traditional spreadsheets generally only allow for data entry on a desktop or laptop, so you can’t really take them with you on a smartphone or tablet. Other platforms are built for mobility. This is particularly important for businesses with a mobile workforce or for businesses with employees who conduct fieldwork. Having this kind of flexibility also means they can instantly share their observations or sales data with colleagues, management and other departments.
While some spreadsheets provide worksheet and workbook password-based protection, cell locking, the ability to hide formulas, and password protection of macros and add-ins, the level of protection provided is relatively low. These programs provide a first line of defence only.
There are cracking and un-protect programs and services all over the internet, so with only a basic level of security on a spreadsheet there is not much you can do to stop someone getting hold of the information in your file.
Sensitive information, including salary data, client information, supplier and accounting practices can be at risk from aggrieved or unscrupulous employees, or even from business competitors.
Databases, on the other hand, can be hosted on a central server so that sensitive data doesn’t live on the device. This becomes particularly important in a scenario where the device goes missing or is stolen.
They can also be tightly locked down and encrypted to ensure data security. You even have the ability to conditionally restrict access to edit and/or view different sections of data for different users.
As your business grows, more people will need to access and enter data at the same time, in different locations.
Data conflicts can occur in spreadsheets when multiple users are trying to access the same spreadsheet in real time. Duplicate versions can be made, but, it can be a struggle locating versions and figuring out what data has been captured in the most recent file.
Some users change the version names being used, for example ‘V2’or final and ‘XYZ’s copy’. But it’s a cumbersome process that invites version control issues. There are few greater workplace frustrations than discovering that two or more versions of a document are being worked on at the same time.
In contrast, databases can be accessed and updated in real time by multiple users.
It takes considerable time to create modern user interfaces with a spreadsheet, due to the limited design tools available. Even if you can create an aesthetic and functional interface, this often doesn’t translate well to a mobile device.
Having an accessible and inviting interface for data entry is vital, particularly when you have a wide range of workers with varying levels of technical experience using the same document.
Spreadsheets can be a fantastic business tool, provided they’re being used for their intended purposes. They’re not the be all and end all. Data management technology has evolved and there are now myriad options available to businesses.
In an age where data is king, businesses should make sure to consider applications that will accommodate scale, improve efficiency, encourage greater mobility, and do all of this securely.
There are a number of solutions out there that give businesses the framework to build a flexible, mobile, and powerful solution that can help their business grow beyond the constraints of the humble spreadsheet.
By transitioning to a database, and in some cases complementing it with spreadsheets, you can get the most out of your data and make informed business decisions.
Willem Meyer is the APAC regional manager for FileMaker Inc.