There’s beauty in business data...


Date: 1 July 2010

Look, I’m just going to come out and say it - I like spreadsheets. I also like greenfinches, the music of Debussy and the plays of Jez Butterworth - but it’s the spreadsheet thing that worries people most.

Let them mock. I mean, spreadsheets - where would we be without ‘em? Most businesses need to store at least some of their data in a spreadsheet file, while for some there’s a constant need to send spreadsheets from one partner or client to another. Microsoft’s Excel has become the standard for this sort of thing.

For much of its life, Excel serves merely as a means for storing, packaging and distributing data; you squirt it from one system into Excel, then send it off to be squirted into something else. It’s these other systems - accounts packages, customer relationship management (CRM) programs - that do the data analysis.

This is fine if you run CRM packages, but many small businesses rely on their office suite software. Understandably, such firms try to make the most of Excel for analysing data as well as storing it.

The trouble with spreadsheets

The trouble is that spreadsheets can only go so far. Let’s say you want to track Mavis’s expense claims for sandwiches. You can see how much she spends in one week, a month, a year - but what do you do if you decide to look at what she spends on tuna compared to cheese?

Sure, you can add that detail. But how about tuna or cheese on white bread, tuna or cheese on brown? How about the data from year one compared to year two? The more you add, the trickier it gets to maintain. And that’s just sandwiches.

The solution is a database. Plenty of proprietary database programs cost less than Microsoft Excel itself, and they make it easier to structure data, to add summaries and ‘what if’ calculations - and, by tying one set of data to another, to run most of your business processes.

There’s a problem, though, and it’s a biggie. These programs make data analysis easier - but only if you know how to operate them. Understandably, you might think you’re spending more than enough time on this kind of thing as it is.

Invest time, save money?

If you’re to make your investment in them worthwhile, database programs demand much more of your attention. But accounts and CRM packages are just databases themselves; if you’re handy with Excel, you could put the same effort into a database and save yourself the expense of a CRM package. Project management, diaries, document storage, strategy - they can handle the lot.

So - plug alert - this is why you’ll love the IT Donut. We’re going to have experts who can advise you on how to make the most of your company’s data without breaking the bank. And if you do end up engaging with them, try to remember that while they may indeed like spreadsheets, experts are people too.

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