Friday, 15 January 2021

Each Time I Tell People

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This week I encountered in a conversation, a reference to a ‘database’, in an organisation with few specific application systems. On further investigation, (a simple, “Can you share your screen, so I can see your database”), all is revealed. What is being described is an Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet.

Now before we get fully into this post, I am not Excel-ist (or even spreadsheet-ist, if there are any Lotus SmartSuite users out there – Respect!). I am a big fan of Excel, but not for storing important data, like in a database.

I was considering just the other day, if I had £50 for every spreadsheet and each time I tell people, I had described as “not a database” or said, “stop using that spreadsheet as a database fella (he/she OBVs)”, I would have a substantial pension annuity built up by now. So many data manipulation functions have been added to Excel over a few decades, it provides a deceptive veneer. Add to that, the problem that 90% or more of spreadsheet users, have never had any formal training at all, just adds to the problem. Staff just in some cases do not understand that rows are best set up to be entities (eg each row a property, case, rent account etc, a column a particular value or field of a specific type).

Excel in the big maths scheme of things...

Many spreadsheets I see, could actually be easily transferred to Microsoft Word, with very little effort, with many people not even noticing, if a few tables were incorporated.

One big reason I hear from client staff, is that they maintain a spreadsheet because they can protect the data from the barbarians outside. In doing so, they become a silo, (although they are unlikely to twig that).

Reliance on Excel, often wastes a considerable amount of time and effort, often keeping certain staff members expert in their own silos.

My job is usually, (in the event that staff have not twigged it as yet!), is to extoll the virtues of a real database or application based on one and in most cases, transport them there as fast as possible.

So why migrate away from Excel? In contrast to Excel, databases allow users to only enter data once, as it offers the functionality to link other records together. Clearly, we might record a single asset and multiple complaints or anti-social behaviour events against it. Spreadsheets struggle with this kind of stuff.

When Excel contains more than a few hundred rows, users experience significant slowdowns. Databases utilise indexes and other means of speeding up access and reporting. Audit is generally easier too, where data can be (sometimes accidentally) lost in traditional spreadsheets. Many rows can trip up the biggest enterprises at times too!

Excel does provide sharing of a kind, although its not quite up to a proper database and often causes more problems than it actually solves. I have used Excel sharing occasionally successfully when with others scoring supplier demos, but you wouldn’t rely on running any organisation critical processes on it, believe me.

If you are reading this from a small organisation, running exclusively on Excel, you are probably overdue in giving me a call. Many small social housing providers do run on spreadsheets, many under 200 units in size and typically doubt that anyone like me would be interested in helping them organise better. In the last year, I have assisted housing providers managing 36, 160, 190 and 390 units, as well as the five to thirty thousand homes brigade. We can match suitable solutions to your needs.

If you are reading this from an organisation already with Integrated Housing Solutions and you have hundreds of spreadsheets still, perhaps you need help from a different direction. I have often helped teams with trust issues, or where additional useful and integrated functionality, can be squeezed out of existing solutions. Often the reasons for not using system modules (often already purchased and being paid for…), are sometimes tenuous. Convenience for a single team, can be over-valued beyond wider organisation integration and efficiency.  

In summary, I encounter spreadsheets usually as the rock in the road to transformation, rather than an enabler. Consider how you use spreadsheets in your organisation and consider if there should be a better way.

Related Post: Get your self-service right, or maybe come back when you can


I would be pleased to connect with you on LinkedIn - Message me with any issues or queries, you would like to be explored in this blog. We generally receive a couple of suggestions each month.

Steve Gold – Each TimeSteve Gold – Each Time.
(c) Tony Smith, Acutance Consulting 07854-655009

Access a quick list of our Social Housing ICT blog posts here

Could we help you or your organisation? Our contact details are here , get in touch we will be pleased to chat about your problems and help with your organisation issues.

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