There is a reason everyone loves Microsoft Excel. It’s simple. Excel doesn’t confuse us when we see it. I could find other good things to say about MS Excel – I could write about how it’s such a powerful application, or how versatile it is… but all that is less important than my real point: it’s easy to use. Other software is versatile and powerful. Web designers, database developers and applications developers all pride ourselves on adding bells and whistles to our apps. But few can claim to have built a clean simple interface. When you get down to it, many developers don’t really care about that aspect of creating an application. The part of your brain which makes powerful, complicated programs is distinct from the part that clears off clutter and desires simplicity.
So, I propose that Excel is wildly popular because anyone can use it. Now that I’ve really fleshed out that thought, we’re ready for a longer discussion of why Microsoft Excel is the worst data solution available to your company.
To explain my problem with excel, I will write a short story about 3 people in a small business in Prince Albert. Their names are John, Paul and Yoko.
John has a list of “current suppliers”. The list changes often, because their company is constantly searching for the best price. John is not very tech-savvy. He’s a paper and pen kinda guy and so, John keeps a notepad on his desk where suppliers names and prices are constantly updated. This system is inefficient: once he spilled coffee on his list and could only remember half the prices on it. Another time someone asked John “Which supplier has the average lowest price for the last 36 months?” John had no way to find that information.
Paul, John’s business-partner is not like John. He really likes modernizing and tech. Paul insisted john move his paper list into Microsoft Excel. John reluctantly agreed. After 12 months of trying hard to use excel only, John is no longer using his paper list at all. With a little help from his tech-savvy partner, John is able to draw pretty solid reports out of his Excel sheet. Everything is great.
One summer, business is so good, John and Paul hire an employee. She’s not a partner, she just works in the shop. Yoko, doesn’t have Paul’s industrious nature, or John’s talent for the business. She is just supposed to follow orders.
One of the first orders she is given is “Yoko, please help John maintain his supplier spreadsheet, this summer. He so busy that he sometimes forgets.”
Yoko copies John’s spreadsheet and updates it all summer. John also updates his spreadsheet periodically, because he’s a hands-on kind of person. Neither of them knows that they are each updating separate sheets- because John is not tech-savvy and Yoko is an idiot. The longer they work together, the more divergent their combined efforts become. The harder they work, the more damage they do the business! Oh no! Excel is so easy to use, that non-tech-savvy people and even idiots can run wild with that application!
A Spreadsheets’ Greatest Strength is Also It’s Weakness
Ease of use is a sharp tool and it cuts two ways; And therein lies the paradox.
If a business employs a database solution, it should have centralized data. If the data were centralized, John and Yoko would have been updating the same list of suppliers and prices, instead of creating 2 distinct lists with varying information. But there is a trade off in centralized data- it’s a little harder to manage. A better database would have been slightly more difficult to deploy. The technology would have been slightly more difficult for users to learn. It would have cost more to get it up and running. After the initial cost and learning curve, though, a centralized database would have been a rock solid engine built for success. It would have continued to perform for years and years.