To Excel (or not….)

I signed up with Guru Freelancing site, filled out my profile and walla – started getting project notifications…..Many went like this:

“Have a gazillion hand written pages with data that needs put into an Excel spreadsheet, then we need the data sorted and the following 14 different reports compiled in Word or Excel.”

Or..

“Have data in Quickbooks, output to Excel.   Need you to sort, create different workbooks to reflect different reports, then update each of the workbooks and compile reports each week”

Therefore, my loyal readers get to hear my favorite rant….

“Quit Using Excel as a Database!”

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Granted – I’m well aware of the allure of using Excel to perform tasks that ultimately, would be more efficiently handled by Access.   One, it’s quicker and easier to open and start typing stuff in.   Access has a steeper learning curve than Excel and if you do not understand the basics of relational databases, then even if you do use Access, you most like will end up with a data file that is really an Excel spreadsheet (flatfile database) disguised as an Access database….

And yes, yes, I know, you are working for your living.   You don’t have time to mess around with learning and then setting up a database.  And the thought of paying me $300 to set one up for you seems ridiculous.

But I tell you, if you’re spending more than 30 minutes a day collecting data and more than 2 hours a month on recurring reports, utilizing a myriad of Excel spreadsheets, than most likely, you will save time and money by putting it all in an Access database or having someone do it for you.  I once spent 6 hours moving data from an Excel format into Access and customizing some forms to automate redundant tasks.   I was required to keep track of my hours, the man hours the improvements saved and then report on the ROI (Return on Investment) – the above database paid for itself 7 seconds after it was launched – as one entire batch  of work orders was received and routed out with simple click of a button by the end user who normally would have spent 8-10 hours getting each one viewed, placed in an email and sent.

I will also tell you I once worked as a temp for 5 months, at $12 an hour, streamlining data operations.   The ROI figure for the first year was calculated out at $238,000 saved in labor costs.

Not too shabby, eh?

The trouble is, most folks who so desperately need streamlined tools are self-employed or own small companies and don’t really pay attention to how much time they spend on data collection.   “I’m the owner – I expected to work 16 hour days”

Because they don’t really keep track of how much time they spend on redundant data collection tasks, when faced with a $300 – $1000 quote they don’t even know how to figure out when the tool will pay for itself, based on the hours they saved that can be invested in money-making activities.

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Over the years, I’ve been asked to help people with streamlining an Excel based data collection/reporting tool.   I can only think of one that truly needed to be in Excel.  The rest of them really needed to be in database software – since most folks who have Excel also have Access, not too hard of a sell, as they don’t have to invest in new software.

The moment they say, “Can’t you program it to give me a drop-down box of choices and write a macro to auto-sort based on the column I choose?” I reply,

“Yes, I can, but I won’t.    Quit making your virtual account ledger perform File Cabinet duties.”

I know, I know….sometimes I can be hard-nosed about things….

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Very few of the databases I’ve built over the past 19 years were for folks whose primary job was to collect and report data.   In fact, I can say only one out of the 37 I’ve built was solely for those purposes.

All the rest were for people/companies whose Primary purpose was products and/or services, but who necessarily needed to collect/report information in order to efficiently run their business, comply with regulations or laws, or make business changes based on historical data, not WAGs (Wild Arse Guesses, for those who are not familiar with potty-mouth acronyms.)

Many were spending more hours per week performing duties to Track their business, than they were actually spending On Their Business – and that, to my way of thinking, is just wrong.

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At one company,  my nickname, “Ms.-that-needs-to-be-in-a-database” was bestowed about 2 months after I started.    Rampant fears that my bossy and streamlining ways would result in massive layoffs proved to be unfounded.  Yes, bit by bit, the number of temp workers hired to assist with data entry lowered, but job satisfaction rose for the full-time employees, as well as a slew of creative new ideas/projects being implemented, since folks now had extra time to come up with Useful and Productive to bottom line activities, instead of wearily slipping a little more behind each day in the task of tracking what they were doing.

In our Information Age, we can easily get lured into thinking we need to track everything as well as being unaware of how much time we waste using inefficient tools.

So, let me leave you with this thought:

“Just because you can track everything doesn’t mean you should – If you are going to track it, do so efficiently – And for gawd sakes, if it’s anything more than a list of your DVD collection, please, please, put it in a database….”

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