| 5 min read

5 Reasons Using Spreadsheets Like a Database Can Box You In

A very good friend of mine, who just happens to own a small winery here in New Hampshire, stopped in to see me this week.  It was a friendly visit, but as usual we got talking about all things technology and of course, wine.  Knowing that Keene Systems develops custom solutions for common business problems, he started to vent about the lack of (reasonably priced) software in the winery industry for managing wine operations.  We had a good talk, which may result in Keene developing an ASP.NET web application that would solve his headaches, at least the ones caused by the lack of technology.

His winery is small, only producing around 1000 cases per year (sounds big to me), but really a micro-winery in the industry.  They produce wines from grapes sourced in California, Oregon, Washington, New York, New Hampshire, Chile and Argentina.  The wine production cycle is basically a 1-year process, starting with the import of grapes and juice, followed by crush & press, fermentation, clarification, bottling & ageing.  The amount of information gathered, observed, recorded, analyzed, and processed in that time is quite overwhelming, especially when using spreadsheets, paper notes, and [insufficient] industry mobile apps.  There is winemaking data, like chemical composition, process status, and tasting notes.  Then there is operational data, like supply ordering, inventory, and equipment.  This is all before we inject business data, like sales, marketing, staffing, tasting room hours, etc.

My wino friend is a pretty smart guy.  He tracks everything and makes decisions based on data.  He realized early-on in his winemaking career, that the data being collected was immense and very important to the success of his business.  He spends considerable time on the production room floor and even more time behind his computer “crunching the numbers.”  Time, is a commodity that he simply doesn’t have.

Surely there must be an industry application out there that solves this problem, right?  There are hundreds of wineries all with similar problems requiring some sort of software to solve them.  There are wineries of all shapes and sizes, with winemakers looking at the same data and making the same conclusions.  Well, guess what.  The software that exists today only serves the largest wineries around the world.  The technology is awesome.  It interacts with the tanks, controls pumps, measures temperature & chemical data, even controls vineyard operations like irrigation and weather.  Guess what else?  C’est trop cher.  It is way too expensive for even the mid-sized wineries, let alone the small and micro guys.  So this won’t work for my friend.

Surely someone has developed an app that can be downloaded to run on his iPad.   Indeed they have.  So, he tried that for a couple of seasons. There were actually 2, one that was free and one that he paid for.  The apps were glitchy and ineffective as they did not record data the way a real winery would, and it didn’t even touch the operation and sales side of the business.

So, to this day, he has been running his entire business on an endless array of spreadsheets and paper documents.  They are quite impressive really.  His command of Microsoft Excel is actually pretty remarkable.  Multiple sheets, with functions referring to other sheets, all color-coded, organized and neat.  There are spreadsheets for winemaking, operations, sales, financial data, human resources, and on and on.  Yet, after all of this organization and data management, he is still complaining about the time it takes him to do all of this.  You see, he can’t really be working in spreadsheets with purple stained, wet hands in the winery.  So, he records everything on paper, then transfers it to his spreadsheets.  Can you imagine?  What a colossal waste of time and energy. 

Perhaps we should build him a custom web application that can be accessed remotely, allowing him to collect the data (on an iPad in a waterproof case) in the winery as it is observed.  The data can be organized in an SQL Server database, with an ASP.NET user interface, giving him immediate control and feedback of every step of the process.  Furthermore, the user interface can be made mobile responsive so that it works perfectly on mobile devices.  Great idea!

Spreadsheets, notes, documents all have their function and are very useful.  But, when it comes to organizing, presenting, and analyzing business data, as with the case of my wine buddy, they are cumbersome, time-consuming, and ultimately ineffective. 

Here are 5 reasons that using spreadsheets like a database boxes you in over time:

1. Spreadsheets don’t separate the data from the calculations.  If you use spreadsheets, then you know that many cells are meant for the empirical data, the actual numbers that you need to enter into it, upon which other functions act.  Other cells have functions in them that use the data from other cells to make some sort of calculation.  These 2 types of information are very different and are often difficult to tell apart, as the results of the functions are what gets displayed in the cell.  Over time, as more and more data is entered, and functions created, humans tend to make errors and overwrite functions that were previously created.  And, as we need to expand the usability of the spreadsheet, we add more sheets, columns, rows, and cells that often blow out the formulas we’ve previously spent hours creating.

2. Spreadsheets don’t talk to each other.  Unless you have all of your data in the same Excel file, your sheets will not communicate with other.  Each spreadsheet file is an autonomous file, that can only work with the sheets (tabs) contained within.  So, if you have a spreadsheet for operations, another for sales, and another for human resources, you will be restricted to the data remaining in those silos.  You will not be able to have sales data interact with operations data, etc.

3. Spreadsheets are not extensible.  Desktop applications like Microsoft Excel, which are very useful, are not able to allow access in a multi-user environment.  For example, your website cannot interact with the data in a spreadsheet with multiple web users accessing it at the same time.  You can upload/download data from a spreadsheet into a database (like SQL), that could then interact with your website or web application, but not the spreadsheet itself.  If you are going that far, why not just keep the data directly in the database?

4. Spreadsheets are not efficient, for computers or humans.   Unlike a properly built database, spreadsheets do not allow for complex queries of the data, particularly between sheets and definitely not between files.  Spreadsheets are good for making calculations and tabulations, but not when the function requires multiple or complex sources of the data.  Spreadsheets aren’t efficient for the human user either, not with big data.  If you have ever tried to assimilate your sales goals with operation efficiency, using multiple spreadsheets, then you know what I mean.

5. Spreadsheets from traditional desktop applications are not available remotely, not easily.  Google has tried to solve this problem by implementing Google Sheets, a cloud-based spreadsheet computing alternative.  Certainly, many people that need to access their spreadsheets online, or other docs for that matter, are engaging cloud computing like Google Docs.  I do too.  But, the same 4 reasons identified above get exacerbated by the internet.  Web-based applications connecting to remote databases solve this problem, along with the previous 4 issues.  Believe it or not, Google Sheets is actually a user interface web application using a database that emulates a spreadsheet on the screen for the user.

If you are one of those, like the winery owner, who insists on seeing the data of a spreadsheet in rows and columns, then you are in for a treat.   A database can output data to work much like a spreadsheet, just like Google.  Or, if you are one that wants a nice wizard-like, error-proof, interface to enter your data, then you are really in for a treat.  And, if you are one that wants to merge all of your spreadsheets into one system that will provide for faster, more efficient, accessible anywhere, way to process complicated business information, like my wine buddy, then ditch those cumbersome spreadsheets and think about moving to a SQL Server database, with an ASP.NET web-based interface.

Phew.  Wine anyone?

To learn more about the importance of eliminating human error in your operations, please download the eBook titled "How to Automate Business Process in 7 Smart Steps."how to automate a business process

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