Why Smart Businesses Always Convert Their Spreadsheets to Database Applications
5 min read
According to one recent study, the amount of data in the world was estimated to have hit about 44 zettabytes by the beginning of 2020. By as soon as 2025, the volume of data generated each day is expected to hit 463 exabytes across the globe - something that brings with it major implications for businesses in particular.
Contained inside the data your business is creating is the information you need to make more informed decisions regarding your products and services. It's the insight you need to forge better relationships with your customers. It's what will allow you to both meet the challenges of today and better prepare yourselves for the ones tomorrow might hold, too.
Unfortunately, when you're talking about data volumes of these sizes, extracting that value is often easier said than done. Poor data quality already costs the United States economy an estimated $3.1 trillion per year - a trend that shows no signs of slowing anytime soon.
When businesses begin to capture large amounts of data but have no database application to actually store it in, they almost universally do so by way of spreadsheets and similar solutions. Spreadsheets certainly have their place in an office - they're great for calculations, for example. But they were not intended to be used as databases and they're really only holding your organization back, not propelling it forward.
Thankfully, the solution is a straightforward one. By converting the spreadsheet data into a true web-based database application, one that not only stores the data but also captures and enforces the business rules that are important to the day-to-day operations of your company, you enjoy all of the benefits of big data with as few of the potential downsides as possible.
Spreadsheets vs Database
At first glance, a database and a spreadsheet do look similar because they both have rows and columns. In a spreadsheet, however, those elements are typically used to hold numerical information that will later be used in calculations.
In a database, however, the rows represent records and the columns represent individual data fields. Unlike a spreadsheet, a database is inherently scalable as your information grows - meaning that it also offers unique advantages when it is combined with a business web application that operates on that data.
Are Spreadsheets as a Database Possible?
Generally speaking, the answer to this question is "no."
For very small use cases, a spreadsheet may be enough to get the job done. For Example, if you're storing a simple list of names and phone numbers, this is probably all that you need.
But as the complexity and the needs of your business continue to grow, the limitations of spreadsheets can't help but reveal themselves. They simply prevent the people working within your business from not only collaborating with one another, but from using that data efficiently to begin with.
More than that, users without a lot of experience with spreadsheets can easily corrupt that data or inadvertently delete vast volumes of it without even knowing it. This is especially true if you have employees who may have experience in older versions of Microsoft Excel and not newer ones, or who may not know Excel at all and who have instead spent their time working with something like Libre Office or Pages. The learning curve is simply too steep and the stakes are too high.
Because of all that, companies need to take care of how a spreadsheet is deployed and managed in their company if they're going to be using one in this manner.
Why is a Database Better Than a Spreadsheet?
All told, databases have a clear number of advantages over standard spreadsheets - all of which are worth a closer look.
- Only with a database can you express the complex relationships between data points. This can allow you to uncover trends and patterns that likely otherwise would have gone undiscovered. Spreadsheets merely act as a storage vessel for them.
- A database can work with a web application, making that information available to users anywhere, anytime and on any device with an active Internet connection. With a spreadsheet, you need to share the actual file itself - potentially creating problems in terms of duplicate data, among others.
- Business rules can be built directly into a database web application, whereas spreadsheets are a far more passive experience.
- With a database application, your users do not have direct access to the data itself. Nor are they able to access the tools used to maintain that data. Therefore, there is little possibility that they could inadvertently corrupt the data beyond recovery. With a spreadsheet, all it takes is one wrong move and that information may be gone forever.
- Database applications are also inherently multi-user experiences, which enables multiple people to both access and enter that data simultaneously. With a spreadsheet, you're still talking about an individual file on a hard drive somewhere - meaning only one person can access it at a time.
- Users can easily collaborate on the data in a database through a direct review of it, or through reports generated by the web application. This isn't possible with a spreadsheet because they were never designed to be used like that in the first place.
- It is far, far easier to support advanced business workflows based on database information than it is on data in a spreadsheet. Database applications allow you to get the right data to the right people at exactly the right time, all in the name of supporting the process flow of a company. People who need access to that information to do their jobs automatically have it - meaning they don't have to go looking for it as they do in a spreadsheet.
- Data validation can be built into the application to eliminate data entry errors, thus improving data quality exponentially. With a spreadsheet, "what you see is what you get."
Given the importance of a business' data and the fact that organizational leaders depend on it for meaningful action on a daily basis, any one of these benefits taken individually would likely be enough to begin this process in your own organization. Taken together, however, they add up to an investment that is far too valuable not to make.
How to Convert Spreadsheets to a Database
The process of converting spreadsheets to a database isn't necessarily difficult, but it is a very precise one.
Generally speaking, every sheet in a spreadsheet corresponds to a table of rows and columns in a database. This assumes that the spreadsheet creator did a good job of creating those spreadsheets and separating data into different tabs based on their data type in the first place. This is not the case is the spreadsheet creator lumped different types of data into one giant sheet on one tab.
For this process to be successful, you must understand and document how business rules are handled in your current spreadsheet process. You need to identify the relationships between the different types of data.
For example, one client may have several projects and a project may be handled by several employees. This could be represented by three different tables - one for the client, one for the project and one for personnel. The relationship between these tables can be built into the database and knowing these relationships is important to the conversion process.
A web application developer takes this information and creates the program and database to work together in a way that satisfies both the workflows and the needs of the business.
In the end, spreadsheets are a great tool for storing data - provided that you're only talking about small volumes of data with relatively low complexity. Given the sheer volume of data that most businesses are creating right now, the chances of this applying to you are slim.
As soon as a company begins to grow, the complexity of the data it's creating grows with it - meaning that spreadsheets will become an impediment to growth before you know it. This is simply because they're being used for something they were never designed for in the first place - storing data, instead of simply performing basic calculations.
Only by converting the spreadsheet to a web application database can bring you the system that you need to scale as your company does the same. Not only is this how you meet all of your business process flow needs, but it's how you enforce your business rules as well - something a spreadsheet has never and will never be able to do.
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