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Do spreadsheet risks really matter?

Last updated: Monday February 24th 2014

Since its launch in 1985 Excel has swept all its competitors aside and has become the de facto spreadsheet program in use around the world.

Its intuitive design has allowed many users to quickly start gathering and analysing their data.

As with many things, its strength is also its weakness.  The ease of use and widespread availability of Excel has meant that there is a varying level of skill and rigour across the user community.  Spreadsheets are highly susceptible to error, both in terms of methodology and input.  In short, as well as the normal human error factor, overly confident conclusions are drawn from insufficient datasets.

There have been some high profile spreadsheet error stories in the press this year, particularly the Harvard economics study which was famously used to support ‘Austerity’ fiscal policies.  A PhD student discovered there was a major error in a key calculation (the common problem of which cells to include).  Given the sensitivity of the subject, people who were anti-austerity had a field day.  This highlights one of the main problems with data analysis; when the data shows what we want it to show, we are not always as quick as we should be to double-check the workings.

Often Excel problems arise when users combine and analyse data from several spreadsheets and data sources.  This is a more specialised skill than general spreadsheet use.  Analyses are often best performed by a combination of spreadsheets and database programs.  These can be complex exercises which would be extremely time-consuming for the irregular user, but which can be outsourced.  In addition to saving time, advanced users can also recommend additional analyses which are possible.

So, if you have a lot of spreadsheets in your office and on which your business relies, what should you do?  The good news is that there is a simple and recognised solution.  You should upgrade from spreadsheets to a Custom Access Database.

A bespoke database driven system, such as a Custom Access Database, will bring you many advantages.  You can reduce the possibility of errors and increase your efficiency at the same time.  Many of your office tasks can be automated by using a database.  It will also help you reduce the number of errors by keeping users away from sensitive data and formulas.