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How Spreadsheets Become a Problem

2nd Oct 2018
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There are hundreds of reasons why spreadsheets are brilliant – but sometimes there may be a better way!

If you need to make a list of anything, it’s tempting to see Excel as the default repository: after all, it’s only a small list of items for yourself or a few close colleagues. 

Perhaps you need something more sophisticated – formulae for some calculations, or macro programming to automate the collection and processing of data. No problem: just type “=” to start writing a formula and Excel will be your guide. 

Unfortunately, the ease with which you can start work in Excel or a rival spreadsheet program is also one of its problems. What starts as a small project in Excel grows and grows, until you’re left with a behemoth – at which point you could also be facing speed and stability issues, or even a development problem you just can’t solve. 

Let’s take a look at the issues you can often come up against with spreadsheets, how you could possibly tackle them in Excel, and when you’d be better off taking the plunge and switching to a database instead. 

1. Multi-user editing 

When spreadsheet systems grow organically, you quickly find the need for multiple users to update the workbook at the same time.  

With the most recent versions of Excel, and with the right office IT setup, it is now possible for multiple users to open the same workbook in Excel and collaboratively update the workbook contents. Each user editing the workbook is shown in a different colour, and all changes are automatically saved. 

However, there are many scenarios where this collaborative editing is not possible, people in different offices with different IT setup, and different versions of Excel, for example. 

These users will have to make do with either using Excel Online accepting the frustration of unsupported features or using shared workbooks.

2. Shared workbooks 

Excel Online allows multiple editors by default, but it’s missing so much functionality that it isn’t really a contender for anything but the simplest tasks. Although its Shared Workbooks feature looks like it should do the job, it’s loaded with restrictions.  

There are workarounds for some restrictions – for others it’s a matter of changing the structure of the workbook, rather than using a workbook that’s already been set up – but they can get in the way. As a result, it can be impossible to use a shared workbook in the same way you might an ordinary, single-user workbook. 

Changes in shared workbooks are synchronised between users each time the workbook is saved; this can be on a timed schedule, forcing a save every five minutes, for example. However, the overhead of regular saving and tracking every user’s changes is quite large: workbooks can easily balloon in size and put a strain on your network, slowing down other systems. 

Shared workbooks are also fragile and prone to corruption. Microsoft is aware of the problem, but doesn’t seem to be doing much about the issue. It looks like it’s hoping Excel Online’s multi-authoring method will take over from the older shared workbook technology, but this won’t be a realistic proposition until the company removes all the restrictions and extends the multi-authoring technology to the full Excel desktop application, as it has with Word, PowerPoint and OneNote. 

3. Linked workbooks 

Splitting your data across multiple workbooks can provide a workaround to the problem of multi-user editing. But it’s likely these workbooks will need to have links between them so that values entered in one can be used in another. Links between workbooks are also useful for keeping logically separate data in separate files, rather than just separate sheets in one workbook. 

Annoyingly, these links are another source of frustration and instability. They can be absolute, including the full path to the source workbook, or relative, including only the difference between the source and destination paths. Although this sounds sensible, Excel employs arcane rules to decide when to use each type of link and when to change them. 

The rules are governed by a variety of options, some of which aren’t at all obvious, and by whether the workbooks were saved, and where they were saved before the links were inserted. The links can also change when you save the workbook or open and use Save As to make a copy, rather than copying the file using the File Explorer. The upshot of all this confusion and uncertainty is that the links between workbooks can break easily, and recovering from broken links can be a time-consuming process, during which no-one can actually use the files affected. 

Linked data is only updated when the files are opened, unless you specifically click Data | Connections | Edit Links | Update Values. Because of this, if your links aren’t between two workbooks, but cover three or more, you have to open all the workbooks in the correct order to ensure the updated data flows in order, from the first to the second to the third. If you changed a value in the first workbook and then opened the third, it wouldn’t see any changes because the second workbook hadn’t updated its values. 

This chaining of data is logical, but it increases the likelihood that data is either incorrect or that you’ll try to open a workbook that someone else is already editing. 

Of course, you can try to avoid linked workbooks altogether, but there’s a chance you’ll end up entering the same data into more than one workbook – and with that comes the danger of typing it in slightly differently each time. 

4. Data validation 

Errors can creep into data in any computer system: people mistype words or transpose digits in numbers with monotonous regularity. If your data isn’t checked as it’s entered, you’re going to have a problem. 

By default, Excel accepts whatever the user types. It is possible to set up validation on look-up lists, but these can be difficult to maintain, particularly if the same field is used in more than one place. If users have to enter document ID numbers or customer reference numbers without any checks, it’s easy to tie the wrong records together without realising it. The data integrity of the system is then fatally compromised, and any analysis of the data is suspect. 

You may already be suffering the effect of this problem without realising the root cause. Consider a situation where you have a list of invoices in Excel where the user has typed the name of the customer slightly differently on each invoice. You’ve got invoices to “Jones Ltd”, “Jones Limited”, “Jonse Ltd” and “joness”. You may be aware that these are all referring to the same company, but Excel doesn’t. Any analysis of the invoice data, such as a pivot table by customer by month, will give multiple results where there should only be one. 

5. Navigation issues 

Large workbooks are difficult to navigate. The row of sheet tabs across the bottom of the window is a terrible mechanism for finding your way around if there are more than a handful of tabs; when there are more tabs than can be displayed across the screen, it becomes even more difficult to find what you’re looking for. You can right-click on the arrows to the left of the sheet names to bring up the Activate Sheet dialog, but even that only lists the first 20 sheets before you have to scroll the list – and there’s no way to sort, group or search for the sheet you want. 

6. Security issues 

You can add security to Excel workbooks, but it’s rife with problems. Protection is geared much more towards protecting the structure of the workbook, rather than the data. You can try to lock some sheets and cells to stop users changing the structure and formulae, but if they can see the data then they can usually change any or all of it (unless you do some clever macro programming). 

7. Speed issues 

Excel isn’t the fastest application in the world, and its programming language, VBA, is sluggish compared to more professional programming languages such as C#. This all stems from the intended use and flexible nature of Excel. It is, after all, a spreadsheet engine. Yes, it can be pressed into service to manage lists of data, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best choice for this kind of work. Indeed, there are other applications better suited to such tasks – because they were designed to do them. 

Enter the database

If you’re hitting any of the problems outlined above, don’t ignore them: there’s a professional answer to storing “structured data”, and it’s our old friend the database. It doesn’t have to be scary or expensive, and it should give you the opportunity to think logically about your data, how it links together and how you interact with it. 

Take heed, though: if you’re moving from a spreadsheet solution to a database, don’t slavishly duplicate the spreadsheet design: take the opportunity to make it better. 

There is a wide range of specialised cloud database apps available designed for many common business activities, they can be inexpensive and fast to implement. 

For instance, if you have a list of customers and details of all your interactions with these customers, that could be considered to be a customer relationship management (CRM) system. Despite its fancy name, a CRM system is simply a specialised database.

To find out more about how we are helping accounting firms gather client data and plan for MTD please go to

Article by Eamonn Murphy