Custom Application Development

Dec 10 2007   2:29PM GMT

Spreadsheets — the non-programmers database?

SJC SJC Profile: SJC

I continue to be amazed at the number of spreadsheets which I am being asked to create as full-fledged database applications.  These spreadsheets have grown to be key ingredients to an organization, yet their maintenance and distribution are a major factor in day-to-day operational inefficiencies.  Yes, they serve a valuable purpose.  However, I believe that once a spreadsheet becomes a certain size (…not readily defineable), the continued use becomes more hindrance than efficient tool.  How might one establish that a given spreadsheet has reached its useful life?  Let us count the ways!

  1. It has reached a level of complexity that only its creator understands
  2. Users complain that it takes them a long time to find the information they need
  3. Copies of the spreadsheet run rampant throughout the organization– and few are the latest!
  4. It takes so long to load off the server that users cancel thinking something is “wrong”  (…which of course it is — but not what they think is wrong!)
  5. Data integrity has become an issue, caused by inconsistent entries that prevent sorting properly

The above issues are perhaps the most readily apparent indications of spreadsheet use that has become inefficient.

Back in the 80’s when I used my first spreadsheet application I remember being told by the developers that I was trying to use the spreadsheet as a database, and at the time I didn’t really understand what a database was!  What I knew was that my job required keeping track of certain data and the spreadsheet appeared to be a good way to do it – and it was — to a point!  However, it was a very short educational period before I began to understand the difference between a database application and a spreadsheet, and I was fortunate enough to have both available to me.  As time went on, database applications became my passion.

Spreadsheets have come a long way from those first apps, as have the databases – and the languages that control them.  Yet I continue to be surprised at how often I run into spreadsheets serving as databases.  Somehow the spreadsheet concept is much easier for the non-programmer user to understand and work with.

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