Spreadsheets vs. Databases

Breaking Down the Difference Between a Spreadsheet and Database

Woman compiling spreadsheet on laptop
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One of the reasons companies are hesitant to use Microsoft Access is a lack of understanding of the difference between a spreadsheet and a database. This leads many people to believe that tracking client information, purchase orders, and project details in a spreadsheet is adequate for their needs. The end result is that it is difficult to maintain configuration control, files are lost to corruption, and employees accidently overwrite pertinent information. With a little knowledge about the power and many uses of a database, it is easier for small businesses to see when a spreadsheet is enough for a job and when a database needs to be created.

It is important to have a basic understanding of what a database is. Most people have accessed databases before, like the ones in the public library, but simply using them does not make it clear how spreadsheets and databases are different. Spending a few minutes learning about databases will help make the comparison clearer.

Data Organization

Perhaps the most obvious difference between a spreadsheet and a database is the way data is organized. If the data is relatively flat, then a spreadsheet is perfect. The way to determine if a flat table is best, ask whether or not all of the data points be easily plotted on a chart or table? For example, if a company wants to track monthly earnings over the course of a year, a spreadsheet is perfect. Spreadsheets are meant to handle lots of the same type of data, mapping the progress of a few key points.

In comparison, databases have a relational data structure. If a user were to pull data there would be numerous points to consider. For example, if a company wants to track its monthly earnings and compare them to competitors over the last five years, there is a relationship between these data points, but not a single focus. Making a single table to report results will be difficult, if not impossible. Databases are designed to make it easy for users to generate reports and run queries.

Complexity of Data

The easiest way to compare whether data should be maintained in a spreadsheet or a database is to look at how complex the data is. This helps clarify how the data should be organized if a user still is not certain.

Spreadsheet data is simple. It can be easily added to a single table or chart and added to a presentation without having to exclude information. It is easy to maintain as it follows only a few key numeric values. If only a few rows and columns are needed, the data is best stored in a spreadsheet.

Databases house a lot of different types of data that all have some relationship to the other data in the database. For example, companies keep a significant amount of data on their clients, from names and addresses to order and sales. If a user tries to cram thousands of rows into a spreadsheet, odds are good that it should be moved into a database.

Repetition of Data

Just because data will need to be updated does not necessarily mean that a database is required. Will there be the same data constantly repeated? And is the business interested in following events or actions?

If the data points change but the type of data is the same and tracks a single event, that information is probably flat. An example is the amount of sales over the course of a year. The time period will change and the numbers will fluctuate, and there will not be repeated data.

If some parts of the data will remain the same, such as customer information, while others change, such as the number of orders and timeliness of payments, odds are actions are being tracked. This is when a database should be used. Actions have many different components to them, and trying to track them all requires a database.

Data’s Primary Purpose

Spreadsheets are great for onetime events that do not require tracking of many different aspects. For projects that need one or two charts or tables for a presentation before being archived, a spreadsheet is the best way to go. If the team or company needs to be able to calculate results and determine percentages, that is where spreadsheets are the most useful.

Databases are for longer projects where data is likely to be used again and again. If notes and comments are needed, the data should be moved into a database. Spreadsheets were not designed to track details, just a few key numeric points.

Number of Users

The number of users could end up being the deciding factor on whether to use a spreadsheet or database. If a project requires that a large number of users be able to update data and make changes, this should not be done in a spreadsheet. It is much more difficult to maintain proper configuration control with a spreadsheet. If there are just a few users to update the data, generally between three and six, a spreadsheet should be adequate (although make sure to establish rules before moving forward with it).

If all of the participants on a project or entire departments need to make changes, a database is the better choice. Even if a company is small and only has one or two people in the department now, consider how many people might end up in that department in five years and ask if they will all need to make changes. The more users who need access, the more likely a database is the better option.

You must also take data security into account. If there is a lot of sensitive information that needs to be secured, databases offer better security. Before making the move, be sure to read about the security issues that should be considered before creating a database.

If you’re ready to make the plunge, read our article Converting Spreadsheets to Databases to get started on your journey.

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