7 Excel Spreadsheet Problems… and How To Solve Them

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—formulas for calculations or macro programming to automate data collection and processing.

Unfortunately, the ease with which you can start working in Excel or a rival spreadsheet program is also one of its biggest problems. What begins as a small project in Excel grows into something massive, at which point you could also be facing speed and stability issues, or even a development problem you can’t solve.

Here, we examine the issues you can often come up against with spreadsheets, how you could tackle them in Excel, and when you’d be better off taking the plunge and switching to a database instead.

Solving Excel Problems

With big data management tasks come significant challenges, such as organization, implementation, classification of files, database management, user collaboration, and more. All it takes to break the structure of a database is placing data in the wrong area, typing data inconsistently, or even having two people working on the same sheet. Several things can go wrong, causing time delays and possible data loss. With that in mind, here are seven critical Excel problems and how to prevent or overcome them.

1. Excel Multi-User Editing

When Excel systems grow organically, you quickly run into a problem where only one user can open a workbook at any particular time. The second person trying to open the file gets told that it’s already open and can cancel, wait, or view a read-only version. Excel’s promise to let you know when the other person exits the workbook is a gamble since it doesn’t check the status that often, and indeed it might never enlighten you. Even if it does, someone else might log in and open the file before you.

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To avoid the “solo user” effects, you can use Excel Online (the cut-down, web-based version of Excel) or turn on the Shared Workbooks feature. You can also split the data into several workbooks so that different people can work on different workbooks without treading on each other’s toes.

2. Excel Shared Workbooks

Excel Online allows multiple editors, by default, but it’s missing a great deal of functionality. Excel isn’t much of a contender for anything but the simplest tasks. Although the Shared Workbooks feature looks like it should do the job, it’s full of restrictions. You can’t create a table or delete a block of cells if the workbook is shared, for example.

When Excel systems grow organically, you run into the problem that only one user can open a workbook at any one time.

There are workarounds for some restrictions. For others, it’s a matter of changing the workbook’s structure, rather than using a workbook that has already 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 use an ordinary, single-user workbook.

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

3. Excel Linked Workbooks

Splitting your data across multiple workbooks can provide a workaround to the problem of multi-user editing. But these workbooks will likely need to have links between them so that values entered in one can get used in another. Links between workbooks are also useful for keeping separate data in separate files, rather than having individual 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 several options and by whether the workbooks got saved before links got inserted. The links can also change when you save the workbook or open and use “Save As” to make a duplicate, rather than copy the file using 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 use the files affected.

Linked data is only updated when the files get opened unless you specifically click Data | Connections | Edit Links | Update Values. 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 processes in the right 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 data chaining is logical, but it increases the likelihood that information 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. Excel 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 doesn’t get checked as it’s entered, you’re going to have problems.

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, mainly if the same field gets 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 realizing it. The data integrity of the system becomes fatally compromised, and any analysis of the data is suspect.

You may already be suffering the effects of data validation problems without realizing the root cause. Consider a situation where you have a list of invoices in Excel. The user has typed the name of the customer slightly differently on each invoice. As a result, 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 based on customers by month, will give multiple results where there should only be one.

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5. Excel Navigation

Large workbooks are challenging to navigate. The sheet tabs across the bottom of the window are a terrible mechanism for finding your way around when there are numerous amounts of them. With more displayable tabs across the screen, it becomes difficult to find what you need. 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 through the list. There’s no way to sort, group, or search for the sheet you want.

6. Excel Security

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 from changing the structure and formula, but if they can see the data, they can usually change any or all of it (unless you do some creative macro programming).

7. Excel 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 scenario 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, other applications are better suited to such tasks—mainly because they are explicitly designed to do them.

Using The Database for Structured Data

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 allow you 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 are general-purpose database applications available, with which you can construct a bespoke solution. Alternatively, you may find that a specialist database application—one that is already designed for the purpose you require—is cheaper, faster to implement, and a better fit.

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For instance, if you have a list of customers and the details of all your interactions with them, that is considered a customer relationship management (CRM) system. Despite its fancy name, a CRM system is simply a specialized database. Similarly, account packages such as QuickBooks and Sage are specialist databases. If you can’t find a prebuilt application that suits your particular needs, you can probably build one yourself or get one made for you by your IT department or use a consultant.

The most common database type is a relational database, which stores its data in tables and consists of rows and columns. Each row holds the data for a separate item. For example, each column describes a different attribute of the subject, such as the customer’s name or credit limit.

You only need to enter a customer’s data once to create a record, and then you can use it on as many invoices as you need.

The tables have relationships defined between them, so that, say, an invoice carries the customer ID. This means you can easily find all the invoices for a particular customer or retrieve the customer’s phone number from a specific invoice. You only need to enter the customer’s data once to create the customer record, and then you can then use it on as many invoices as you need without having to type it in again. To create a database, you have to define these tables and relationships, and then define the layout of the screens you want to use to list and edit the data.

There are dozens of database applications out there. Some are easy to use and do the whole job, allowing you to define the tables, data-entry screens, and reports. Others are more full-featured in specific areas but require other tools to do a complete job.

For instance, a program may be reliable when it comes to defining the tables and relationships, and even have robust analysis and reporting features, but ultimately lacks any tools for determining data-entry screens. Microsoft SQL Server is the obvious example here. As with other large database systems, SQL Server takes care of the back-end and expects you to use another tool, such as Visual Studio, to develop the front-end.

Which Database Options are Right for You?

Database Option #1: Microsoft Access

Access is one of the granddaddies of desktop databases. It’s easy to use yet easy to abuse. You can design tables, screens, and reports from scratch or start from a template. Some of the templates are overtly American and don’t always teach good practice, but they get you started quickly. Screens and programming features can be quite sophisticated. You can deploy your finished application to other users through your intranet (NOT internet) rather than rely on file shares.

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Database Option #2: Microsoft SharePoint

SharePoint is a database, as well as a document-storage mechanism. You can use it to compile simple lists and link them together. The Form Designer is slightly sophisticated, but customization is still possible. SharePoint’s ability to “grab” a list of data accumulated in Excel and place it into a custom list is useful. The program makes the custom list available to everyone on your network and enables you to add security to restrict who can do what with that data. You can ask SharePoint to alert you by email whenever someone adds, edits, or deletes records. If you’re storing data concerning people, calendar items, or tasks, you can synchronize that data with Outlook.

Database Option #3: Zoho Creator

The web service, Zoho Office, includes a database application that uses drag-and-drop functionality to spread out its forms in a simple, intuitive manner. You can also use drag and drop to program the interactions and workflows. As a web service, your data and applications are available from anywhere, with simple security to keep your data private. Zoho charges on a per-user, per-month basis, but it limits the number of records you can store for that established price. The program costs extra when storing more data or for other features such as email integration.

As you can see, Excel offers many features but lacks in some areas within each one. Sometimes, another application does the job better, especially if it’s designed specifically for the task. Other times, Excel works just fine, such as for smaller databases, as long as you know how to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.

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