Database or Excel–why not both?

Now and then in my profession I arrive in customer situations where this question arises. Lately it has been more and more often. I meet customers who have successfully solved business problems on a departmental level for many years with a sophisticated Excel-solution as a complement to their ERP-system. Then just of a sudden the “guru” disappears and many problems arise.

They call me to solve it… They hope and “pray” I will remove their headaches.

imageBeing a DB-guy for many years I often find solutions with database-technology, there might be others that I miss – who knows? You are always caught in middle of the limitations of your own experiences and brain.

The last decade I have seen Excel evolve from a rather isolated end user tool to a professional development platform for making very attractive business solutions. Excel nowadays is very open for integration with content in corporate databases either thru a data warehouse or in many cases directly to the corporate ERP-system. Excel has been remodelled to be a BI-tool, with the “little” advantage that it is well known by so many.

Returning to the initial question – today you don’t need to choose one or the other – they work very well together.


Many sheets in Excel, looks like tables in a database or even like tables in HTML. To the right you see me and my partners failures when playing bridge the other night. Same boring facts presented in 3 different shapes. Excel, HTML and Access. What’s the difference? The human eye is probably most comfortable with the middle approach,  HTML – made for presentation.

Information in databases are often as in HTML – tables, so also in Excel. So, what is the difference? If correctly sorted Excel is in the middle and HTML at top… It is all about presentation! HTML solutions are focused on presentation and DB solutions are most often not. Excel is something in the middle, both order and presentation, I think that is why many people feel it is the best compromise. HTML is worst when it comes to flexibility and possibility to change, Excel manages both to some extent depending on who is in charge. Databases have it all, but to a high investment in “knowing how”.

imageSo let us skip HTML for maintaining tables and focus on relational databases compared to Excel. Excel has a lot of flexibility that RDB:s lack, at least with a reasonable investment in knowledge. Excel is in many views a very good place to store information as long as you keep it in one sheet, you have full control and it is easy to handle. When you reach 20 sheets or more you are probably lost, at least if you are the person to inherit something invented by an Excel-“guru” who has just left the company… What are the relations between all these sheets… Too many “IT-gurus” call this state “Excel-hell”. What actually happens is that your company could loose confidence among your customers, since they feel you are “out of control”. They ask for the price of a product and they get two different answers depending on who they ask. There are many truths of the same fact. The basic problem is that the same “fact” is stored in more than one place, when so problems arise.
In my next article I will try to explain all this in more technical terms. “Normalization”, “Relations”, “Cascading Deletes”… technical terms that have a background in business logic and the way we act and feel.