Should You Break Up with Your Spreadsheet? Maybe…..maybe not

Posted on October 21, 2021 | in Data Management And Databases | by Taj Carson

Spreadsheets… People either love them or hate them. It often depends on familiarity with the spreadsheet software and how they are being shared or distributed. Social solutions recently published an article with 10 reasons to break free from spreadsheets. While we help lots of clients do exactly that, it is not always the best solution. There are times when using spreadsheets or spreadsheet-like tools (think Google Sheets, Airtable, Smartsheets, etc.) can make a lot of sense. The flexibility that these spreadsheets and spreadsheet-like tools offer is invaluable and you should always have at least one of these in your data toolbox.

Below we’ve listed some reasons to stick with spreadsheets as well as some reasons to leave them behind. There isn’t always a clear answer one way or another, but we use the list below to help weigh the options for our clients.

Reasons to keep using spreadsheets such as Google Sheets, Airtable, and similar tools:

You need flexibility.

  • This is where spreadsheets and spreadsheet-like tools really shine, and it’s also part of where they can be challenging. These tools are so flexible, they let you track just about anything. The rub is that they are not great at enforcing HOW you track things which can lead to challenges with data quality and consistency. This flexibility is really important when you are tracking something new because you often aren’t sure at the outset exactly what information you need. Which leads to our next point…

You aren’t sure what you need.

  • Maybe you need a Customer Relationship Management System (CRM)? Maybe a case management system? Maybe a program management system? Maybe an attendance tracker? Identify your core needs for data tracking, and consider how a specialized system may be able to address those. Until you decide, you can keep using your spreadsheet or spreadsheet-like tool. Having this sample can also be helpful to share with consultants and vendors to say: I need something to track this (this being the spreadsheet). Jumping into a system that doesn’t fit well can be just as problematic as tracking things manually in spreadsheets.

You haven’t secured funding for something new.

  • Remember you will need funding for the implementation but also for ongoing maintenance and licensing. Even the simplest data systems require administration and management. Make sure you understand those costs before making your change. Using spreadsheets can be a great way to build your organizational culture around data quality and data use. Once you are effectively using your spreadsheets you can make a case for a bigger investment as well as prepare your potential users for the time required for data management.

Reasons to move away from spreadsheets, Google Sheets, Airtable, and similar tools include:

You need more guardrails.

  • While many spreadsheets offer some data validation, and tools like Airtable and Smartsheets also offer features like drop-down lists and record linking, sometimes you will need more. In a way, guardrails are the opposite of flexibility. If you need more structure predefined (such as address validation), these usually require a specialized system.

You need to take advantage of best practices.

  • If you are a small organization just starting out tracking clients, donors, etc. it often makes sense to start with what you have and stay lean to preserve resources. Medium to large organizations and smaller organizations that are starting to grow will find that it can be a lot easier to use what people have already figured out as a starting point. No need to reinvent the wheel on CRMs, project management tools, and other similar systems with lots of mature options available.

You have reached the limit of what spreadsheets can do.

  • Spreadsheets and similar tools are very flexible but they all have limits. This could be in the number of records, the size of the file, the number of formulas that can run on your computer, or the number of spreadsheets or tables that you are willing to manage. The more data you manage and the more often you interact with it, the sooner you will reach some limits. Though keep in mind that sometimes moving from file-based spreadsheets and Google Sheets to a web-based tool with more options like Airtable and Smartsheets is all that you need.

I mentioned above that we frequently help clients move away from manual tracking with spreadsheets. We also help clients use a hybrid approach so that data from spreadsheets can be integrated with data from other systems. This type of data integration is often much more affordable than a full-scale data migration or system implementation (less than half the cost). It allows for a lot of flexibility as your organization grows and adapts to a changing environment.

There are plenty of reasons to stop using spreadsheets when the time is right, but spreadsheets and similar tools will never go away because of the flexibility they offer. Weigh your options and consider a hybrid solution to make sure that you are using your technical resources most efficiently.