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Working with Sustainability Data in Excel: Pros and Cons

Date posted: 27 January 2017
Posted in: CSR data, Excel

Coming off the back of our last blog post looking at Excel as a non-financial data management tool, I thought the blog warranted an accompanying piece exploring the pros and cons of using Microsoft’s flagship spreadsheet software. So without further ado, let’s take a look at some the pros of using Excel.

Excel Pros

  • Universality

Excel is a universally recognised system and therefore it’s more likely that your employees will be familiar with using it, if just at a basic level. This means less training and a much wider pool of potential users from the outset. This universality means you will also have staff across various departments who will be comfortable accessing your sustainability data and even exporting it into their own spreadsheets to build simple reports and tables from it.

  • Ease of use

Excel may not be custom built for working with sustainability data but it has evolved over the years and across various versions into an extremely intuitive and easy to use tool with a huge range of functionality. This means even complete beginners can quickly pick up the basics and start filtering data and even building simple pivot tables or graphs from it. CSR data management tools are highly specialised and therefore have a lot of complex functionality which could confuse users who aren’t used to using them.

  • Affordability

There’s no doubt that Excel is by far the cheapest option if you compare it to a full non-financial data management system. For many businesses this is the deciding factor when it comes to sticking with Excel. Of course as businesses grow and so too does the volume of data they are creating, Excel’s suitability becomes a more pressing factor, with increasing economies of scale found in using a more bespoke system.

  • Versatility

Excel is a jack of all trades but it’s far from being a master of none. One of the biggest benefits of Excel is the sheer number of things it can do and how well it does so many of them. From pivot tables to conditional formatting and filtering, Excel remains one of the most versatile tools for managing, interpreting and analysing data out there. There’s no doubt that it will begin to crack at the edges if you put too much data into it or need multiple user access, but if you just want to manage a limited volume of data across a few users, there’s little out there that beats it.

Excel Cons

  • Large datasets can lead to instability

It’s quite likely that you will be dealing with large volumes of sustainability data collected from various sources across your organisation. Putting all this data into a single spreadsheet can be a problem as Excel will struggle with large file sizes. Whilst you can still dump pretty large volumes of hard coded data into Excel, you will find yourself waiting ages for it to perform even the simplest calculations on large datasets.

  • Multiple formulas can lead to instability

Another factor that will affect Excel is the number of formulas and conditional formatting you put into your spreadsheet. With smaller datasets this won’t be a problem and any slowdown will be unnoticeable. The trouble with CSR data management though, is you’ll quickly find yourself amassing larger and larger datasets and you could find your formula rich spreadsheets coming to a grinding halt.

  • Hard for multiple users to access

Perhaps one of the most limiting factors when using Excel to manage your sustainability data is the lack of multiple user access options. Excel was never built for multiple users and even with modern versions it’s completely impractical to have more than a limited number of users access a spreadsheet at once. Even with a small number of users accessing a single file at one time, there is an increased danger of data loss.

  • Possibility of data corruption

Excel spreadsheets are inherently more unstable compared to relational databases, so there is a much higher likelihood of data corruption. This can pose a serious risk if you are reliant on Excel as your main data crunching tool, even if you do create regular backups. Because relational databases rely on individual records that contain all your fields, instead of rows and columns, data integrity is maintained. If you change information in any field of a given record, this will automatically filter down to every report or table based on that record. For this to happen in Excel you’d have to link spreadsheets and this can quickly lead to issues.

  • Not intuitive

Purpose built CSR and sustainability data management software is designed to be used for managing non-financial data and will therefore come with more intuitive functionality built in. This could be anything from unit conversion, calculating energy efficiency over time or applying equations to physical systems. In Excel you’ll have to build all this functionality into your spreadsheet yourself, which can take quite a lot of work and a good degree of training to use.

  • No easy reporting / dashboards

Excel can produce a number of reports, graphs and charts but they are not generated automatically and have to be built from the ground up within your worksheet. CSR data management tools can be setup to produce regulation compliant reports periodically, making reporting a doddle. Excel also doesn’t come with dashboards, whereas CSR programs will come packed with a variety of customisable and intuitive dashboards that less frequent users can access and easily understand.

At SustainIt we’ve never made a secret of how versatile and powerful a tool Excel can be when it comes to non-financial data management and analysis. That being said, there is a point where it simply won’t be able to handle the volume of data you need to put into it to drive meaningful sustainability programs and policy. Whilst this short guide doesn’t attempt to elaborate on when it is worth investing in a sustainability package, I hope it has shed some light on the relative advantages and disadvantages of using Excel for this purpose.