by November 6, 2001 0 comments

I remember the day I first saw Lotus 1-2-3. We were trying out our brand new HCL PC. The machine had a princely configuration–a 8088-based CPU running at 5 MHz, 64 KB of RAM, two floppy drives, and a monochrome monitor. A stack of floppies accompanied the machine and two of them contained Lotus 1-2-3. I had little experience of spreadsheets, so
I decided to start with the tutor. It took some ten hours, by which time I was convinced that this was an extraordinary piece of software. It was obvious that many small applications could be done directly in Lotus without having to go through tedious programming in Cobol.

Unfortunately, few people shared the excitement. It was very hard to explain to them what a spreadsheet was in the first place. Most saw it as a word processor for figures and failed to exploit the power of fundamental concepts such as automatic recalculation and relative addresses. Another set of people tended to use it for easy generation of bar and pie charts. Acceptance was slow and accelerated only with the introduction of Windows and Windows-based products.

Zoom to the present. One of the signs of moving up the corporate ladder is using Excel more than Word. Most people now view spreadsheets as a fundamental application such as text processing. That is the plus side. The flip side is that users create spreadsheets first and then address the questions of how they will actually use it, and what the reports will look like. Listed below are some common mistakes.

Mistake #1: Using a spreadsheet as a database is by far the most common mistake. A database provides a centralized repository of data in structured form. Updates to the database are done by processes separate to the processes used for reporting. The aim is to eliminate redundancy in data and ensure that data items are updated at one place only. Using spreadsheets as databases may work when data items are few but users are setting themselves up for big problems as the data grows.

Mistake #2: Using multiple spreadsheets for disjoint views of the same data. This is in continuation to the point above. Users make separate spreadsheets to present the same data in different ways. When the data changes, users have to update several spreadsheets to make them reflect the same data. The ideal technique is to use a database. If you can’t do that, at least ensure that multiple spreadsheets link to the same
core parameters.

Mistake #3: Designing spread- sheets without regard to final reporting. Previously, hard copy output could be either 80 or 132 characters wide. All reports were designed keeping this simple constraint in mind. Now, users can play with font sizes ad infinitum. The results are ghastly. Many users keep adding columns to a spreadsheet and find themselves in trouble when they have to give a hard copy. Paradoxically, the introduction of GUI technology has caused the quality of final output to decrease, especially with regard to readability.

Mistake #4: Using a spreadsheet as a word processor. I know many users who are so habituated to spreadsheets that they attempt to do everything using a spreadsheet. I have come across users doing quotations in Excel because they didn’t know how to make tables in a word processor. Another example is an office which used to create all circulars containing figures in Excel.

The bottom line: The spreadsheet is a versatile tool, but this versatility should not be used to circumvent proper planning.

Gautama Ahuja runs a turnkey software company, AHC Infotek

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