A project site manager collecting information for necessary data collection. Data is used for reporting, tracking benefits, and managing stakeholders.

Who doesn’t love a good spreadsheet? Excel gives us the power to collect, manipulate and analyze data with a straightforward tool. With a well-planned spreadsheet, individuals and organizations can keep historical records, perform complex calculations, identify data trends, and solve business problems. However, without appropriate organization, a seemingly straightforward spreadsheet can lead to disaster.

Spreadsheet-driven processes tend to become strained when they are scaled or when complexity is added. With the right approach, you can avoid common pitfalls and get the most out of your spreadsheets. Below, we break down 5 Tips for Tracking Data in Excel so you can scale an excel document as far as possible until it makes sense to invest in a more purpose-built solution.


1. Start with Research

Spreadsheets are created to solve common business problems. It’s likely that others have had the same problem that you’re trying to solve by using a spreadsheet. A web search or water-cooler discussion on your specific problem could end up saving many hours of hard work. Look for a pre-made excel template that has become the standard for your particular problem. Be sure to leverage what other people have already done where you can.


2. Keep it Simple

When deciding to use a spreadsheet to track data, it’s easy to expand your scope as you create your structure. This is especially true if you’re working as a team. There is an urge to collect more data points on top of what you need since you’ll be collecting similar data anyway. Be careful, employees in management roles spend 40% of their time on tasks related to reporting. Every unnecessary data point that’s collected is more noise that adds to that large amount of time spent on reporting.

The ultimate goal is to track only the data required to achieve the end result that you’re looking for. Begin with the outcome then determine the necessary data to be collected. Once you are tracking for the necessary data set, stop adding metrics. You can always expand on your spreadsheet later.


3. Be Consistent

Consistency is key for any data tracking initiative. The longer that you collect a consistent set of data, the more useful that dataset will become. Unfortunately, an excel sheet doesn’t notify you when the data is starting to get old or when you’ve missed updating a particular column for a few weeks.

Try to create a consistent routine for data entry that works for the type of data that you’re tracking. For example, if you’re entering a lot of data that is created on a consistent basis, such as financial results, schedule time in your calendar to enter data each week or month. If you’re entering a smaller amount of data and it is created on a less consistent basis, try to enter the data as it is generated. Consistency of data collection can be the difference between success and failure for your initiative.


4. Consider Data Validation

Did you know 88% of spreadsheets have at least 1 data error? Making important decisions when presented with inaccurate data is dangerous. There are a couple of things that you can do to decrease the likelihood of having errors on your spreadsheets.

Two straightforward techniques are data validation and the use of quantitative data over qualitative data. Data validation can be applied in several forms. Data validation will prevent typos, incorrect data formats, and data that doesn’t match available entry options. In addition to data validation, use quantitative data such as numbers wherever possible instead of free text entry or descriptive data.


5. Enable Collaboration

Historically, the collaboration between multiple people has been difficult when using excel. Luckily, with the increased use of cloud-based software, collaboration on a single spreadsheet is becoming easier. When you are structuring data collection or report creation, you can include others. When including others, be sure to clearly communicate the expectations and go through the collaboration process together to ensure that everyone understands what’s required. Even if you’re just providing a team member with access to the spreadsheet to review your work each month, collaboration can improve the quality and scale of what you can accomplish with spreadsheets.


Beyond Spreadsheets

With a well-thought-out plan, your data collection, record keeping, or reporting tasks can often be accomplished in a good spreadsheet. However, it’s important to understand when spreadsheets reach their limits. Software continues to evolve and become more effective at solving problems in different business areas. For example, it is no longer efficient to use spreadsheets to track your sales process. There are dozens of great Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platforms available online that will do a much better job and save you a lot more time and money than using a spreadsheet.

Similar to what CRM systems did for spreadsheets that were used to track customer relationships, NetBenefit provides software to track industrial project metrics such as employment, community benefits, commitments, and stakeholder engagement. The use of automated notifications, scalability to thousands of data entry users and standardized templates that incorporate industry best practices save hundreds of hours and prevent inaccurate or incomplete data.

Good luck with your next excel-based project, but if you’re using excel to track project metrics, feel free to start a conversation with our experts.