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What to do when Excel and Access become Mission Critical

Excel spreadsheets and Access databases are a popular tool for small to medium sized businesses in need of a productivity boost.  It is not surprising as these tools are readily available, flexible and easy to learn.  Although initially a good idea, over time these tools take on a life of their own and become ensconced in an organization, even to the point of being mission critical.  At some point, as your business grows in success, these applications will stop growing with you.  Here are some typical warning signs we see from our clients that their tools have reached their limit:

  • The tools become too slow to use due to the large amount of data that is stored and processed
  • The tools do not support the growing number of users, either because they are limited to a single user to write data at a time, or they exhibit instability with increased errors and bugs
  • The data and the tool’s functionality are so tightly coupled, making future changes hard, if not impossible
  • Data is being unknowingly overwritten, corrupted or lost
  • The needs of the business outgrow what the tools can support such as advanced analysis, reporting, and online access

If this sounds familiar to you, as a business, what can you do?  In general we recommend three approaches to getting your intial IT tools to scale with you:

  1. Try to fix the existing solution and extend the life a little longer
  2. Replace the existing solution with alternative off-the-shelf products or online service offerings
  3. Build a custom solution

Fixing the existing solution

If budgets are a concern or there is a reason that the existing solution needs only to support your business for another 6-12 months, it may make sense to look at finding ways to lighten the load on the tool so that it can continue to function.  Although none these options are ideal, you may try to:

  • Archive older data, hence reducing the amount of information that the solution has to store, access and process
  • Limit access to the system to reduce the load on the system
  • Duplicate the solution, giving each group of users their own spreadsheet or database, hence reducing the load on the system
  • Place spreadsheets in a controlled document management tool to prohibit multiple people updating the spreadsheet at one time (Excel only)
  • Engage a software consultant to determine if there are any design flaws that cause bottlenecks and inefficiencies

Build vs. Buy

If you are ready to divorce your existing solution and move on to something better, your next decision is to build or to buy.  Generally speaking, if there is an off-the-shelf package or subscription-based service that will meet most of your needs, then purchasing an existing solution is the way to go.  The only time you should be concerned about a pre-built solution is if:

  • The software product requires extensive customization to make it fit you
  • The softare product requires you to modify key processes that are unique to your business, and have been a critical factor in your business’s success to date
  • The new software solution adds complexity and steps to your existing processes with little value
  • The new software solution is hard to learn and hard to use, increasing training needs and costs for your team
  • The service fees make the software application cost prohibited if your business continues to grow
  • You do not have access to your data if you wish to migrate off the platform at a later date
  • The new software application will not grow or scale to meet your needs in the next 1-3 years

If your competitive advantage is from unique business processes, meaning the way that you manage your customers, products, purchasing life cycle, staff planning, or order fulfillment is like no one else, then you may want to consider custom software development.

Custom Software Solutions

A custom software solution can mean many things.  On one end, it can mean a new software product (desktop, web and/or mobile) that is built from the ground up based on your business needs and requirements.  On the other end, it could mean a combination of existing tools and components, woven together with custom code, to meet your unique needs while increasing your time to market and decreasing your cost.

Custom software development tends to be more expensive than pre-built products, except when the pre-built software requires a large amount of customization and configuration to get it up and working.  There is an upside to custom software, however.  It is built to your specifications, for your company and customers, and can provide differentiation from your competitors.

Generally speaking, custom software development projects take between 3 and 12 months to design, develop, test and deploy, depending on:

  • The size and complexity of your application
  • The team size working to design and build the project
  • Your ability to quickly make decisions, provide information, and answer questions from your team
  • The need to integrate with third party systems
  • Any requirements to migrate existing data

If you believe a custom software development project may be the right next step for you to support your growing business, stay tuned as we explain the top reasons why a custom software project can go wrong and how to avoid them.​

You are also welcome to download our infographic below.

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