Spreadsheet alternatives to boost productivity

Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets are fine for some tasks, but considering spreadsheet alternatives to boost productivity can work wonders.
20 December 2022

Detective work: depending on the scenario, it could be worth looking at spreadsheet alternatives to boost productivity. Image credit: IB Photography / Shutterstock.com.

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There’s a provocative saying in productivity circles that goes something along the lines of, “If you are using a spreadsheet, then you are doing it wrong.” Unsurprisingly, the follow-up to this is often a pitch for software that enables users to say goodbye to Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, or their row- and column-based tool of choice. But the saying has a grain of truth, and considering spreadsheet alternatives to boost productivity does have merits, as we’ll explore.

Scenario #1 – right tool, wrong package

Spreadsheets are useful tools, and it feels a little harsh to throw them straight into the bin, or drag onto the trash icon. There will be some productivity scenarios that lend themselves to spreadsheet use, but fewer (perhaps) than you might have first imagined.

If you are using Microsoft Excel, then you are likely paying for the privilege and might want to consider a lower-cost alternative. Or, if you are using Google Sheets, thoughts about digital sovereignty could be popping into your head. Either way, open source software such as OpenOffice or LibreOffice could be worth taking for a road test. There are also solutions designed specifically with digital sovereignty in mind, including Collabora Online, provided by Collabora Productivity.

Scenario #2 – hundreds of thousands of data rows

Microsoft Excel maxes out at 1,048,576 rows by 16,384 columns, but even before you hit that limit, your computer may already be showing signs of distress. Considering spreadsheet alternatives to boost productivity is likely to be fruitful when it comes to analysing large data sets. Strong contenders include R (a statistical computing project) and Python. Both utilize data structures that can easily handle millions of data points, and will transform the speed at which you can gather insights.

There is a learning curve to follow, but with a wealth of tutorials and courses available online (many available for free), it doesn’t represent a high barrier to adoption. In fact, you could even type queries into ChatGPT, and the AI chatbot may be able to offer pre-written suggestions that could solve your coding query. Libraries available for R and Python will enrich your analysis. You’ll be able to automate many tasks and plot charts that likely go way beyond those available in a spreadsheet.

Scenario #3 – information store

Using a spreadsheet to store information isn’t bulletproof. It’s far too easy to highlight and delete cells by accident. And compared with running a dedicated database tool, you’ll be short-changed in terms of queries, analytics, and automated backups. For example, if you are storing HR information, there are lots of dedicated options that go far beyond the features available on a spreadsheet.

Domain-specific software can open other doors too. Sticking with our HR example, you might want to integrate salary benchmarking into your operations. And having dedicated HR software makes it straightforward to benefit from so-called ‘CompTech’ platforms that will keep you up to date on whether salaries are too high or too low.

Scenario #4 – project management

Many in the workplace will have seen it happen, but using a spreadsheet to track the progress of a major project and capture upcoming and in-progress tasks can be problematic. There are numerous spreadsheet alternatives to boost productivity when it comes to project management. Examples that quickly come to mind are Trello and Nextcloud’s Deck, which offer Kanban-style project management features.

Many will be familiar with the merits of Kanban as a way of balancing the demands of a project with available capacity. Its visual appeal is strong too. Lists of work items make their way across the board task-by-task (physical Kanban boards can be as simple as post-it notes placed on a whiteboard), and it’s straightforward to see progress and identify bottlenecks.

Scenario #5 – tracking vulnerabilities

Security teams can fall into a habit of recording vulnerabilities in spreadsheets, but again, it’s a quick fix rather than a long-term solution. Spreadsheets don’t lend themselves to automatically importing vulnerability data from different sources. Merging information often requires a lot of manual data wrangling. Plus, collaboration can be clunky and confusing.

Coalfire, a cybersecurity advisory firm, estimates that centralizing test and vulnerability data in a dedicated tool can reduce vulnerability lifetimes by as much as 40%. This is great news for customers and developers, helping to make applications more secure and reducing the chances of reputational damage and messy remediation.

In this article, we’ve highlighted five reasons why considering spreadsheet alternatives to boost productivity is worthwhile. Often, people turn to spreadsheets because they have the software on their machines. And spreadsheets can certainly help in taking those first steps in solving a problem, or defining the information that needs to be gathered. But when those spreadsheets become embedded in team activity and pain points become regular occurrences rather than one-offs, it’s time to consider whether alternative software might offer a more productive solution for your organization.