Spreadsheets vs Databases – Round 7: Limiting The Damage Caused By Human Error

In round seven we look at how much both of these platforms can defend themselves from human error.  In our businesses we have processes and procedures in place to achieve tasks in the most efficient and coordinated way.  However, simple mistakes and unforeseen circumstances will cause these to occasionally fail.

With computers we can further enhance this protection by systematically blocking certain behaviours.

Round 7: Limiting The Damage Caused By Human Error


spreadsheet_formulasWithin Microsoft Excel it is possible to set a password for the entire workbook (or file).  Using that in combination with the individual cell properties it is possible to make certain cells read-only, therefore blocking the user from making any alterations to that cell.

You can also hide columns, rows and worksheets with a workbook.  This means that you can hide certain aspects of the spreadsheet. However, with the single password you can undo all these preventative measures and make hidden elements visible again.

So, there is some security here, but it isn’t user-specific.  There is only one password which lets you into everything.  If you wanted person A to see some of what was hidden but not all of it, it wouldn’t work.


business-intelligenceWith a Microsoft Access database you can set user-specific passwords for each user.  This is the sort of security setup that most users will be accustomed to where they keep their own password and can change it as they see fit, or be prompted centrally to change password at regular intervals.

Users can be blocked from accessing whole areas of a system (e.g. Purchasing) or just certain reports and charts (e.g. Monthly Sales).  This level of control is useful in maintaining data security and also ensuring that sensitive data (e.g. Customer details) remain private.

All this control is managed from easy-to-use screens which allow the administrator to manage which users have access to each area and functionality, to reset passwords and block users as is required.


Spreadsheets do have some security and access-restriction features such as the general password which protects the spreadsheet as a whole.

Databases have a much more complete capability when it comes to users and access control and are a lot easier to manage and maintain.

I think that databases win this round.  They have much greater functionality when dealing with user-level security and are also easier and more straightforward to use in this case.  The score so far:

Databases 6½ : Spreadsheets ½

Here are some other articles you may find interesting:

  1. 7 Reasons Your Team Should Drop Spreadsheets
  2. Want to Delegate To Your Team? Give Them the Right Tools
  3. How to Get the Reports You Need to Guide Your Business

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