Not Much of a Salesperson

Earlier today I had a discussion with a potential client who is thinking about updating the way they manage their small cram school. The company started in 2004 and has grown from just 8 students to 73, with lessons taking place Tuesday through Saturday. There are three regular teachers and two part-time people who come just before the exam periods start at the junior and senior high schools. Interestingly, the company has used just one tool to manage all of their student, instructor, and pedagogical information: Microsoft Excel.

In order to make everything work, the company uses a new file every month and makes extensive use of file-spanning links and macros galore to keep data properly aligned. 165 Excel files in all are linked together in a house of cards that has thrice collapsed and created a whole bunch of work for the only person in the company who knows Excel well enough to fix it, the most recent event taking place just last month. Hence today's discussion. They wanted to know how I would go about fixing this problem.

Databases vs Spreadsheets — An Odd Discussion

The number of small companies I've seen that are wholly dependent on Excel is nothing short of astounding. This isn't to say that Excel can't be used to keep track of a company's data, but it's not the best tool for the job. What I suggested was that they look at using a database-powered system that would give them the flexibility of being able to grow "forever" while also introducing simple concepts like data validation, access control, and regular backups that don't involve copying everything to a USB key before leaving the office. They didn't like this idea, though. They wanted "everything in one place" … which is exactly what a database would give them.

A lot of the small business owners that I've spoken to have seemed reluctant to move their carefully-constructed Excel sheets into databases for fear of losing the quick readability that is afforded by a spreadsheet. They like being able to open a file, apply a couple of filters, and mentally convert the data into information for ad hoc reports. That said, spreadsheets are generally used for tasks that do not require tracking while databases are used for long-term projects where data is likely to be normalised with multiple people accessing the same system.

This company with its maximum of six employees currently uses paper to record attendance and lesson data. At the end of the day the owner or one of the teachers sits down with the stack of paper and records that information into the Excel sheet. Every teacher has a notebook on their desk to run the projector in the classroom and play any audio files that might be needed. It makes sense that these machines also be used to record the information that is currently written on paper, perhaps in the upcoming LMS I plan on building or something similar. This was the vision I tried to sell, but failed. The business owner wants to use Excel for everything because it's what he's familiar with. Anything else would just be "a distraction that locks away the data".

There are undoubtedly a bunch of reasons why I couldn't convince this client to consider an LMS to keep track of the school's records, but the main one most likely boils down to having nothing tangible to show. I didn't have any example websites or locally-installed software to show that would make clear the benefits of using a more modern approach to data management. This has been a common thread whenever speaking to middle managers at a large organisation or business owners of small companies. If there isn't something to see, there isn't anything to consider. Also, people don't know what they want, but they generally know what they don't want after seeing an example. What I need to do in order to connect to people like this small business owner is have something tangible to look at, even if it's non-functional. At least at this point a conversation can be had about what is required and what isn't.