You've thought about consolidating your business records into a database, but you hesitate because of the time and the effort required. Think again.
You probably need a database if:
You enter or update the same information in more than one place.
You have overflowing file cabinets.
You juggle multiple spreadsheets.
Once you decide to build and maintain it, a database saves you time and money. In addition, a database is an indispensable tool for assessing your business. Here's how:
Databases track information better than disparate records. For example, your customer's name and address might be on an order form and a spreadsheet. If you track this information manually, you have to update each record when customers move. A database provides a central repository. One address update covers all needs.
Databases organize information efficiently. By keeping business details in one database, you can sort and search details at lightning speed. If your business tracks parts and suppliers, a query to find all suppliers selling widgets returns the answers with a click of the mouse. Try finding data this quickly by hand.
Databases report on the state of your business. Query responses and reports give you answers to questions about your business. Because the database compiles information fast, can you not only keep a closer eye on your business tactics, you can more quickly fine-tune processes that don't work.
You already use database functions if you manage your finances with or store your address book on a computer. If you do not use these products, play around with a simple personal information manager such as the address book in Microsoft Outlook or Palm Desktop. Or automate your accounting with the popular and easy-to-use Quicken QuickBooks.
Using these applications helps you understand database functionality and can give you ideas for how you might use a database to organize other records.
Start by asking, what records do I want to automate? For example, you can see how the ledgers in QuickBooks are analogous to your paper ledgers. From there you can imagine how to organize your customer contact and order information into a customer database and use the database tools to see who bought what, when. Or think about how to enter your product information into a database to manage inventory levels.
Note that databases can only organize existing record-keeping. A database will not create organization from nothing. When building a database, you must have an idea of how specific pieces of information relate to each other. These relationships determine the structure of the database. Planning the structure will take time. But it's time well spent. A well-designed database spares you the agony of inadequate record-keeping and the trouble of reorganizing later.
Moreover, have reasonable expectations of what databases can do. You might be accustomed to robust applications such as Outlook and QuickBooks, but these are powerful, specialized programs with a long history of development. Building your database with a program like Microsoft Access or FileMaker Pro can't match those standards, so think simply.