So What's Wrong with Excel?

Robert Heine's picture

M&E officers naturally deal with a lot of data. It is part of their job to collect and process them, and to prepare them for reporting. Especially when confronted with numbers, most people’s first intuition is to open an Excel file and start a table. That is a smart choice considering that

  • most people have Excel installed on their computer,
  • it's free (after you have purchased the  Microsoft office package – which most organizations have),
  • it's relatively easy to use after some practice,
  • there are a lot of online help pages, manuals and video tutorials available for free.

Looking at these benefits, it makes perfectly sense to begin managing your monitoring data in an Excel file. Excel gives you a structured format for convenient data entry. It also enables you to quickly analyze the data by applying basic formulas or creating charts.excel monitoring sheet example

So far, so good. But experience has shown that this typically only works in small projects with simple monitoring systems. Because unless you work mostly alone on your file and you are dealing with a small data set, you will soon run into two problems. We can call them the “file problem” and the “amount of data problem”. They are almost inevitable, even for experienced Excel users with sophisticated tools.

  • The file problem: When handling the Excel file in a group of people or sending it around for staff in different locations to fill in their information, the file will most likely develop a life of its own. With every e-mail it will multiply, because every recipient will download the attachment and start making adjustments. Numerous parallel versions come into being. This means:file-based working in a group

    • It can become unclear who has the most-up-to-date version of the file on their computer. People might accidently work in an old version.
    • The M&E officer needs to invest quite some time to integrate the different files into one.
  • The amount of data problem: When your organization grows and the project periods become longer (which as such is a great success!), so will your dataset and the requirements for monitoring. You will add and add new lines, spreadsheets, links and formulas. If you have cross-linked the data in many ways, created analysis and overview pages, it becomes very hard to add or change something without spending exceptional time and effort or accidently destroying some of the links.

At this point, working with Excel becomes a time-consuming hassle. It might be time to switch to a database (mitigating the amount of data problem) that is hosted online (solving the file problem). The advantages of a web-based M&E tool include:

  • Everyone involved in the monitoring process collaboratively works in the same system and decentralized data entry is no proweb-based working in a group

    blem – without sending around e-mails.
  • Everybody always works in the latest version of the system.
  • There are no limits to data set size.
  • Overview or analysis features function regardless of the amount of entered data.
  • Web-based tools typically have features that help you manage data, i.e. notify you of deadlines, make transparent who entered what data when, and allow you to reset older versions in case of mistakes.

Learn more about the strengths of web-based database solutions on our website!



Cornelius Abbah's picture

i wish to know more about M&E and Excel.


Lisa's picture

Dear Cornelius Abbah,

please get into touch with my colleague Melanie Uhlen:


Neha Jain's picture

I wish to know more about the M&E softwares. Prenently I am working on Excel for analysis.

Robert Heine's picture

Dear Neha,

You can request a free M&Excel Guide here:

There we share tips and tricks about working with excel on M&E.



EDGAR MENA's picture

It is true, web-based database is useful and much more practical. Nontheless somebody has to set up clear rules to work on it, introduce changes, update, etc.

Robert Heine's picture

Dear Edgar,

That is correct. If nobody controls changes, then it is difficult to follow up. Fortunately, WebMo can incorporate news such as "latest changes", "newest pages created", "latest updates and news", and also a list with the changes made by which user and at what time.



Wagner Napoleon's picture

Dear Robert,

I think web-based M&E tools should meet the needs of several Haitian NGO''s. In my work, I was experienced the Excel File Problem and my solution was to use a local network and put a consolidate Excel File in the Shared Documents, each other access the file and fill a part of them. Note that I am very interesting about developping a web-based M&E tools for Haiti. I have a presentation daft (in Power-Point) where I was putting my ideas about  this project. If you are interesting to a partnership, let me know.

Robert Heine's picture

Dear Wagner,

Sounds interesting. Please send me an e-mail with more details and we can discuss it bilateraly.



Chimmy's picture

When I came across your innovative Excel monitoring tool, I was really impressed. I have used Excel in designing tools and I've found that it is much better to share a copy than send via email to other team members. With this, everyone works with an updated copy and can see the progress everyone is making.

Robert Heine's picture

Dear Chimmy,

That is correct. If you always send files over e-mail, the latest version will most likely get lost. It is much better to work on a cloud-based solution, where everyone has access from everywhere, and where they will always be working on the latest version (such as our system "WebMo").

Best regards,


Oprong Paul's picture

Excel is a good database for small-volume data sets and is quick to produce real time answers especially when using pivot tables. However when you have a big number of beneficiaries list and are cumulative in nature then you might want to consider other databases tools like SQL because file based Excel will start to freeze and you will be prone to data loss once data is not saved.

Robert Heine's picture

Dear Oprong,

That is correct. At some point, a software with data extraction capabilities is needed.

Best regards,


Nqabutho's picture

We usual resort to excel due to the fact that its cheap and relatively easy to understand and all the free support associated with it. As you point out, understanding the limitation of excel is key in ensuring that you manage your file.