What is Microsoft Excel and Why would I use it?

Microsoft Excel is a commercial piece of software, written and developed by Microsoft (as part of the Microsoft Office suite) and is arguably one of the most important pieces of software used by businesses (and individuals) on a daily basis. Excel allows the creation of spreadsheets to store, organise and manipulate information.

Just like an accounting book ledger that uses a grid style interface, Excel stores information in rows and columns. Storing information in grids and columns facilitates the organisation and manipulation of data. The latest versions of Excel allow users to create spreadsheets that have more than 1 million rows and more than 16 thousand columns, providing the ability to store a massive amount of information.

Why would I use it?

To ask the question why (or how) would I use this software is almost like asking the question “How long is a piece of string?”. With the ability to store a huge amount of information, in many differing formats (numbers, text, dates, times, currency etc), there are literally thousands of different ways you could make use of this software.

As a basic tool and combined with little or no training, it could be used for creating personal budgets, to-do lists, weekly shopping lists, or being a little more creative and it could be used to create weekly, monthly or yearly calendars right through to high-end business uses such as constructing sophisticated business analysis, financial modeling, or strategic planning tools. These are just a few examples. How this software can be used is essentially only limited by your imagination.

Microsoft Excel use examples

Before we lift the hood any further on what Excel can do, let’s first explain a couple of terms:

When you enter data into Excel and then save the spreadsheet, the electronic file that gets created is called a Workbook. This workbook file can be thought of as being like a cardboard manilla folder. Inside this manilla folder you can store one or more individual sheets of paper. Each of these individual sheets inside your workbook are called worksheets.

image - Manilla Folder full

Worksheets are the grid style interface that are used to enter, store, organise and manipulate your data. You can have many worksheets stored inside a workbook, each with their own unique name. A workbook must always contain at least one worksheet. By default, when you first create a workbook, Excel will automatically create 3 worksheets for you to work with.

Image of the main window of Excel

Worksheets are made up of rows (horizontal – labelled 1, 2, 3, 4 etc) and columns (vertical – labelled A, B, C, D etc). The intersection of any given row and column is called a cell. Cells are the individual components on a worksheet where information is input and stored.

Cells can store a wide variety of information, ranging from text, numbers, dates, times and even formulas. Each cell or groups of cells can be formatted with distinct borders, colours, and fonts as you see fit.

Image of Example of cell formats in Microsoft Excel

One of the most powerful aspects of Excel is its ability to allow you to input formulas into cells to calculate just about anything. Formulas can be as simple and straight forward as a basic mathematical expression like=(1+2+3)

or can get as complex as the following example=IF($L10=””,””,IF(COUNTIF(‘ptCalcs-Payables’!$K$5:$K$1000,$L10)>0,VLOOKUP($L10,’ptCalcs-Payables’!$K$5:$R$1000,8,FALSE)+IF(SUM(D10:F10)=0,7,SUM(D10:F10)),”-“))

Formulas can include all the differing input types you can enter into a cell (numbers, text, dates etc) as well as functions from Excels inbuilt library or they can even include the results of other formulas.

Excel’s inbuilt formula library includes many common functions for undertaking calculations.

Click here to view all the functions in Microsoft Excel 2019

Operations like addition, subtraction, division, multiplication (+, -, /, *) are straightforward to use in Excel and follow the same mathematical principles as if you were doing the calculation on paper (i.e. B.O.M.D.A.S – brackets, order, multiplication, division, addition and subtraction).

By expanding your knowledge of the functions available to you in Excel, you can significantly increase your efficiency and productivity. Once you learn functions like SUM, COUNT, AVERAGE, IF, AND, OR, TODAY, MINIMUM, MAXIMUM to name a few, you’ll find yourself using them more and more every day.

Image of Insert Function feature of Microsoft Excel
Image of Insert Function dialog box

Along with all the formulas and functions Excel provides, it also allows users to visually display data and trends through the use of charts.

Image of Example of charts in Microsoft Excel

Charts allow your audience to visualise information rather than getting them to try and draw their own meanings and conclusions by simply looking at a table full of numbers. Charts help highlight trends and relationships that may otherwise be difficult to see.

Continue the Discussion

Do you use Excel on your job/business/at home? If so, what do you use it for? Have you undertaken any specific Excel training? Continue the discussion and add your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this article.

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