All businesses from large multiple national corporations (MNCs) to small-medium enterprises (SMEs) need to manage it’s business-related data carefully. MNCs can afford to use expensive enterprise-grade database systems such as Oracle or SAP which are designed to support 100 to 10,000 people at the same time. But if you are a small or medium-sized business owner, what kind of database systems can help your business when you are limited by monetary costs, IT skill, time and manpower?
Time and again I have found that the humble Microsoft Access database can serve the needs of resource-strapped SMEs perfectly. Let me explain the reasons why.
- Low deployment costs
- Full relational database capability and is easy to maintain
- Able to serve small teams at the same time
- Automated workflows can be built with VBA programming
- Offers better data security than Excel
- Your business data becomes more valuable over time
Access database has low deployment costs
Small Businesses cannot afford to purchase a commercial enterprise database worth thousands of dollars not to mention managing annual subscriptions, renewals and maintenance contracts. The costs get higher with additional users you might want to add and it’s a recurring cost. Just like paying rent, you never get to truly own the database! So what is the costs of using Microsoft’s Access database? It’s practically zero! If you are not interested in creating new databases you do not even need to buy a single Microsoft Access license. Microsoft offers free (yes, its free) Runtime versions of Microsoft Access so you can use Access databases without purchasing a license of Access or Microsoft Office. If you need to add more users – guess what – you simply download the Access Runtime onto the new user’s laptop and he is ready to use the database. What you do need to pay is the services of an Access database developer who will develop the Access database for you. It can be a one time project cost. When the Access developer finishes creating your database, no additional costs are required. From that point onwards the Access database is truly owned by you.
Access database has full relational database capability and is easy to maintain
Just like enterprise database systems, Access database is a fully relational database system. Relational database systems can store more complex data compared to say an Excel spreadsheet. Try storing customer information, their sales histories, customer service interactions in an Excel spreadsheet. Since you can’t link different Excel rows together, all your data must be laid out in a single worksheet and that can become messy and unorganised. Access database, on the other hand, can create “links” between different tables of information and everything is internally organised neatly within a single file. For non-techies, this simply means an Access database can neatly store very complex data all in a single file. And for a small business with limited IT skill, it means maintaining an Access database is easily doable.
Access database can serve small teams at the same time
Access database allows up to 256 users to concurrently access data and make updates to records. In reality, I found that you can get good performance from an Access database with about 30 users. So Access is nicely positioned for small businesses and even large teams in a big MNC that do not have the budget for big database systems. And this is where Access database shines. You can create a centrally located, low-cost collaborative environment for your teams to boost work efficiency.
For example, a small call center can collaborate customer service interactions within an Access database. Each agent can share customer records that are stored centrally in an Access database placed in a shared drive. Any agent can update a customer record and this information is shared instantly to all team members. Agents can be located in different locations and still collaborate effectively. A SMEs can even have multiple Access database serving different teams like Sales, Human Resource, Finance to share data to support their work digitally. In this way, Access databases can create efficiencies for small businesses, improve tracking and build accurate reporting for fact-based decision making.
Your business data becomes more valuable over time
Accurate and timely management reports are critical to small businesses for business owners to make business decisions. As your team continues to add data into an Access database through the course of their work, the database is continually enriched by operational data over a long period. This database becomes a very valuable information resource for you to generate insightful reports to make accurate, fact-based business decisions. Compare this with keeping data in scattered Excel spreadsheets and emails it is comparatively more difficult to create a coherent and consistent reporting structure.
Automated workflow can be built with VBA programming
Microsoft Access database can support a programming language called Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). This feature allows an Access database developer to build tailor-made features into an Access database so that it behaves like a commercial application. Back to the call center example. You can improve the call center Access database further by creating a feature that reads incoming emails and routes special customer email requests to call agents. In another example, a call agent could click on a button to automatically route customer information to a higher manager on duty. A lot of time-saving ideas can be can be built into an Access database to boost workflow productivity for small businesses. To achieve this, you do need to hire an Access database developer to build these custom features for you.
Access database offers better data security than Excel
Data security is still important to small businesses. You do not want unauthorised personnel to access or even steal records. An Access database can be split into a back-end Access database and a front-end Access application. The back-end Access database is where the data can be encrypted securely and kept separate from all users. Users using a front-end Access application is only able to access data that they are allowed to see. Using this arrangement, data security is a lot better compared to an Excel file shared by a team.
Technically an Access database is a viable alternative to large and expensive database systems for small businesses or departments. It has full relational database capabilities to handle complex data structures. Automated features can be built into Access to improve productivity for all kinds of workflows in a small business. Small teams can share the latest updates within an Access database concurrently. And while there are many databases with all these capabilities and more, they cannot match the lower costs and ease of deployment of an Access database for a resource-strapped small medium-sized enterprise.