I'm going to make an assumption here. A wild guess. A stab in the dark. My assumption is that you're not especially pleased when your business wastes money. It's okay, you don't have to applaud, I know, it's a pretty impressive supposition... well, fair enough, it wasn't that impressive at all. I'll hold up my hands and admit that guessing you don't like to see money wasted is akin to saying that the sky is blue or the grass is green; of course it's true, who wouldn't think so?

Yet you might be surprised at just how common it is for companies to do just that. Not deliberately, mind you, but it happens nonetheless, it happens in the depths of an organisation's essential data - those key numbers - where it's all too easy to overlook or to not understand. There'll often be a cost increase here, an income drop there, perhaps so small that it seems a drop in the ocean if it's noticed at all; however, just as the smallest snowball slipping from the top of the mountain can easily become an avalanche if its left unchecked, so the tiny, unnoticed or ignored problem amongst the mass of figures can lead on to serious financial trouble if not addressed from the beginning.

But there are nonetheless two sides to every story. It's not always easy to find one number that causes concern in a mass of figures that are going perfectly well, not always easy to diagnose a minor complaint when so much seems to be working fine. And if someone is going to be taking time from their work schedule to monitor such matters, would that not mean that there's something else they're not doing instead? After all, time is a valuable and finite resource, just like money; the balance between the two needs is often a difficult one to find.

Unless, that is, the wonders of modern technology could offer an automatic solution. And voila! Here's conditional formatting in Excel, the answer to that question. How it answers is by monitoring every bit of information that's put into it, and highlighting changes; the user's role is simply to tell Excel what will need to be identified.

Let's say that an organisation has sales figures from many different departments to consider: with conditional formatting, Excel can flag up any number which drops by a certain percentage (perhaps with a spectrum of colours signifying the size of the decrease), so a quick glance through the data will be all that's needed to pick up on a problem. Alternatively, you could insert Sparklines into the data - these are small, simple line charts that fit into individual cells on the spreadsheet, showing you at a glance how an aspect of your data is progressing (or not).

Having critical trends immediately visible on your spreadsheet can transform your business's results, by giving you the power to act upon developments as soon as they happen, killing problems at the root or encouraging positive movement to flourish.

It's certainly worth ensuring that all relevant sections of your staff can make use of conditional formatting - to this end, conducting a training needs analysis will help identify who needs assistance, and what kind of assistance, to get the most of the software - because it's only when everyone is able to see these key developments that you can be truly confident of always having that power to act. No-one likes wasting money; with Excel, there's no reason for it to slip through your grasp in future.