What does a spreadsheet do? A simple enough question, really. After all, we're all familiar with the idea of a spreadsheet - they've been around for thirty years, more or less, ever since the appearance of VisiCalc in the late 70s. And their purpose is fairly straightforward; they look after (mostly numeric) information, finances, sales figures and such like. Enter in your company's important numbers, maybe set up an equation or two - the spreadsheet did calculations quicker and more accurately than using traditional accounts books, and took up less space on the shelf.

Which is all very useful, no question about that. It's vital to keep your important figures where they can be easily accessed, and to ensure that any calculations made on them are correct. But what if you want more than merely to know your data is there? With Microsoft Excel, you can see so much more than the mere figures alone will tell you.

If you analyse your data, you can much better understand your organisation; rather than just seeing where your enterprise is and has been, you can start to discern where it may be heading in the future. Excel has tools that can be of great benefit in this respect - for with conditional formatting, the details become clear and easy to understand.

Lets say that you have a shop, and need to know which lines are selling the quickest. You could look through every one individually and compare, but for a large shop, that would take far too long. You could sort them by sales from high to low, but that might put other important details out of order. Or, with conditional formatting you can enter a 'highlight cells rule' - the software can single out any entry above or below a particular level - or a 'top and bottom rule' - where the highest and lowest entries can be highlighted, as can those which fall above or below the average.

Or, if this doesn't provide the kind of highlighting you want, if the specific conditions that you'd like to be flagged up aren't covered by these rules, you can very easily create your own with whatever measures you wish to apply. This way, you can see popular sales lines, potential failures, loyal customers... anything you need your figures to tell you. What's more, if your numbers change over time, the conditional formatting updates with them, so you don't have to keep going back over the same process.

Analysing your data with Excel doesn't stop there, though. These rules can help you identify that highest or lowest, the most different or the most average, but understanding the relationship between individual figures can still be difficult, particularly if the numbers involved are very large, or the gaps between them very slight. Conditional formatting in Excel has an answer for that, too - data bars. Each number can be represented by a bar, indicating the proportionate difference between entries; and where small differences can be lost in a sea of numbers, these data bars show how your numbers compare to one another in a clear and easily understood visual manner.

Or, if you have a great number of entries (Excel 2007 can take literally millions) and need a straightforward and instant indication of which parts are doing well or badly, temperature maps can highlight all your cells along a spectrum of colours from high to low - or highlight them with icons, such as traffic lights, shapes, or whatever image you may feel most appropriate to your situation. One of the great benefits of using conditional formatting with Excel is that it is fully customisable to suit whatever your requirements may be.

Making use of conditional formatting can transform how you see your business - and a short training course can be hugely beneficial in helping you to get the very most out of it. And by analysing how your business has been progressing, you can far better understand where it will be heading in future.