Excel and Access. They can both seem rather similar. The appearance of the two is certainly rather alike, with rows and columns of boxes in which you can put whatever information you need. Indeed, there are many who will use one or the other exclusively, regardless of what kind of information they're looking to record - whether it be accounts or data.

And there's a logic to this. Both applications allow you to store your data in an easily accessible manner, which can be searched and sorted with ease. Both recognise what kind of data you're inputting - dates, money, text, and so on - and will format your entry accordingly. Both can take a vast amount of information, in as many different categories as you need to give it. Both can be updated automatically, without the need to go through the spreadsheet or database and change everything manually.

There's certainly no harm done by using one or the other for any job. But there are limitations; each program is designed for a particular purpose, and has a vast array of tools available for that purpose. Think of an orchestra - every instrument has its place, and plays an important role, but if the clarinets play the oboes' notes, and the violin fills in for the cello, it won't sound nearly as impressive as it should. Using different parts of the Microsoft Office suite in a manner other than that which they were intended for might not produce any bum notes, but it will leave the user with a very limited and unrewarding experience.

What can Excel do for your business?

So, if we're going to make sure that each individual application is put to its best purpose, what kind of data do you need to use Excel for? The heart of Excel lies with accounts and financial management. For a business - or indeed, for the more budget-conscious at home - Excel can maintain spreadsheets with up to a million different entries (or just a few, depending on what you need). Of course, Access can store your important figures too; but Excel can do so much more with them.

Perhaps the most immediate benefit of Excel is in calculation. Any figures that needed to be added together or subtracted from each other, multiplied or divided, in order to produce totals, profits, ratios, or whatever you may need, can be put simply into a formula that will update itself automatically whenever one of the relevant numbers is altered. For example: a chain of stationery stores might have one formula making a total of the sales in one store; a second totalling the store sales into a grand total of sales across the company; and a third factoring that amount into the total profits for the entire company. If a small increase in the revenue from selling propelling pencils is put into the spreadsheet, Excel will automatically adjust the total store sales, and from that the company-wide sales and profits will also be updated.

Having made all the necessary calculations, Excel can also represent your data visually, to provide a greater understanding of where the organisation has been, and to where it's heading. A wide range of charts - pie, line, bar, area, scatter and surface charts, in many different two- and three-dimensional styles - can be summoned at the touch of a button. And conditional formatting can give you a clear indication, with colours or icons, which figures are doing well and which are struggling.

Numbers are Excel's world. No matter how many you've got, what they represent, or what you need to do with them, Excel can help you take control. And if you've addresses, contact details, purchase histories, medical or behavioural details, or any other information that can't be represented as a number, Excel can store them for you. It can let you search through them. But to do more - that's the job of Microsoft Access.

What can Access offer that's different?

Keep those details out of a spreadsheet, and put them into an Access database, and you'll find there's a lot more you can do with them (and you can even copy and paste whole spreadsheets into Access - no need to waste valuable time typing everything in twice). That's not to say that numbers have no place in Access - rather, it's a different philosophy, a different approach to what you want to do with them. Excel calculates, it shows differences, trends, changes, proportions. Excel can illustrate whether a number is growing or shrinking, what this means for your company, how it relates to your other important numbers, and what has happened to those numbers in the past. Access helps you to track and report information, to filter and group it to ensure you can get the data you need when you need it, and creates forms to ensure that details in your database are thorough and kept firmly up-to-date.

The main role of Access is, as the name suggests, to help facilitate access to your important data, and to a greater understanding of the data for better-informed decision making. You can obtain as much information as you need, and let the software produce reports and identify key elements to the data. For instance, an online dvd store can keep a record of all the items it sells, and who it sells them to - allowing for focused and effective advertising campaigns, targeting deals on, say, romantic films for Valentine's day or horror films for Halloween on those who've been inclined to buy such movies in the past. In this case, Access can simply identify those customers who bought the relevant movies, or highlight more complicated associations - perhaps individuals who tend to purchase both horror and action movies, or who like romance films and are around a certain age.

With Access, you can understand and take advantage of important data, whilst Excel ensures you have the greatest accuracy in your finances and have the clearest view of where your business is and where it might be going to.

Working together

Access and Excel, indeed the whole Office suite, work best in tandem, and can bring great benefits to your organisation. With each application being put to its correct purpose, you can take control of many aspects of your business. The Microsoft Fluent interface makes it easier than ever to move between applications, whilst the SharePoint server technology helps to provide even greater and more secure communication between different individuals or groups using Office applications.

A short training course can also be very helpful in enabling you to get the most out of the software, and to use them in the most beneficial way. Once everything is working together, you can take disjointed and separate elements of work and blend them together into a symphony, far more than the sum of its parts.