Access databases, a business friend or foe?


This month, Pete, our head of Transforming, looks at Access. Is it all things to everyone, or is it less flexible than we think?

Some of you may recognise this slogan from way back – 1978, believe it or not.

For all the Millennials out there, “Access” back then was a credit card launched in 1972 by a consortium of banks, essentially to compete with Barclaycard.  It then morphed over years and was the forerunner of what we know today as Mastercard.  The concept of having “flexibility” over spending was a pretty new idea then, but very tempting for many of us, myself included, to spread costs ahead of payday but often run up high-interest payments.

So what’s this got to do with my world of ERP systems – well, another probably more familiar Access was launched, this time by Microsoft in 1992, as a desktop database which ran on Windows and effectively eliminated many other MS-DOS based competitors of that era (who remembers Paradox?).

Believe it or not, 30 years on, and Access is still out there and relied upon by many small and even medium businesses to support their key processes.

Remarkable really, considering it has so many limitations when compared with more modern tools, but I believe there are some good reasons for this.


Access Databases


We often meet clients with a whole host of forms and reports developed in Access which were often created to allow easy data exchange with other back end databases.  Typically these are older solutions, developed in house by ex-employees or specialist contractors and whilst they do a job, they are also not exactly the most robust solution.  But end users still enjoy their flexibility and low cost.  Especially where forms can be all colours of the rainbow, new fields are quick to add and there can be as many programmable buttons as you can shake a stick at.

Then there’s the flexibility of reporting.  Access has several wizards and templates out of the box, which typically means users can self-serve quick reports on demand without the need for a high level of IT skills.  Adhoc database queries are also a breeze, again without the need for a masters degree in SQL, unions and outer joins.


Excel workbooks


Then of course, its real beauty is it is the best of another flexible friend – Excel.  Because Access is so flexible, it just loves importing data from Excel, exporting it back out to Excel, re-importing it again, reporting on it and on it goes.  It shares even more added flexibility with macros and for the real techies, there’s the whole world of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) which takes things to another level.

When we first meet with clients to understand how they currently work and where there are gaps and disconnects, there’s always a bunch of Excel workbooks which have grown over time and become critical to the business.  Likewise, it’s not unusual to discover some reliance on good old Access.

Much as we then persuade clients that they will need to remove this dependency when they implement a new ERP solution, that’s easier said than done.  Excel itself is fine as a quick and dirty means of extracting and doing what-ifs on core ERP data, but just one way ideally.  The real danger begins when clients try to maintain a central ERP database as well as duplicate or related data within Access.  That’s when the chaos really starts.

But surely, I hear you say, it’s still a database; it’s easy to use and is easily tailored to business needs.

True, but on the flip side:

  • Difficult to connect remote users
  • Doesn’t scale with the business (2GB is your limit for any table)
  • Performance degrades once more than maybe 5-10 concurrent users are connected
  • It becomes even slower as the single file used to contain all objects grows
  • Often reliant on specialist in house skills
  • Only useable with Windows
  • Not very secure.

All of that means one thing – risk to the business and a real constraint on business transformation.  We never underestimate or dismiss the reasons for clients still using legacy solutions, databases or applications and are very careful to explain the need for change.  From my own experience, the Access databases I’ve developed became very precious to me given the hours and days I spent getting those buttons and colours to look right, so woe betide anyone who tried to just remove them.


Another way?


So, whilst flexibility and agility have become even more critical given the current uncertainty in almost all markets, that doesn’t mean the risk of legacy solutions can ever be acceptable.  Modern ERP solutions, and the databases they use, offer true flexibility, scalability and reliability, all of which I believe are essential foundations for successful business transformation.

Call or get in touch if it’s time to make a new, even more flexible friend to help your business grow and move forward.