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## Microsoft Excel: The What and Why of Pivot Tables

When teaching software courses, I often say ‘how’ is easy. What can be difficult to understand is the ‘why’, especially if you are completely self-taught. This may explain why many of us stick with what we know rather than try to learn new skills, especially if we are already well versed in the programs we are using. ‘We don’t know what we don’t know’ is an expression I often say to course representatives. If you don’t know something exists, how are you going to add it to your toolbox? In this article I am going to introduce you to the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of pivot tables.

What does it mean to pivot? Most definitions include words like swivel and spin that work well when thinking about data pivoting. A pivot table allows you to rotate or rearrange your data to better understand it.

Let’s start by thinking about some of the challenges you might face when trying to make sense of large chunks of raw data. Imagine that you are given all the sales figures for every person in the company. This data includes what they sold, how much they sold, when they sold and where the buyer is. Data fields are also likely to contain duplicate values. For example, Mary Brown may be listed more often because she has made more sales

If I asked you to list some of the challenges you face when creating reports from this data, you might include:

• Data needs to be organized and tabulated, including copying and pasting and writing formulas

• When you come to the next report you have to start the process all over again

• Need to create similar reports with updated data every week

• As you are manipulating the data manually, it is easy to miss something or make other mistakes

• You need to update all your reports if the data has changed

• Reports do not clearly show which figures made up the total values, so you should also provide breakdown reports.

All the above challenges are labor intensive and therefore time consuming. A simple and quick way to reduce your pain is to create a pivot table. Traditionally there is a lot of mystery surrounding pivot tables and many people think they are complicated to create. Nothing could be further from the truth. Why should you use them?

Pivot Tables:

• Easy to create

• Are very flexible

• Can be set up for different types of reports and then refreshed when new data is added

• Easy to change

• Summarize the data so you don’t have to find all of Mary Brown’s sales figures and tabulate them yourself.

• Provide you with a concisely illustrated breakdown

Pivot tables flourished as Excel programs and may be the reason Lotus 1 2 3 virtually disappeared. Microsoft offered pivot tables that were so useful that many Lotus users chose to learn an entirely new program to use them. If you’re working with raw data and not using pivot tables, it’s time to learn a new skill.

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