MS Excel: Pivot Tables Made Simple

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Pivot Tables are a powerful tool and unfortunately are also very much underutilized.  Like anything else you'll find within the various menus of all Microsoft products, the creation of pivot tables are completed with just a few clicks of the mouse, but this is one of those things where the concept has to be understood clearly rather than spying the results of your best guess attempts.

Let me get right to it, and it may help to pop open Excel for this. 

Pivot tables can summarize list data in a very nice and easy to comprehend way.  But don't forget that I said list data, because pivot tables are not used for the typical spreadsheet data that we are all accustomed to in Excel. 

Not for typical Spreadsheet Data such as this
Not for typical Spreadsheet Data such as this

Since Excel can also be used to create databases, known in Excel as "lists", there are some built-in database functions that are available, one of them being Pivot Tables. 

List Data with many thousands of rows (many records)
List Data with many thousands of rows (many records)

To understand how pivot tables can summarize data, we must first understand the problem.  Picture a long list of data, with perhaps thousands of rows, and ask yourself some questions such as, "Which sales person is selling the most inventory", or "Which item is the most popular?"  While viewing the thousands of rows of records in the list, this would be inconceivable. 

So in other words, if Shannon and Malik and Kelly are each listed again and again, several hundred times in the above list, how can you picture this sort of detail?  Got it?  Wait until you see this...

Practice File:  PivotTables.xls

  • First, open up a list of data such as the practice file above and click anywhere within the data, and then select Data/Pivot Table... from the menus.
  • A wizard will open (a window of sorts) and for our purposes you will select Next... through the whole thing and Finish
  • You'll end up with the beginnings of your pivot table.

The Pivot Table
The Pivot Table

You're almost there.  The next step is to use your mouse to click & drag your fields into one of the three basic areas in the pivot table; the Column Fields, Row Fields, or the Data Items.  (Let's forget about the Page Fields for this lesson.) 

It's important to remember that the Row and Column Field areas are for fields from your list that can be grouped.  What does that mean?  Well, can the Sales Person field be grouped?  Yes.  There are only a few sales people in the entire list, but they repeat many times, over and over.  So you can imaging seeing a group of all Shannon's records, Malik's records, etc.  What about the Date field?  No.  Each date field is unique for every record.  The Data Items area is best for fields that contain numbers.  Try this:

  • From the Pivot Table Field List box, drag Sales Person into the Row Fields area.
  • Drag Region into the Column Fields area.
  • Drag Total into the Data Items area.

The Completed Pivot Table: Who’s the best sales person?
The Completed Pivot Table: Who's the best sales person?

With this, your pivot table is complete.  Rearrange the fields as you like and you'll better be able to answer those tough questions from before.

One last thing.  Pivot tables are not dynamic, meaning they do not recalculate or update when the data from the original list is modified.  Think of pivot tables as a snapshot of time that can be recorded for later viewing.  If you want an up-to-date pivot table you can always create another one (answering no to a question that will pop up asking whether to base it on your first pivot table) or look for the Refresh Data button while looking at the existing pivot table.

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Rob Richards is a Microsoft Certified Trainer and an acclaimed technical educator and writer in Washington D.C. Rob has instructed professionals in office automation software products since 1991 and has led Change Management/Training initiatives at many government institutions such as the Supreme Court of the United States and at the Executive Office of the President (The White House) where he works currently. For more information please visit www.robrichards.net

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