Office users missing efficiency features

Microsoft evangelist for productivity improvement says users in thousands of NZ companies are wasting their employers' time

Users of Microsoft Office in thousands of companies throughout New Zealand are wasting their own and their employers’ time by not taking advantage of efficiency features in the applications suite, says Nitin Paranjape.

He has become an evangelist for productivity improvement and earlier this month paid his third visit to New Zealand, hosted by Microsoft, presenting to companies on simple techniques for improving Office productivity.

Paranjape is the CEO of MaxOffice Services, based in Mumbai, and is one of only 30 people in the world recognised by Microsoft as a “Most Valuable Professional” (MVP) for Office.

Valuable efficiency features in Office can be as simple as an “intelligent” copy-and-paste facility in Excel, which recognises similarly named rows and columns in two or more spreadsheets, even though they are differently ordered, and presents them together so the sheets can be consolidated. Hours are wasted, he says, by employees laboriously identifying by eye the rows and columns that reference the same parameter and copy/pasting and shuffling them so the spreadsheets will total properly.

The impetus to alert employees to such straightforward techniques falls through the cracks between top-down training and day-to-day employee conversation, Paranjape says.

“When I ask in a large audience how long such a [spreadsheet consolidation] task will take, there is so much variability in their answers. Some will say 20 minutes, some 40 minutes, some an hour. They all have the right answer, because each has their own way of doing it.” For five employees, one will have the fastest technique, he says. An obvious first step will be to find out who that is and teach their method to the others, “but nobody does that.”

It may be that none of the employees know what is really the best method, though it may use entirely standard facilities provided within every up-to-date version of Office. As a rule-of thumb to see whether you are working efficiently, Paranjape suggests, you should try the process on larger and larger files and track how this increases the time. If the increase is exponential, you’re probably using a less-than-efficient technique.

Organisations give a good deal of attention to re-engineering core business processes to increase efficiency “but no-one does it with Office,” he says “because everyone knows how to use Office, right?” Similarly, most companies run a number of audit procedures over the processes that apply to structured business data, “but how many do an audit over how we work with Office? Zero.”

Yes, there are courses, help-websites and books available, but if a company’s HR staff arrange such a course, they will get very poor attendance, he says, because of the same attitude; everyone thinks they already know Office. Learning is informal and users like to “stay within their comfort zone”. No-one refers to help pages, websites or books until they get into trouble, he says. “Whatever happens in Office is assumed to be part of the game; nobody has shown that there is a better way. When work is progressing, however slowly, workers are not motivated to find more productive techniques. It doesn’t matter that the boss is watching, he says, “because the boss also uses [simple] copy/paste” and knows of nothing better.

When a spreadsheet is prepared and businesspeople in the organisation try to interpret it, they are often reduced to poring over a mass of figures, not taking advantage of simple graphical techniques to make the chart more informative. Using standard Office routines, uninformative figures in spreadsheet cells can be instantly converted to percentages across a row or column, highlighting unusual variance in a particular department or a month.

The Sparkline facility generates sketch graphs of the figures over a row or column in an empty adjacent cell, to illustrate variances. “This shows me the pattern, without worrying about the absolute numbers,” Paranjape says.

Percentages and variances can be shown as data bars, superimposed on the figure in a particular cell to render them even more easily appreciable.

He went on to demonstrate some of the less well-known features of PowerPoint, such as a quick modification to an elaborate slide to accommodate, for example, an increased range of products.

On this visit Paranjape delivered seminars on these themes to Office users in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. His mission, he says, is to create “an awareness of what people are missing, so they will educate themselves when “there is an inclination to explore; an inclination to learn.”

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