Learn the tools of the trade
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Wellington - “Curiosity is dead when it comes to Office.''
Dr Nitin Paranjape says that to make you curious about the applications you use for hours every day if you have any sort of office job.
While we may get training for specialised tasks, for most activity - responding to emails, preparing documents or presentations, comparing budgeted projections against actual figures in spreadsheets - chances are we're expected to know what to do.
Even worse, we assume we do know what to do.
But the number of people at a presentation by Paranjape at an Auckland Chamber of Commerce session this week shows a lot of people are willing to admit they could learn more.
Paranjape was training as an obstetrician and gynaecologist in Mumbai when colleagues noticed the patient record systems he had created at home on Atari and Sinclair Spectrum hobby computers meant he was working half the time they were and was providing better patient care.
“My bosses said, ‘Make it for us also,' so I started writing programs and selling them.''
When he graduated, Paranjape left the wards and put his energy into the medical software company he started in his hostel room.
“I'm not going to forget how to deliver babies and I was a good surgeon, but I thought this was interesting.''
Sensing a limit to how quickly the medical profession would be willing to accept automation, he expanded into business software and became an early Microsoft partner because of the possibilities he could see in the technology platform.
He now has two businesses: Maestros Mediline, which does medical software, and MaxOffice Services, which focuses on productivity.
“I realised software was being under-utilised. Any product, any vendor, there is initial excitement, we buy it, we develop it, but in the end you see how little is put to use.
“I would accept that if people said, ‘Out of 100 features, I need only 10.' The problem is they knew only 10, they didn't know about the other 90. It's accepted ignorance.''
It means widespread inefficiency in the workplace is accepted as normal.
Even worse, bad data can easily become built into processes.
Paranjape demonstrates a common problem that happens when many employees use the same spreadsheet. Spreadsheets contain data and formulas and can become very complex.
If all users don't know what formulas are being used, they could end up accepting data that is outdated or wrong and using it to make decisions.
Bankers call it “spreadsheet risk'' and it keeps auditors awake at night.
“It's not Excel's fault, it's an operational problem.''
Paranjape says Microsoft has added a small green triangle to the upper left corner of cells where the software spots a possible error.
Click on that and it offers some correction options.
An error-checking function allows users to go through files and spot potential errors.
But that is the long way round.
Paranjape recommends people learn the table function in Excel, so users can create files that automatically update all dependent formulas when more data is added.
“This not only saves time but increases accuracy of decision-making and interpretation,'' Paranjape says.
Standing in front of a room full of people demonstrating the things that can be done on a computer is not the best way to teach.
Learning software features is usually a matter of trial and error.
But Paranjape says people need to get serious about learning, about looking at menus and asking questions about the plethora of buttons thrown up on the screen.
It's important not just for end-users, but also for developers.
While in New Zealand, Paranjape taught at Microsoft's Tech.Ed showcase on what every developer should know about Office.
“No one thinks about the business value of what the user is going to get,'' he says. ``We may feel important doing something technically, but no one goes and does an audit after a year to find out what is being used.
“The problem is developers are used to working in language like Java or .NET. They start with the user interface, the menus and so on.
“That doesn't work with Office. You open the box and there are 7000 features in it. If you don't understand them, you will recreate them or misuse them and create other problems down the track.''
And, of course, Office has been programmable from the start so users have developed their own hacks and workarounds.
Paranjape is a fan of customising toolbars to automate common tasks.
Once you work out how to do something, you can create a shortcut that you click on or access by fast key combinations.
Then there's One Note, which is a little-used part of the Office suite.
By linking recording with note-taking, it can be a valuable tool for students, journalists or anyone preparing a report at short notice.
Paranjape says efficient use of Office applications has fallen into a sort of no-man's land. IT departments consider their job is to put an application on the desktop rather than train users, and human resources departments don't see how they can tackle the problem.
He says people need to become their own auditors.
“If something looks inefficient, do not do it. Find a better way.
“When something goes wrong, look for options.''
When you see the mouse cursor change shape, right click to see what it says. If there is a scroll bar, scroll it. If there is a drop-down menu, drop it down.
Paranjape tells his audiences he can save them at least 15 minutes a day for the rest of their lives.
On his website, he promises he can save organisations one hour per person per day - time which can be spent on more analytical and strategic work.
The best part is, he says, you've already paid for the tools to improve your productivity. You just need to learn to use them.
On the web: www.maxoffice.biz - The New Zealand Herald