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The Whiteboard: Training can unleash power of neglected office tools

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Richard Randall, founder and president of New Level Advisors.
Richard Randall, founder and president of New Level Advisors. - (Photo / )

What is the most under-utilized technology in your business? What technology is giving you the least bang for your buck?

Chances are it is the Microsoft Office software suite that resides on nearly every business computer in America.

Everywhere I go, businesses have the MS Office suite. Word, Excel and Outlook are ubiquitous. But most businesses barely scratch the surface of the software’s capabilities, because they don’t invest in enough training.

I think the problem is that you can get a certain amount of benefit from the software by just playing around with it, because the interface is pretty intuitive. However, that doesn’t get you close to the most powerful tools within the software, the ones where you can really save a lot of time and money and eliminate a lot of bad communication and confusion.

For example, everybody seems to have trouble managing multiple priorities, assignments to subordinates or assignments from the boss. But almost no one uses the Task functionality in Outlook. You can assign tasks and due dates to individuals or groups. You can set up systematic follow-up. Those assigned a task can report progress toward completion.

It’s a great system but no one uses it because no one understands it. Why would they? When you give someone Outlook, they figure out how to send email and set up their personal calendar and that’s about it.

Speaking of the calendar, even though the functionality is there to set up a company calendar, reserve resources such as conference rooms and monitor everyone’s vacation schedules, I rarely find anyone doing those things. I do find lots of people complaining about not knowing when people have vacation planned, and having regular resource conflicts and confusion about meeting schedules. It wouldn’t take much training to resolve those things.

Outlook is just the tip of the iceberg of wasted potential. I recently set up an email blast using Word to create the message text, with the email addresses and names for the salutation pulling from a file in Excel. With a few mouse clicks, 40 individualized emails were sent. I’ve helped people in the past with physical mailings, using mail merge to address hundreds of letters and envelopes.

People act like a mail merge is mysterious magic. Actually it’s a pretty simple thing if only people were trained. Unbelievably, it isn’t uncommon for companies to prepare mass mailings by addressing each letter and envelope individually.

I’ve watched people repetitively cut and paste data from one Excel worksheet to another because they don’t know how to use lookup functions to link the data permanently. Or they don’t know how to use a Power Query or a Macro to automate repetitive tasks.

People create forms and documents in Excel because they haven’t learned the form and table functionality in Word, which is far more powerful and user-friendly for that kind of thing.

MS Access is the optional Office database software that few companies purchase. Usually they are trying to use Excel files as shared databases because Access is the least understood program of all. Access is made for sharing and has terrific query and report-writing functions that no one understands. So you try to share the Excel file and that is how you learn that only one person can work in an Excel file at a time, and sometimes that one person goes home and leaves the file open and locked.

If you want to fire up the efficiency of your office operations, you probably already have the tools to make a major impact. All you need is the training.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at info@newleveladvisors.com.

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