Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Productivity Software and Being Productive

Programs in Microsoft Office generally fall in to a category of software called productivity software. The idea behind this is that users should be able to use the tools to save a company time, and hence money. Programs like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are tools many companies view as useful.

However, I hear that many companies are not impressed with the technology skills of students graduating college, and that seems counter intuitive at first. I think the issue is only partially technology-related. For example, I am in the process of teaching PowerPoint to my 101 class. I try to make the comparison between the things businesses like students to know and the things students want to know how to do. The things students like to do in PowerPoint include animations, slide transitions, and sounds. However, in a business environment, those things are generally not used. As a matter of fact, in many medium to large sized companies, employees will be using a standard company template and just adding the data they would like to the slide.

What a company would look for is certainly part technology, but also part English. A company would expect a new hire to be able to take a paper and summarize it in to a presentation. This involves very little technical know-how. If a new hire takes that paper and types in complete sentences on the slides, or spends a lot of time playing with animations, the company will not be impressed. I try to get across a few key pieces of information, for example, don't write in complete sentences on each slide, summarize data and try to use the 7x7 rule (no more than  words per line, and 7 lines per slide), and use the notes pane, especially if you plan on sending a presentation out via email (this will allow a blind user's screen reader to give a blind user a similar experience to a non-blind user).  As you can see, those are less technology issues and more using the technology to achieve a task.

Similarly, I see a disconnect between the technical aspects of Excel and the application. Every semester, I put the percentages for each component of a grade on the syllabus. Let's say tests are 40%, lab projects are 40%, and the final is 20%. With that information and knowledge of what grades the student has received, this spreadsheet should be pretty easy. However, I find most students seem to have no sense for how they are doing in a class unless I tell them.

In a business environment, this is the type of problem a new hire may be presented with. Given a certain situation you should create the formulas to get an answer. If a new hire can't figure out how to do that, is that a logic problem or technology problem? I'd argue logic problem, providing they know how to enter formulas.

Companies expect new hires to really understand the technology. It isn't just remembering every point and click, because even I forget specific tasks sometimes and have to Google it. It is also understanding the capabilities of each tool and being able to apply it to the tasks you face.

My last job before I started teaching full-time was at a highly technical company. People did amazing things with programming, but they were still doing really silly things like using a paper log book to keep track of problems. If one wanted to log something, one had to go to a specific person's cubicle and write it down on paper. I made the suggestion that we create an Excel spreadsheet and just put it on the network (in a configuration management system - don't worry about the details). Of course, I didn't try to force it on people, because that never works. I made a suggestion to my manager, and he asked me to create a prototype. He loved it and made it policy. Soon people were asking me how we could generate reports to show only open ones that were more than a month old...replace a text column with a pull-down menu...validate data...etc. This little spreadsheet took on a life of its own, but made a lot of information available to management, things they would otherwise have had to have someone tabulate by hand. It also helped reduce mistakes. This was me applying technology to an existing situation, and this was something that helped me stand out. In a very technical company, I got promotions and gained the faith of management because I could not only use Excel, but also because I had the vision to see where it could make things more efficient. I did a lot of things that helped streamline processes, and was on the fast track as a result

I think many students have a built-in understanding of computers that people thirty years older than them do, but they don't always know how to apply the tools to real-world problems. If you can do so, you will do well in the real world.

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