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How Well Do Employees Know Basic Tools?

by Pamela Hogle

November 3, 2016

Spotlight

by Pamela Hogle

November 3, 2016

“Manually formatting and reformatting the text in a single document is not a big deal; but an employee who creates dozens of similar documents a month could save a significant amount of time, not to mention achieving a more consistent and therefore more professional look, if he knew how to use templates and styles.”

No one takes a typing class in high school anymore. Maybe they should; or, more likely, they should take courses that teach the fundamentals of using tools that many people use every day. Tools that, in many cases, they use very inefficiently.

Excel, for instance: Filtered, a London-based online training company, recently published research showing that, even among accounting professionals, skilled use of Excel is the exception rather than the norm. Financial professionals answered almost half of the test questions incorrectly; other professionals who use Excel daily averaged only 28 percent correct answers.

Word processing tools like Microsoft Word and presentation tools, such as MS PowerPoint, are other commonly (mis)used tools. “We are in this stuff all the time and assume people know how to use things. They often don’t,” said Guild Master and learning architect Jean Marrapodi.

In a recent interview, Marrapodi described knowledge gaps among adult learners in these essential tools. “You can assume that they know certain elements of navigating a website, or saving a document, cut and copy. But that’s not necessarily true,” she said. “In the Millennial world in particular, we have expectations that they know how to use the software—Word and Excel and PowerPoint and all that—because they’re techno-literate in theory. In reality, they are mostly self-taught on those things. You have some high schools and colleges that prepare students, but there is a great assumption, and there’s a gap that’s there.

“When I was teaching at the college level, I would be grading papers, and the students were using their computer like a typewriter: They would go space, space, space, space, space to put a paragraph in, they didn’t know about page breaks, and they didn’t know a lot of things—but they didn’t know that they didn’t know. That’s how they thought it worked.”

When those students graduate and begin working, their corporate employers might assume that they know how to use MS Office and other common workplace software; the students-turned-employees might also believe that they do. More experienced employees who’ve been using these tools for years also believe that their knowledge is sound. But how many of them use spaces instead of tabs, or blank lines instead of paragraph spacing? How many copy and paste repeating elements on PowerPoint slides because they don’t know how to use slide masters? Even worse, Marrapodi reports “too many” presentations on plain white screens from students who “never found the template functionality.”

How many other kludgy workarounds are in common use, simply because employees don’t know the tools well enough to perform tasks efficiently? Common errors Marrapodi reports include:

  • Using the space bar to manually center text, rather than using a tab or center alignment
  • Using Excel to create a table effect (where a Word table would be more appropriate)
  • Creating a “spreadsheet” in Excel, but performing calculations on an adding machine or calculator and typing in the results, rather than using formulas and letting Excel, a powerful tool, do its job

Manually formatting and reformatting the text in a single document is not a big deal; but an employee who creates dozens of similar documents a month could save a significant amount of time, not to mention achieving a more consistent and therefore more professional look, if he knew how to use templates and styles.

It can be humbling to test one’s skills. Melanie Kim, a staffing consultant at AppleOne, deals with many applicants for office jobs. She tells new applicants that the tests are by the book; applicants’ scores reflect the process followed, not the end results. “The majority of our candidates are at an intermediate proficiency with the programs, and they have a very good grasp of the functions that are really required for their day-to-day job,” Kim said. But, she added, “The global average for our tests is in the 73 percent range, and you can think of this as the C average. There are some more senior employees that will know 80 to 90 percent of the functions, and some true experts that will get 100 percent on the tests. Many people are largely self-taught on the programs, and so they may not be aware of more advanced functions.”

The good news is, there is a simple, low-cost fix for this problem: eLearning. While testing employees or requiring training might be too heavy-handed, offering ways for—or even encouraging—employees to “brush up” on their skills or learn shortcuts could dramatically improve learners’ proficiency. Framing the courses as optional ways to become power users can keep learners from feeling pressured; in some companies, offering incentives or encouraging employees to teach one another might be successful strategies.

A short online course (there are many free ones) can teach “power shortcuts” or focus on skills needed for specific tasks: using columns and tables, for example. Encourage learners to exploit the power of visual learning by honing their PowerPoint or Prezi skills. The small amount of time that employees spend on training could pay off exponentially in time saved on daily tasks—and in reduced frustration.


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The problem is most people don't know what they don't know. Somewhere, someone should itemize the basic skill sets that a proficient user of Microsoft Office should possess. A quick internet search discovered this site, but I have not had the time to validate his lists: http://danarmishaw.com/ms-office-skills-checklists/
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