Mar 25, 2013

Automation of MS Office Tasks? What is This?

I see it over and over again - a team of expensive analysts spend big chunk of their time to process data - load, transform, copying and pasting and exporting. Very little time is left for actual analysis and getting the valuable insights. It is a total waste of time, resources and money. Not to mention the dissipating enthusiasm and energy of this highly qualified staff. I have always been amazed how otherwise clever people spend hours and hours of copying and pasting data from one source to another or from an Excel sheet to a PowerPoint presentation. Add to that the very high probability of human error and you  will have a grim picture.

Why are these clever people keep doing that?
There are lots of clever people around and it is puzzling why there is so much manual processes. Shouldn't they know better? Among main reasons for that I see:
- lack of imagination - often users do no search for a substitute for their manual work as they do not have idea that the process can be automated. Knowing that something could be done leads to searching a solution. I find this is to be the common case;
- status quo - it is difficult to think about reviewing a process that has been running in the organization for while - inertia is quite strong; not to mention the politics and the ego of some managers;
- doubts for the quality of an automated solution - many users do not trust the quality of software solutions and for a good reason;
- no time for that - in teams with busy schedule and no free resources available. This goes hand in hand with underestimation of the effect of an automated solution and the inertia;

Solutions are not that scary
A tool that could help a great deal is readily available in Excel - macros. You could record and execute a macro without having an idea of programing. However, please read the help how to use it for greater results.
A great potion of the manual processes in the office environment have a good solution with the creation of some not so complex VBA. It is a powerful tool that could be a solution for great range of problems and could be used to manipulate all MS Office applications. Many examples could be provided for that but let me point out a recent one - I have developed a simple macro to handle the update of an enormous presentation with data from Excel - it reduced the time for update from 3 hours to 10 minutes.
The problems of the manual work could like waste of time and errors in many cases could be significantly reduced by review and redesign of the Excel sheets, presentation slides and Word documents.Sometimes a great benefit for the automation comes with application of a database. I do not understand why so many people have fear of databases as if it is a hungry prehistoric monster.
A key for adoption of an automation in the processes is broadening the view on what could be automated among the users and managers. It could happen in workshops, MS Office courses, lectures but the most effective probably is sharing success stories among the departments and co-workers. I believe that more informal exchange is better but in general it depends on many factors as number of employees, number of departments, etc.
Another key is application of a solid process for development and implementation of an automated solution including all the phases and elements of the development of a proper software solution with maybe more involvement of the end-user to gain their trust and diffuse any doubts for the end-result.  

In my experience lots of time, effort and money that are wasted in manual processes could be saved by relatively simple solutions. I will be posting some examples for that. Meanwhile you could start with asking yourself if you spend too much time in repetitive manual work and what you can do about it. If you cannot find a solution - you know where to search for a help.

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