Why is Excel THE #1 Skill to Have in Today’s Work World?

Top Brains with Kathy Jones, Corporate Educator in Microsoft Applications.

Bethany Hacker:

Hello, everybody. I’m pleased to welcome Kathy Jones, the Bigger Brains content manager, to our Top Brains podcast. The podcast is what we are Bigger Brains are doing for the L&D community to talk about some topics and trends that are going on that may be of interest.

Kathy is, as I said, our Bigger Brains content manager. But other than that, she’s also a longtime corporate educator in Microsoft Applications, and she’s Microsoft certified and has a degree in education. So she’s especially qualified to understand the dynamics of business training.

Her specialty with Bigger Brains, besides managing our content, is all aspects of Microsoft and Microsoft Excel especially. So welcome, Kathy, and thank you for talking Excel with me.

Kathy Jones:

Thank you, Bethany. I love to talk about Excel.

Well, that’s good, because that’s what we’re going to trend towards. We love Excel here at Bigger Brains. We have a lot of courses dealing with it and just about anything that anybody would need.

So we have a phrase around here, and you may have heard this one before. “The world is filled with two kinds of people those who are masters of Excel and those who want to be.”

So why is Excel the skill to have as a professional?

Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I mean, it really is the skill, and it’s become so much more important now. We have so much data available to us. It’s just enormous amounts, and the data is collected from so many sources that it really can be overwhelming.

But the difference is that meaningful and relevant data is something else. So we want to be able to take the information at hand and work with it, manage it, and then turn it into something meaningful. And that is such a high priority and high-value skill today.

Only when we really have meaningful data organized in a way that we can interpret it and make sense of it. That’s what we can use to make really good decisions.

So how should managers look at excel training for their staff?

I mean, if I’m not responsible for fiscal matters or budgets and I just don’t know that, I actually need to know Excel.

I hear that a lot. But the thing is, everybody works with data of some sort or another. It may be a little bit of data and maybe massive amounts of data. You may be asking really simple questions of your data in order to make an ordering decision or a staffing decision. Or you might be dealing with really complex questions to determine your organizational strategic policies. But Excel really allows you to find those answers in a straightforward way. So everybody should know how to ask even those basic questions from your data.

So what types of tasks besides those fiscal and budget tasks can be accomplished with Excel? What else would you use it for?

Well, I mean, at the most basic level, you’re just really creating lists of information, and then you can sort and filter it to see what you need to see. So maybe we have a list of all of our employees and the training that they’re taking, so I can sort by an individual to see who has taken which courses and who needs to complete courses. Maybe I want to filter that data to look at all the information for one course at a time. So this lets me see even a simple list of data in a couple of different ways.

And then you can use Excel to do, of course, calculations, which is what we usually think of with Excel. You can add up a column of numbers or get an average. Or, of course, you can do advanced statistical analysis of really complex functions. Everybody loves charts and diagrams. You can use excel to do those, and it really is a pretty straightforward process to illustrate your data. That way, you can group it into categories and really come out with meaningful reports. And one of the things I really like is you can use that to automatically color-code your data.

So, for example, Excel would change a number to green if it goes over a sales quota, or maybe it would show up red if an inventory level drops too low, and it just once you set it up, it does that automatically.

Oh, that’s great. So with most software and especially seemingly with Microsoft, the subscription version Excel 365 is constantly updated. So do I have to continuously train in Excel? And which updates? Or how often should an L&D professional be ready to launch Excel courses for staff training? I guess that’s really two questions.

So let’s start with, do I have to continuously train and Excel?

Well, you’re going to have some small added features and updates, but then occasionally, we have some really big changes. So, for example, Microsoft released the new X LOOKUP function that was a really big deal. People have been waiting for that for a long time, so everybody moved really quickly to learn it, to train on it, to put out short training sessions on that. And that was really necessary then because that was something completely new. I would say, other than that, maybe an annual or even semiannual refresh of the new functions and new features would really be sufficient just to catch up on new things.

So about every six months or so or two a year, the L&D people should be ready to launch some kind of Excel training for staff.

I would think so, yes.

OK, so what are the top five Excel functions you recommend that everybody should know once they’ve learned the basics?

Oh, that’s such a hard question. So much of it depends on the type of data you’re working with. So there is that difference; some people are going to be working with financial data and other people with physical data. But like you said, once you get past the basics, the SUM and the AVERAGE and the COUNT that we are going to use a lot, I do have a couple of other favorites. 

I mentioned the X LOOKUP function, which is pretty new. We really love it. It allows you to connect data between tables, and it’s just a fantastic tool.

Another one that I really like, it’s actually a category of what we call SUM IF and AVERAGE IF functions. Those are useful across really across the board in a lot of cases. So what those allow you to do is you could add or average data that meets specific criteria.

So, for example, if you want to find out, you have a list of all your spending on hardware for the organization, but you want to find out how much you’re spending on laptops for the sales department, right? That’s a pretty straightforward function you could do. Or you could find out how many people in the IT department have been with the company more than five years, and you would use a SUM IF or AVERAGE IF function for those types of things.

I’d say the IF function is probably one of the most versatile; that’s one that everybody should know. It allows you to test two different possibilities and then determine the outcome for each. So maybe I would have Excel check my data to see if I have maybe have a scheduled project and I have dates in there.

So if that’s going to fall within bad weather or high rainfall month, then maybe it’s going to make adjustments to the amount of time needed to complete it. And if it doesn’t fall within that time frame, then the time would stay the same, and I could set up a pretty straightforward function to make that determination for me automatically.

Oh, that’s neat.

So that would be the IF function. And then I do use a TODAY function. So the TODAY function is one of my favorites that’s always going to show me the current date. And I use that sometimes by itself and sometimes with other functions.

I also use one. There’s one called net workdays. I like that because it lets me calculate workdays between two days. So maybe I’m tracking response times, so when we get a request, we want to know how long it takes us to respond to it. I would use the network days function to tell me not just how many total days but how many actual work it. For the time the call came into the time we respond, so I find some of those data functions really useful too.

Yeah, it seems like there is so much that you can automate on the front end to save a lot of time and to make life easier when you need the information immediately.

That’s exactly it, and I find that so many people they’re trying to use Excel, but they’re really doing it the long, hard way. As I say, sometimes just taking a class and watching a course and finding out some of those shortcuts or tips and tricks and realizing, Oh, there’s just so much easier, so much faster way to do it can be a real eye opener for people.

Yeah. Well, and that’s one reason why I like our Excel in 30 Minutes things because those courses in 30 minutes, you can learn just a snippet of Excel that you may need right at that moment, and you only have to take 30 minutes to learn it.

And so that’s that’s a fabulous way to learn some of these, you know, some of these, as you say, the tips and tricks. So with that, you know, we offer a lot of courses, one to three-hour courses in Excel that concentrate on a single aspect.

But which of these should every manager have in their training arsenal to increase productivity?

Well, if people are new to Excel, then we certainly want to recommend some of those Excel in 30 Minutes courses that you mentioned and start with the ones about entering data, doing calculations, definitely sorting and filtering. I would say those are really the basics for people who’ve been using Excel.

We have specialized courses with different kinds of functions. For example, there’s one just on DATE functions that I mentioned; there’s one just on logical functions. People who’ve been using Excel a little bit more might find our course on Data Analysis with Pivot Tables really useful. That just focuses, and it’s a fairly short course, but really focuses on pivot tables as well.

Our advanced course a little bit longer, but it goes into the deep dive for a lot of those features that people just don’t know that exists, and again. Like you can use Maps to map your data for geographic locations. You can set up live web queries to websites forecasting tools, and you can always learn how to create macros. So lots of great tools there as well. Also, we are going to be releasing a new course in the next few months on how to use power query.

So power query is just an amazing tool built into excel that’s going to help with data cleanup and data management. So for anybody who’s working with large amounts of data from multiple sources, I mean, this is a must-learn tool. So I would highly recommend that one once that comes out.

Great. Yeah. And we are we are busy going through all of our Excel courses, making sure that what we have is the most up to date. So thank you, Kathy, for all your work with that and with those suggestions about what you should have in your training arsenal and what functions you should make sure your staff knows. We’re going to have to wrap this up.

Thank you so much, Kathy, for talking with us. Excel is kind of a scary proposition to many of us, but it is nice to have some expert advice and to know that you can go to Bigger Brains and get all the help that you need. As far as Excel is concerned, it’s award-winning, engaging expert training, and not only Excel but other Microsoft apps, and you can find us online at GetBiggerBrains.com. Again, thank you, Kathy.

Thanks, Bethany!

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