From the workplace · Technology

Small gains for many or big gains for a few

[There are over 1600 words in this article.]

In many small ways I am all about efficiency and productivity. On journeys that I make regularly on the London Underground I always know the best place to stand (or sit, if it’s not rush-hour) to ensure that you are ideally positioned for the exit or any connections between trains. I wrote about it in some detail here.

I also alluded to that piece in this one (“3 times faster!”) and noted that my ability to touch-type and to use AutoText has saved me thousands of hours over the years drafting and proofing documents. I appreciate that many people who use computers to create documents (quite possibly the majority of people) do not use either of these time-saving options. Without learning to touch-type you can get to an okay typing speed, and input your words a little faster than by writing them out neatly in long-hand. But if you are using a computer keyboard without AutoText you will be typing out almost every word in full.

There are certain words and phrases that will offer AutoComplete suggestions in most versions of Microsoft Word that have been released since Word 95. These will display after you have typed the first four characters (Wedn will prompt you for Wednesday, for example, and Nove will prompt you for November). Users of Smart Phones (which means most people between the ages of 18 and 75 in the UK and USA these days) can use predictive text to avoid typing whole words in full but I doubt that even the most practised predictive text user can go much faster than 30 words per minute. And, unlike someone who can touch-type and use AutoText, predictive text users have to stare closely at the screen to make sure that they select the correct word. Touch-typing enables you to look away from the screen and therefore put less strain on your eyes.

I spent many years training people how to be more effective in their use of computers: how to design spreadsheets that work, how to format presentations in seconds rather than hours, and how to use AutoText and other time-saving tips to create documents easily. In this piece I suggested the following three reasons why people use computers: to help you to work better, to help you to feel better and to save you money. If none of these criteria is being met is there any point in using a computer? Or, more relevantly, if you are upgrading your computer or software (and of course you might not have much choice about this) will it help you to work better, or feel better, or will there be any financial gain compared to what you are currently using?

There is still much work to do to help people to be more effective in creating spreadsheets, presentations and documents in all of the standard Office Applications but there is very little focus on it in many organizations. I don’t anticipate that this will change anytime soon. Most people can use their Office Applications well enough to communicate and to get most of their work done in the available time, or they just stay late and complain about how much they have to do. But when I see someone struggling to draft text at more than 10 words per minute I am reminded of people who can’t drive very well. If someone has passed their driving test and then spends their entire time behind the wheel of a car in neutral, first gear or second gear they are still, technically, able to drive, but I wouldn’t want to be stuck behind them on a motorway.

I have been trying to resolve my own approach to using productivity tools (and most specifically AutoText) with the newer web-based and mobile ways of working with documents. Where is the gain? Who is saving time and who is taking longer to get things done? I think that I’ve worked it out.

The current way of working with documents is increasingly “mobile first, cloud first”, as quoted in this Microsoft press release from 2014. (The author quotes someone called “TS Elliott”. I think they mean TS Eliot; attention to detail anyone? If you’re mobile and have access to the cloud you can check the correct spelling of the winner of the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature, as I did just now to check what year he won.) I use Office on my Microsoft Windows 10 phone, and it’s great to have access to my document library and to be able to read emails, documents, spreadsheets and presentations on the go. However, for drafting and for proper work with any of these document types I still need to be at a regular computer with a keyboard and mouse or touchpad. And however good my internet connection may be I still store local copies of the files that are in the cloud.

I have been collaborating on many files in recent months: presentations, shared Word documents and multi-sheet workbooks stored in SharePoint libraries. The default way to work on them is via the online versions of PowerPoint, Word or Excel. If my input requires anything more than the most basic editing I have to edit the file using the “full fat”, installed version of the relevant Office App. Using Word Online, without access to my libraries of AutoText which have built up over many years, makes me feel like I’m using a typewriter. Simply put, using Word Online does not save me time. So, is anyone out there saving time by using Word Online (and the Online versions of other Office Apps)? Yes, I believe that a vast number of people will, collectively, be saving billions of hours of their time working in this way.

As I noted in this piece I do not have problems with Version Control but I know people who have regularly lost many hours of their working lives to it and who spend rather too much time trying to locate their files.

Picture the scene. They are working on a version of a document. They email that version to themselves. They work on it at home. They send the amended version back to themselves at work. They work, seemingly, on the amended version, only to find that their edits are in a different version: there’s a copy on the network, a version stored locally, a file in the original email, a version in the email that was sent back to their work email account. And so on. Many hours of work-time, and home-time, are then taken up trying to resolve these Version Control issues.

By working “mobile first, cloud first” they will only be working on one version of the document. Version Control is no longer an issue. We can look forward to billions of hours of time being saved this way. People like me, without access to our libraries of AutoText entries, which have saved us so many hours in preparing and proofing our documents, will take longer to produce our work in the world of “mobile first, cloud first” but the extra time that we spend, collectively, is far less than the time saved by people who struggled with Version Control. There will be small gains for many rather than big gains for the few. That, for now, is how I am trying to reconcile myself to this new way of working.

To return to the world of journeys on London Underground, with which I started this piece, the concept of “small gains for many” outweighing “big gains for a few” exists there too and was explained to me over 20 years ago when I did some 1:1 training with someone high up in London Transport Customer Service. The training day was going well, well enough in my mind to justify asking about a subject close to the heart of anyone who uses Turnham Green station here in West London: can we have Piccadilly Line trains stopping there all through the day and not just early mornings (before 6.45am) and late evenings (after 10.30pm)? At the time there was a campaign urging London Underground to rethink this, petitions were signed, the case put forward. During the afternoon coffee break I decided to raise it with him.

“I live near Turnham Green station,” I began. The look on his face suggested that he might be thinking, “Oh no, not another one.” I carried on anyway. “Why don’t Piccadilly Line trains stop there in the daytime?” He explained, patiently, that they had a way to calculate how this would affect everyone travelling through the station. The Piccadilly Line to Heathrow took priority over all other lines. Minimizing disruption for customers (or did he say passengers?) bound for Heathrow would always be a priority. Far more people travel to the airport every day than alight at Turnham Green. If Heathrow-bound trains stopped at Turnham Green millions of people would have their journey times increased by 2-3 minutes. Although people like me would often save 10 minutes on our journeys to and from work (by not having to stop at Stamford Brook and Ravenscourt Park on the District Line, and not having to change trains at Hammersmith) there were simply not enough of us to justify delaying all those millions of journeys to and from Heathrow.

Small gains for many outweigh bigger gains for the few, so people like me have spent hundreds of extra hours on slower trains, and waiting to change at Hammersmith, while Heathrow-bound trains sail through. If you ever travel to or from Heathrow on the Piccadilly Line you can reflect on this as your train picks up speed between Hammersmith and Acton Town without having to stop anywhere in between. And you can observe the people standing on Turnham Green station, many of whom would be able to save 10 minutes on their journey to town if only the Piccadilly Line stopped there too. But we are the few, and you are the many.


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