Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On-the-Job Learning the Microsoft Way

We now accept as axiomatic that proposition that, whatever your job may be (assuming you have one), you will have to be learning new things about how to do it while working at it. Microsoft has decided to take a proactive approach to this proposition when it comes to learning more about the features of productivity software; and, since this is a Microsoft effort, that means learning how to use Office software more productively. Here is their basic approach as reported by Ina Fried for her Beyond Binary column on the CNET News Web site:

I'm not sure it's exactly the approach I would take, but Redmond has decided to make a game out of what I find to be one of the most significant annoyances in Microsoft's Office--finding the command one is looking for.

Introduced on Tuesday, "Ribbon Hero" is aimed at turning into a game the often frustrating task of finding commands on Office's Ribbon toolbar, which debuted as part of Office 2007.

In a blog post, Office program manager (and self-described casual games enthusiast) Jennifer Michelstein said Microsoft was trying to see if the company could tap into the trend of using games as a means of training.

"We set out to understand whether elements of game play (things like scoring points, competing with friends, and earning achievements) could motivate people to explore more of the app, learn new features, and ultimately become more productive," Michelstein wrote. "Could we do it in a way that fit well into the regular Office workflow, without being too much of a distraction?"

Ultimately, Microsoft decided to put it out there and see.

Users can earn points in Ribbon Hero in one of two ways. The first way is just by using Word, Excel, or PowerPoint and using commands. A small number of points are awarded for basic commands, while more complex features earn more points. A second way to earn points is to complete various challenges. It also taps a Facebook connection to let users share their score and see how they stack up against their friends.

Many years ago I floated the hypothesis that there were three ways a "knowledge worker" could learn new things about a software product:

  1. Through the "help" facilities of the software itself, possibly augmented with hyperlinks to Web sites providing FAQ information.
  2. By getting in touch with a human being at a call center.
  3. Through conversations with colleagues about what they were doing.

That last item was a corollary of a discovery made within Xerox that their repair technicians learn a lot of things that were not "in the book" by exchanging war stories about problems they solved over casual conversation (and perhaps some beer) at the end of a long and hard day. The point is that people can be a great resource for learning, and people you know are better than those impersonal call center voices that spend most of the time reading from a prepared script!

Apparently, Microsoft does not see it this way. They figure that the learning process should focus as much as possible on a man-machine relationship. If that relationship can be facilitated by having the user play a game, that just reinforces their position that time spent with the machine will always be more productive than time spent with one's colleagues. My own position is that workplaces are creating enough alienation already. The last thing they need is more software to increase that sense of alienation!

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