Microsoft Office Suite: How to Use the Right Tool for the Job

Microsoft Office is a suite of related products. Home and Student usually include:  Outlook, Word, Excel, and Power Point. Depending on which edition of Office it might also include OneNote. Microsoft Office Professional adds Access and OneNote, as well as a few picture gallery tools. However, the different tools included in Microsoft Office are not interchangeable. Using Excel to keep track of a large, interconnected, database of information makes about as much sense as using a screwdriver to pound a nail into a wall. Likewise, linear, quickly changing information really does not belong in Access.

The Microsoft tools are:

  • Microsoft Outlook – This is an e-mail program. You probably use it at work, where your company runs Microsoft Exchange to deliver e-mail. It comes with all versions of Office – and in a world where most home users have some form of webmail (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc) it’s not that necessary. However, if you want to download your webmail to Outlook, follow your provider’s instructions to do so.
  • Microsoft Excel – This is a spreadsheet program. It is not a database. Excel is designed to work with math, equations, and rows and columns of data, but it is not a relational database. Besides being an excellent way to keep track of financial information or numeric data (order invoices, profit and loss statements, depreciation schedules, etc) Excel is very good for keeping track of a limited amount of data that changes frequently. I keep a copy of the Doctor Who episode guide in Excel – and update it yearly. I also use Excel to keep a list of Doctor Who novels, both the ones I have and the ones I’m still missing. Excel is perfect, because the data is limited – and it changes every time I add a book to the list.  Although databases allow for flow of information, they are better for somewhat static information that doesn’t change too often. And when information in a database does change, it’s better to add it than delete it.
  • Microsoft Access is a relational database. It’s not included in the more basic versions of Office, but it is included in the Professional version of Office. The back end language for Access is SQL Server, the same as for Microsoft SQL Server and some versions of Oracle. However, some of the more complicated SQL statements, especially unions between two queries, cannot be used in Access. Access is also limited in size and is much smaller than SQL Server. But, having said that, for a personal database – it is a great tool.  Relational databases use tables, related by keys to organize information. For example, you might have a table called “Film” with information about the Film DVD you own, and a second table called “Actor” and a third table (called a Association Table because it associates or links information from two other tables) called ActorFilm. Why three tables?  Because each table in a relational database should only concern one topic – thus film and actor are separate concepts. By having an association table – some films can have only a few people listed and others can have dozens. Think about the difference between an early film like “It Happened One Night” verses a film like “Lord of the Rings”. Using three tables gives the flexibility of having some films with two actors, some with five or six and some with dozens.Otherwise, the film table would have to be bogged down with an arbitrary number of actors:  (Actor1, actor2, actor3, etc).
  • Microsoft Word is Microsoft’s word processing program. It’s what you use to write letters, reports, off-line blog posts, anything you like.
  • Microsoft Power Point is a program for creating presentations. It also has some very basic image editing capabilities.
  • Microsoft OneNote is a note-taking program. It allows you to create notebooks and add freehand (typed) notes, short spreadsheets, images, even uploads of documents.
  • Microsoft Visio is an additional add-on for Microsoft Office. It’s a design program used for creating computer networking maps, flowcharts, organizational charts, and the like.
  • Microsoft Project is another add-on that’s used to manage projects. Not only does it feature a time scheduler (including dependences), and Gantt chart, but it also has features for managing resources.

Some Microsoft Office programs play well with each other. It’s easy to add an Excel chart to Word, or import a Microsoft Visio chart to Word, or a Gantt chart from Project into Word. Others, not so much.  Access allows you to export query results to Excel – but plan on spending a lot of time cleaning it up in Excel, the export is almost as bad as a pure text .csv file.

Still, it is worth remembering that each tool in the Office Suite has it’s own uses. Trying to force a tool to do something it wasn’t meant for is not going to work well.

Ask your questions in the comments. I will try to answer them as best as I am able.