Free service helps small businesses get big benefits from Microsoft Office

We know that change affects different people differently. And we understand that working together in the face of constant change is better than in working separately.
Small business owners in particular can benefit from connecting to other owners and operators. By sharing their experiences, insights and tips, their knowledge base can be increased.

So, too, efficiency, productivity and profitability.

Online social and professional networks, and Internet-based tools like the recently-launched Microsoft Office Live Small Business service, are great ways to do so.

Office Live Small Business has well over a million customers, so small businesses in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere are sharing and learning from each other.

No Argument with Costs

The first benefit – sign up is free!

Then, small businesses get a great set of online tools and services, including Web hosting and custom domain name registration with 100 business e-mail accounts (custom domains are free for the first year).

Website building tools and design assets are offered and business productivity apps like contact management software for performing basic customer relationship management are available.

And, there’s 500 MB storage space free of charge with every workspace account!

More to the point, there is great information that boosts productivity – built into the tools themselves, and provided by the users.

As Jason Brommet, the Product Manager for Microsoft Office in Canada, points out, “Office Live and the Office Live Workspace are one answer to the question our customers often ask, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Office did ‘X’?’ Well, there it is – features and functions built into the new and enhanced Office suite can be found much more easily now, directly through the streamlined Microsoft Office Fluent user interface, and online, where lots of resources are available to make small business more productive.”
Since its launch last year, thousands of home-based and small office business owners have signed up for the service in Canada (Brommet adds that individual consumers also sign up to take advantage of the service, business owners or no).

Documents and files can be stored securely online and shared easily with anyone having Internet access. Accounts are password-protected, and administrative permissions for document access, viewing and editing can be easily set-up by the account owner.

What’s more, as multiple workspaces can be established within each account, security and confidentiality between projects or among employees can be maintained.

Brommet describes a handy Office Live tip in which, using the integrated Activity Pane, business owners can see who is interacting with their documents and related services, and when.

E-mail notifications can be set up, he adds, so business owners on the road are immediately informed, say, when a new request for proposal is posted, or when a contractor/supplier has accessed an account document, or any other authorized business activity takes place.

With such online tools, there’s no longer a need to be tied to a PC to be productive – Microsoft Office Live integrates with important mobile tools to help maintain business connectivity.

No Translation Necessary

Many of the best tips and tricks for Office productivity are local, integrated into the redesigned user interface. There’s a reason Microsoft calls it ‘Fluent’ – the idea is it should be easier for the user to speak to the software, to understand it and connect with it in a way that builds productivity.

For example, the original Microsoft Word program had about 100 commands – with a bit of time, you could actually read the menus and see everything it could do. But today, Office Word has over 1,500 commands, and it’s inevitable some will be missed.

So the new Fluent UI (developed after much user consultation, product testing, focus group feedback and consultation with small business owners) groups together common activities and commands in a more logical way. The old toolbar has been replaced with the Ribbon, and its visually engaging and informative design.

One great way to use the most appropriate text formatting features, for example, is the Galleries, where a ‘live preview’ of applied functions and end results is immediately available. Instead of guessing about the dimensions and margins on a business document, you can immediately see how margin placement and measurement will affect the final output.

When designing statistical documents – bar charts and the like – you can preview any number of recommended configurations, or create your own. What’s more, with the new Conditional Formatting tools that’s built into Office programs like Excel and PowerPoint, you can easily highlight important business trends or critical financial developments with colour, making business presentations more dynamic and easily understood.

Most Office users know they can take Excel data and use it in their business presentations created in PowerPoint.

But those users connecting on Office Live also know they can launch online contextual help services with a simple F1 button push. Without having to leave their open application, without having to launch a separate browser, they are immediately connected to tips, tricks and templates that speed up their work.

Office Live users can also connect to informative podcasts, video streams and RSS feeds that convey important information about Office use and users. Specific content ranges from step-by-step instructional programs on Office features and functions, all the way to more humourous and even slapstick approaches to community-building.

Brommet says the Office online portal is one of Microsoft’s most visited sites – in Canada, there are roughly 2 million visits every month!

That’s a lot of help and advice and perspective being shared, across what can be called a highly focused social network.

Not Social, But Professional Networking

Social networks – Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the like – are all the rage these days, based on an ability to keep friends, family and acquaintances together. But these ‘social connector services’ can bring benefits to small or home-based business, too.

As Brommet explains, within Office Live is an activity panel that integrates with popular functions of Facebook and Twitter, such as status and activity updates from friends or co-workers. There are new tools available for integrating Facebook images into Outlook contacts, and ways to download Facebook contacts to Outlook.

Office users can also share their calendar through Office Online, a handy and convenient way to connect to important business clients and contacts. The feature is password-protected; it provides safe access to your calendar while allowing authorized people to see our schedule and when you are busy or available.

As well, within Office Outlook 07, there is the ability to insert your Calendar into an Outlook message, creating a ‘snapshot’ of your calendar for someone you are in e-mail contact with.

Your specific content is blocked, so the recipient cannot see who you are meeting with, but they do know your time is booked, even if you are not available to tell them so.

Not ‘Just’ a Business Owner

That can be a great boost to efficiency, especially with the small business owner who is their own appointment secretary, among other things.

In fact, it is those “other things” that small business owners must be and do that concerns Brommet, and that drives Microsoft Office development.

“They are often the owner, secretary, IT tech, chief bottle washer and more,” Brommet say of today’s small or home business operator. They are time-strapped, and must be as productive as possible. So how do we do that, and can we do it with tools they already have and already know?”

One way is to add productivity boosts exiting business tools, and the many Office 07 enhancements – like improved cross-program integration – is a good example.

Second are all the new products and services available at the Office Live workspace, including but not limited to free online storage and website domain registration.

Another way to support small business is to connect them to themselves, and to provide a number of online tips and helpful answers to questions like, ‘How do I do X?’ and ‘How do I do X in a way that is faster, better or more productive than I did before?’

Now, that’s change business can believe in!


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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