Close Encounters With Office 2007

Microsoft’s new Office suite has some alien features, which raise concerns about backward compatibility, user training and ROI.

As Microsoft Office 2007 begins its long-awaited rollout, Joe Marshall is ready. Having worked with the beta version, Marshall, a business systems analyst at Geiger Brothers Inc., has decided to recommend that the 400 users in the Lewiston, Maine-based promotional products company migrate to the office productivity suite in the first half of 2007. “I think it will make them more productive,” he says.

Diane Pencil sees things differently. The lead enterprise architect at Owens Corning sees little value in upgrading 12,000 desktops at the Toledo, Ohio-based building materials company. She says Office 2007’s redesigned user interface, which replaces the current menu and toolbar structure with a contextual Ribbon bar, will require face-to-face and online retraining and is likely to cause an increase in help desk calls. Furthermore, she doesn’t see a significant return on investment, despite the suite’s many new features. “The things that are being added to Office aren’t things that we’ve needed for a long time,” she says.

IT organizations sizing up the new Office offering are weighing the benefits of a new user interface and new features against concerns about training, calls to the help desk, a new Open XML file structure and overall ROI.

“We have a new [user interface], new file formats. This is going to be one of the trickier migrations,” says Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

Many IT professionals remain skeptical of the bottom-line benefits, according to a survey of 727 readers of Computerworld and “The Office Letter,” an electronic newsletter for Office users. Nearly half of the respondents (46%) said they expect no change in worker productivity with the new suite, while 24% predicted that users will be more productive than they are using earlier versions of the applications suite.

The 190 survey respondents who were hands-on beta testers of Office 2007 have a brighter outlook: 43% said they expect productivity to increase.

IT professionals are most optimistic about new features in the Word, Excel and Outlook applications within the suite. “With the amount of e-mail we receive, being able to search in a quicker, more intuitive fashion is a great benefit. Outlook is where most people will gain the greatest benefit,” says Michael Case, IT services director at Manchester College in Manchester, Ind.

The biggest challenge to deployment? “The Ribbon bar,” Case says flatly, although he predicts that once users learn it, they’ll be more productive. To familiarize users before a scheduled rollout to 1,200 of them next summer, Case plans to offer a combination of brown-bag lunch sessions, video training and in-house training programs.

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