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Evil Microsoft’s latest trick: Giving it away

Submitted by on Tuesday, 24 February 2009 No Comment

microsoftFunny how a company can’t even offer something for free without critics landing on it with both feet.

Such was the case Sunday when Microsoft rolled out “Elevate America,” a three-year program that will offer technical training to up to 2 million people.

In addition to offering many programs online, the company also plans to team up with states to help boost training. Florida, New York and Washington already are on board.

It wasn’t long after the Sunday announcement that severe cases of the Redmond Rash appeared on geek-oriented sites such as cnet and slashdot. Some commenters blasted Microsoft for training other workers while laying off its own, as well as for claiming to “elevate America” while importing employees. Both are valid points.

Where the arguments developed into drivel, though, were in the allegations that Microsoft was doing it to make money – yeah, I gasped, too – and that such training isn’t needed.

Wrong on two counts. OK, only sort of wrong on count one, but it really doesn’t matter.

Of course Microsoft has a profit motive. And of course such a program can serve such a motive by creating good will and greater exposure to Microsoft products.

But to assume that training on a product automatically makes you a life-long customer is wrong. Or that learning how to use one word-processing program weds you to it for life.

Quite the opposite usually is true: Once you grasp the principals of any spreadsheet, database, presentation or word-processing program, your learning curve on similar software is nothing more than a gentle bend in the road, if that.

And if critics had even reviewed Microsoft’s basic curriculum – which has been online for almost a year and a half – they would have seen that it’s as close to program agnostic as could be reasonably expected.

“This demonstration explains how to use different menus and commands common to most productivity programs,” one tutorial reads. Emphasis added.

It does not say “Use Microsoft Word or your spouse will leave you, your dog will bite you and your computer will blow up.

Yes, Microsoft also is offering a “special” on its certifications – proof that you’re knowledgeable in productivity or information technology software – by cutting the prices more than 50 percent. Those certificates aren’t nearly as useless as the geek crowd thinks, particularly on the productivity end.

I’m considering getting one, in fact. Would I bother listing it on an application for an online job? No. My skills in that area are a bit beyond Microsoft Office. But would I add it to a resume submitted to a business that doesn’t know or care what a self-hosted WordPress blog or content management system is? Definitely. It’s a credential that could be relevant to that business. It takes a subjective claim – “excellent computer skills” – and quantifies it.

The second assumption, that this type of basic training is unnecessary, is an occupational hazard for those of us fascinated by bright, shiny geeky objects. “Aren’t there already more people equipped with computer skills than the market needs?” one poster asked at slashdot.

It would appear that way based on the popularity of online forums, blog sites, email accounts,Facebook and YouTube. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of getting the job done each day, many folks still lag.

Sometimes, the lag is at the top. I know of one good-sized local company that still handles orders over the phone, with the taker writing the details down on paper. Someone else later keys the order into a computer. I just want to weep for those employees because there are probably a thousand other ways to handle the process, and at least 999 of them would be better.

Sometimes, the lag is because we mistakenly assume that younger workers who came of age in the digital age can manipulate a spread sheet just because they can navigate YouTube. It’s simply not true in all instances.

Sometimes, the lag is because workers as young as their 30s have learned just enough computing to get by, but not enough to understand how software can make life easier once a digital culture is established. Ever watch someone slowly key a series of numbers from a computer printout into a calculator? It pains me.

I’m not contending that Microsoft is “Elevating America” out of benevolent, altruistic motives. I’m not claiming Microsoft hasn’t done plenty of unsavory things in the past.

This isn’t one of them, though. This is a case of a company doing something for self-serving reasons that also happens to serve a need.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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