It's no fun working in a large and busy office if you don't know anyone (well, you might say that it's no fun working in a large and busy office under any circumstances, but let's not go down that road right now). The days run along better if you have friends in the office, while work itself can go that much more smoothly if you know what everyone's role is, if you know who to go to with which tasks, queries or problems.

It's important, too, to know where to find those answers within Microsoft Office. All these little programs are your friends - well, sort of, although you can't go out for a drink with them, they won't come around to share a cup of you after a break up, but they will help you out a great deal at work with never a word of complaint. As helpful as they are, however, it's still essential that you can tell them apart, that you know which of your new electronic friends does which job - and the two that are most easily and commonly confused are Excel and Access. Like twins, they look very similar, and they're capable of doing similar work - but, like twins, they're quite different underneath, and knowing one from the other can make a real difference.

Know your programs

Treating Excel and Access as much the same and using them interchangeably is understandable enough. Both offer the means to store large amounts of data, and both make it as easy as possible; the temptation just to use the first one on the list as a repository for your company's information can be strong, particularly when the differences aren't well-known. So we need to start by explaining just how they are different from one another.

To begin at the beginning, Excel is a spreadsheet, and Access is a database (or more specifically a database management system, but let's not split hairs). The basic purpose of a spreadsheet is to store numbers, and to run equations on them: this is where your company's figures belong, incomes, expenditures, revenues, salaries and so on. A database, on the other hand, provides storage, sorting, access and backup for any kind of information: your company's non-financial data, such as contact lists, information about available resources or records of customers and their purchases, should be stored in Access. It's true that both are capable of looking after any kind of data, but they have tools to suit their own purposes, and using the two in tandem and with the correct kind of information allows you to do much more than just store it.

Taking advantage

Indeed, data (of whatever kind) should never be looked upon as merely something to keep for future reference - rather, it can hold the key to success for your business. Excel and Access both have different, but equally handy tools for analysing your information, and finding a greater depth of understanding from your company's critical data is sure to benefit any business.

Excel can take any aspect of your financial information, and create charts and reports that simply illustrate areas of strength and weakness, where the company has been and where it's heading. So if sales of one item are fluctuating, for example, or overheads are rising out of synch with incomes, you'll be able to see this clearly and immediately - and with conditional formatting, such changes can be highlighted automatically with heat maps (cells coloured in to show the change) or distinct symbols (traffic lights, stars, or whatever would most clearly illustrate the change to you).

Access, meanwhile, works with a different kind of data, and provides a different kind of analysis. Perhaps you have a database of online customers and the items that they've bought: with Access, reports on the relationship between categories of clients and types of product create an easily understood picture of purchasing trends - such as the 'people who bought this also bought that' recommendations that so many online retailers carry. Understanding these relationships help you to understand your customers and clients, how they're likely to behave and how best to convince them to favour your business. And conditional formatting is also there, just as with Excel, to help you see the position of the company at a glance.

Getting to know your Office friends

So we have a clearer idea now of why we should understand Excel and Access better, and turn their differences to our advantage. But where to find that understanding? The easiest and most effective solution is to turn to training, giving your company all the benefits of the software in very little time - a quick and simple step forward. Yet the market is full of training providers, so how do you choose the one that will enhance your business the most for the least cost?

It's worth looking for a few guarantees from the training company; after all, anyone can claim that they're the best, but you need to find those that can back it up. Does the trainer offer courses a year and more in advance, to suit your own busy schedule (and will they make your booking quickly and easily, so as not to waste your valuable time)? Can the trainer provide a course anywhere in the UK? Do they promise never to cancel the course? And, most vitally of all, perhaps, are the trainers who'll be teaching your staff how to use Microsoft Office fully Microsoft qualified themselves? It's essential to find a training provider that can guarantee all of these - and with that high standard of training, you can be confident that you and your staff will be able to move forward with their electronic friends in the Office.