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 In General, Introduction, Microsoft Office

Do you need to create a flowchart or an organisation chart? How about a process map, or even a floor plan? You might be using SmartArt and other tools available in PowerPoint to do this. SmartArt and Shapes can be handy for simple diagrams, but when you need to build something more complex you need something with a bit more grunt.

If this sounds like you, then you should probably check out Microsoft Visio.

What is Visio?

Simply put, Microsoft Visio is a business diagramming tool. It can be used to create a multitude of diagram types, from simple flowcharts to complex network diagrams, and a whole range of other things in between.

In our busy roles we can often find ourselves in the position of having to present a complex topic or plan to our colleagues and clients. At times we run the risk of them not fully understanding the information presented since they are in different roles, and are therefore not “close to the data” so to speak.

By way of comparison, think for a moment about charts. We may use Excel to set up a spreadsheet, but we might present our data in the form of a chart or graph. The purpose here is to simplify and clarify our data; instead of requiring our viewer to wade through pages of figures, we can present information in a clear, easy to understand format.

But what if you are no good at drawing or design? Here’s where Visio comes in.

One of the best aspects of Visio is the fact that you don’t need to be able to draw. No really, it’s true!

Visio is Vector based

The diagrams you create in Visio are vector images, as opposed to bitmaps. This means that they are not resolution dependent. The advantage here is that you can scale a Visio diagram up as much as you need without the image becoming fuzzy.

Visio uses Templates & Stencils

Visio ships with a ton (or is that tonne? these things used to be so simple!) of templates. If you want to build a flow chart, there’s a template for that. How about a floorplan, there’s one for that too. Each template contains a number of Stencils, and each Stencil contains numerous Shapes. Shapes are the building blocks of your diagrams.

Visio Shapes are Smart

The shapes in Visio have “behaviour” programmed into them. For example, if you connect two shapes in a diagram and then decide to move the shapes around, the connectors will automatically reroute to maintain the connection, or even create a jump point when two lines cross over each other. That’s partly because connectors are themselves shapes.

Visio can use your existing Data

Visio can pull in live data from an existing source such as Excel. For example, you can build an organisation chart by pointing Visio at your list of employees in Excel, firing up the wizard and choosing a few options, and letting Visio do the heavy lifting. A minute later you have a nice shiny new organisation chart with minimal effort on your part.

Some Examples

Flowcharts

I created this flowchart in just a couple of minutes. Although I could do something similar using SmartArt, I have more functionality available to me when using Visio. For example, I can connect shapes automatically and, because the connectors are also shapes, I can type directly into them. I can easily change the shape type if I want. If I move shapes around they will always stay connected. Even better, each shape has properties stored with it, enabling me to add extra detail about the flowchart that helps me to track and report on the progress or process. You can see an example of a shape’s properties in the image below. As a bonus, these property sheets can be customised to your needs.

Brainstorming

Hands up if you have ever participated in a brainstorming session. OK, put your hands down now, people are looking at you kinda funny.

During a typical brainstorming session we come up with a bunch of clever ideas about how we are going to revolutionise the World/Business/Breakfast Menu, and scribble them down so we end up with a room full of flip charts and post it notes. Up to this point we are doing fine, but then someone says, “we need to keep this, Fred/Jenny (insert name of minion here), can you type this up and give everybody a copy. Oh, and we need that yesterday. Thanks sooooo much.”

Now let’s rewrite this scenario by setting up a brainstorming diagram using Visio and projecting it to the room. Using the Brainstorming template, drag in a Main Topic shape, and add a title. Once that’s done, right click on the shape, select Add Multiple Subtopics and we are presented with a nifty dialog box. Now we can dispatch our fastest typist to the front of the room and begin shouting our pet ideas at them.

After our session we can click OK and a wonderful Brainstorming diagram appears before our eyes. Choose a style from the Brainstorming menu and boom! Instant Artist!

The great thing is that we can immediately save and send this to our team, and it will be back at their desk before they are!

Visio Diagram Types

  • Flowcharts
  • Cross Functional Flowcharts (Swim lanes)
  • Organisation Charts
  • Network Diagrams
  • Server Rack Diagrams
  • Brainstorming Diagrams
  • Floor Plans
  • Site Plans
  • Timelines
  • Gantt Charts
  • SharePoint Workflows
  • Data Flow Diagrams
  • Calendars
  • And more…

In summary, you might just find yourself saving a good deal of time by using Visio. Of course you can go ahead and create flowcharts in Excel, but it’s a bit like building spreadsheets in Word; it can be done, but it’s not pretty, and it’s not efficient. A saying I’m fond of is, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like nails”. Sometimes you need a different tool for the job, perhaps even a Swiss Army Knife®. Visio is there for when that need arises.

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