Plan Faster

imageThat’s the Jack Rabbit pictured at the right. It’s a roller coaster in Kennywood Park outside of Pittsburgh and it’s been rolling since 1920. It has changed over time, but it still offers the basic promise of a thrilling ride. It’s still a very important part of the overall joy of spending a day at Kennywood. I’m sorry, this isn’t my vacation blog, and I do have a point. The world of information management is changing very fast, but we can still keep the whole package viable, if we manage change correctly.

About a year ago, we made the decision to use Citrix ShareFile. I started to explain that a while back, and I promised a more detailed explanation, but I’m not going to provide that today. One reason is that the ShareFile we decided to use has changed. It’s changed quite a bit, as has every other file-sharing service. If I explained the features we liked about ShareFile this time last year, you might say: “you can get 10x that amount of file space today for free!” You would be wrong. You can get closer to 50x today for free if you look in the right places.

That isn’t the point, that can’t be the point.

That could never be the point. You could never make business decisions based solely on price, but you clearly can’t do that today when it comes to file sharing and online storage.

The point, my dilemma, the next IT problem, is that the pace of change is exceeding our ability to plan like we used to. Remember Roadmaps? Remember when the industry leading vendors would tell you what they were planning to do over the course of the next 3-5 years? I do. I remember being able to take those roadmaps, with a few grains of salt, and build our 1-3 year plans from them.

Forget that.

You can’t do that anymore.

We selected a product/service (ShareFile) in October 2013. By the time we explained our plans to use that service to a committee representing our customers in April 2014, it had changed significantly. Now, as we are getting ready to roll out the solution, it has changed even more. It’s OK. It still does what we want it to do. And, the changes are mostly good, or the kind that might be good someday. I don’t have this stuff all figured out, but here are a few things I think we have to keep in mind as we try to hang onto this ride:

Maintain control – You can’t run your business if you cede control to vendors who are fighting for their own survival. You might not be able to specify the details of your plan as it extends very far into the future, but you still have to have a plan.

Maintain focus – If you’re saying “how can I plan when technology is changing so fast?” you might be focused on the wrong thing. You might be focused on the tools. My plan is to support the business needs of our company. ShareFile is a tool that I am using to meet those needs.

Be the buffer – If you think your head is swimming in a sea of technological change, think about your non-technical coworkers. You might be able to (I’m dropping the metaphor before I have to talk about someone drowning) deal with the pace of change, but they can’t. They shouldn’t have to. Remember, they have a day job. Even if you are using a cloud-based solution, you can control the pace of change through the solutions you build.

Avoid kit solutions – I buy a lot of tools, but the ones I won’t buy are the 18-piece battery powered every-tool-you-ever-need kits. I don’t buy them because when the batteries die and the new-fangled batteries aren’t being made to fit that kit, I’ve lost 18 tools. SharePoint might be a kit. I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy it, but we have narrowed our plans to use SharePoint to stay closer to what we think are its core capabilities. ShareFile basically does one thing. It’s a thing we need, so we’re good.

Avoid capital expenditures – One side-effect of cloud-based solutions is a move to subscription fees vs. capital expenditures. That’s a good thing. Large capital expenditures have to work over a long enough time to provide the return on the investment that you made to acquire them. The return on investment ends when those 18 inoperable tools have to be carted to the curb.

Communicate – Even though you can’t introduce change to your coworkers as fast as it’s being introduced to you, you have to change things faster than they want you to. Let people know what you’re thinking and where you are heading. Let people know when your plans start to change. Let them know that you’re managing rapid and uncontrollable change on their behalf.

Buckle-up, keeps your hands in the car at all times and enjoy the ride.

On the Air

clip_image002Last week’s post in which I mentioned making life easier for remote workers, generated a few questions about the technology that we use. So, I decided to share the lessons I’ve learned about these tools in the hope that it might help someone avoid the mistakes I have made. Unfortunately, that means that this post is not about SharePoint, and (perhaps worse) I threw away my normal 800-word limit.

We have had the technology to conduct online meetings for many years, and it seemed like such a simple concept. Some of it is simple; sharing slide decks, voice, and even video is pretty easy. Delivering an in-the-room experience to several remote attendees however, is not always simple. If you’re thinking of inviting remote attendees to join your in-person event, you might want to keep reading.

The service you use might matter – In the past 12 months, I have used Microsoft Lync, GotoMeeting, WebEx and Skype. There are benefits and drawbacks to each service, but none are significant enough to make one my favorite choice. What makes one service better than the other for any event is the audience. How many people are you going to have on the receiving end, and with what service are they most comfortable? For example, although Lync is my normal communication service, it doesn’t work well with Macs, and it has a complicated choice of clients for Windows users. I tend to use Lync only when everyone in the meeting already uses Lync.

Depending on what version has just been released, WebEx and GotoMeeting are functionally equivalent. We used GoToMeeting for years, but their entry level plan only supported 15 users. WebEx was supporting 25 users at the same price point, so we switched. I also think WebEx has a more intuitive control panel for the host. Skype is great if everyone has a Skype account, but I wouldn’t ask anyone to create an account just to attend my meeting. Also, if you’re like me, make sure that “Skype or Lync” is an exclusive OR condition. They don’t play well together. Hopefully this will change, but as of March 2013, you still might want to read this post.

There are other products, like UStream and Google, but I have no experience with those. Keep in mind that some companies limit the ability of their employees to download and install software like the runtime clients required by these services. Make your remote arrangements ahead of time.

The event – There are big differences between a video conference call, delivering a webinar style presentation and extending a live event to a remote audience. Conference calls are easy because everyone is responsible for their own “production” as it were. Also, most of the people on a conference call are familiar with the technology. Webinars, or broadcasting yourself to a remote audience are more difficult than a conference call, but they are still relatively easy to produce. A second monitor that you can use to share the slides is helpful, but even without one, you control the presentation, you can stay in the field of view of the camera and you can monitor the flow of comments that might be arriving over voice or instant messaging channels. Control, camera and communication all become problems when you are broadcasting a live event:

  • The speaker needs control of the slides. – The person giving the presentation is going to want to control the slide deck. You either need to give him/her a remote, or you need to let them use their own computer and bring them into the remote session. The first option, giving them the remote works well, but you need to have a copy of their presentation (including sound and video files) on your computer and you need to keep your operating system’s ‘focus’ on their presentation. That makes it difficult to control or even to interact with the remote attendees. If you think about sneaking away to respond to a comment while the speaker covers the current slide, remember that you are likely to advance their slide when you click back on their content. If you don’t do that, you will get to see that “what the heck?” face when the remote doesn’t work.

    The second option, making them part of the remote session and letting them share their screen works well, but requires that they also have Internet access and they you give them one of your remote slots. Also, if you split the feed like that, make sure you keep control of the audio and video and that you know how to get it back when they accidentally take control.

  • What does the video look like? – If you are sending live video, you need to pay attention to the camera, the speaker and little things like lighting and motion. Some video cameras let you pan and zoom during the event. Some let you choose zoom and level settings, but require that you disconnect and reconnect to your feed before those changes are applied. Of course, you can always move the camera on the tripod, or move the tripod.

    Talk to your speaker(s) ahead of time. Define a range of movement for them; ask them if they will be using the white board, or if they are planning to walk to the screen and point at stuff or if they are planning to use a laser pointer. If they are going to use other visual aids, make sure you know how to focus or where to move the camera so the remote audience can see them. Also, don’t be surprised if your speaker is less comfortable with the requirements of being on a virtual stage than they are with being in the room.

  • One Big Happy – Before you introduce the first speaker, mention the remote attendees. You don’t have to go down the list of names, but something like “…and I want to welcome the 10 people joining us over WebEx today” will serve to remind the speaker that those people are there. It will also help to explain the tripod, camera and microphone. You might also want to take a minute to explain how the remote attendees should ask questions (group chat, private chat, etc.).

It’s Showtime – After your first event, you will appreciate the next time they roll the credits at the end of a movie. Staging an event that includes a remote audience is not something you should attempt alone. You need at least a second person to help you, and our best events have had three people involved with the production tasks. One person needs to be the broadcast point. That person has the slide deck (or controls who is presenting) and that person has the connection to the remote audience. That person controls when the event is being recorded, when the audio is muted, when the video is being shared and physically adjusts the camera and the microphone.

A second person should be part of the remote audience while also in the room. The best example of this was our last AIIM Chapter event, where one of the Chapter board members was in the back of the room, watching the live feed on her iPad. She was our liaison with the other remote attendees, she could ask their questions, and she could type out the audience questions for them to read, since the mic only worked well for the speaker. If you have a third person, they can focus on the people in the room. Neither audience should be made to feel less important than the other.

Support – Things will go wrong, but you can reduce your problem count if you can do two things. First, communicate with your remote attendees ahead of time. Make sure they are comfortable with the service you are using – offer to arrange a test of the service. Second, give everyone information about the service you are using, as if they’ve never used it. If they are familiar with the program, they are free to ignore your advice the way frequent fliers might ignore the safety card in the seat pocket, but if they are new to WebEx, or it’s been a while since they attended a WebEx meeting, they will appreciate the information. As I mentioned with handling comments, if you hope to be able to use private chat during the event, you need a second person or at least a second device on which to have that exchange. Remember, that helper and / or that second device of yours counts toward your limit with the service you are using. That’s important if you are selling tickets for the event. If I am using WebEx, I cap the number of Live Stream tickets at 20 in Eventbrite. That way, I have a couple extra slots for helpers and I have one or two to give away to a person who paid to attend in person but had to cancel at the last minute.

Also, make sure that the remote attendees understand the finer points of the agenda. For example, our event started at 8:30 but it started with breakfast, so maybe remote attendees didn’t want to log on until 8:50, when our Chapter President started speaking

Rules – Make sure your speakers are aware of your broadcast plans. This can be a simple courtesy, just to inform the speaker that their content is being broadcast and / or recorded, or it could present a real problem. Our most recent AIIM Chapter event was about security, and one of our speakers was an FBI Agent. The agent could not be photographed, and she could not be on video. Even the venue may not want certain things recorded. These things may not present a problem, but a conservative approach will ensure that there are no surprises.

I have now been involved with about six events that included a local and a remote audience. I am clearly still learning how best to handle the nuances of AV production. I hope you find this helpful, if you have any questions, I would be happy to try and answer them and if you have anything to add, I would really appreciate your comments.

In Case You Missed Last Week

Last week, I wrote about customer service and why we (SharePoint/ECM/IT practitioners) should make it a priority. This week, I want to add a few thoughts to that argument from the customer point of view. I would suggest that if you don’t feel like reading this, then skip to the end, because after I turn this back to SharePoint, I have an announcement to make about something new on this blog.

In an earlier post on my personal blog, I ranted about how some things would end in 2012. I wasn’t trying to predict the future and I wasn’t reading the Mayan Calendar; I was simply announcing that I had reached a point where I could no longer tolerate certain behavior by services, marketers and vendors. Last week, something big changed at work, and I was both sad and proud to have made the decision to make the change. Without naming names, we dropped a vendor with whom we had once enjoyed a great relationship. Over the years, the vendor had moved from treating us like a good customer, to merely a customer to a revenue source and finally to a payable item; it was time to stop the bleeding.

I will point out that I wasn’t exactly suffering in silence with this vendor; I had complained numerous times, I had threatened to end this relationship and I had called every member of the account team that was handling our account. When I ignored the renewal invoice, I received an email chastising me for forgetting to pay for maintenance. I responded to that email by telling the maintenance service manager that I wasn’t sure we were going to renew the contract. I added a few of my reasons, let’s say enough to send the message that someone should call me. Instead of a phone call, I received another terse email and this time my boss was copied. Several days after the maintenance contract expired, I received an email from the Sales Manager asking if I wanted to talk about the changes they were making that he hoped would eliminate my problems – nope, too little, too late, color me gone.

Since I had been a customer of this company for over a decade, and since the sales manager did reach out to me, I felt he was entitled to an explanation. I didn’t really want to talk to him, but I wrote a lengthy (surprise) email detailing the history of our growing frustration. This is where I’m going to end the description of this saga and turn it back to SharePoint – your users aren’t going to be as considerate as I was. When your users get upset with you, your department, your solutions or your lack of attention to them, they are just as likely to move on without warning as they are to approach you for a discussion. I know of businesses around here that have fully licensed and provisioned SharePoint shops that are now also running a different ECM solution. I think just about every SharePoint professional knows of users that have gone off-grid and built their own SharePoint solutions, in fact some of you make a living supporting these rogue installations. From a customer point of view, customer service isn’t a luxury, it’s a requirement.

I feel better after having severed a relationship with an inattentive vendor, but I feel better still knowing that most of the vendors that we have chosen to work with are flat-out great organizations. If you’ve read this blog for very long, you know that I have called some of these people out on occasion for special recognition. Today, I am launching my “Who we like and why we like them” page. It’s not the most beautiful bit of HTML, but if you have been reading for a while, you remember that “make it work, then make it pretty…” mantra of mine. I wanted to say this and I didn’t want to wait until I could make it pretty. Please take a look at the page, and if you need the services that these people, companies and organizations offer, consider using them.

Communication Failures

clip_image002I’ve been following a communication disaster on LinkedIn this week that could have been avoided so easily, and yet, as easy as it is to say that, I might just make a similar mistake. Toastmasters International released a new dashboard for district officials to review their district stats, and lots of people had a lot of problems. The new version was built in Silverlight, and wouldn’t run on Linux systems, older Macs, and most mobile devices – #fail. After over 100 comments were added to the discussion, it was announced that an HTML version is coming “soon”. After the comment count climbed even higher, it was announced that an iOS version is also “in the works”. When you combine those and other answers, you have a really good story. The problem is: they never actually told the story. Communication failures occur for a variety of reasons, but the big three include:

I Never Told You – Information is like money during periods of high inflation. The longer you keep it, the less it is worth. Unlike money, information’s value can actually turn negative if you hold onto it too long. If someone ever earns the right to say “when did you know that?” – you are in trouble. Companies have lots of reasons for withholding information, including not wanting to disappoint investors or give a head’s up to the competition. Internally, there is no reason to withhold what you know from your customers (I’m trying to not call them users). We are currently telling people what our plans are, and we are letting them know what is/may be coming in the future that will impact those plans. We are talking about SharePoint 2013, about Windows 8 and about the next version of Office; we are even offering to let people look at our test installations. We are also talking about ECM and why the things that make SharePoint different from the K:-Drive really matter. There’s very little downside for us in sharing what we know, when we know it. Notice that I didn’t mention the next version of SQL Server – see the next point.

I Didn’t Translate – The folks at Toastmasters started out talking about Silverlight requirements, Intel chipsets, screen resolutions and monitor size, long before they said “oh wait, there is an HTML version coming.” The only thing that those comments did was add to the confusion. People outside of our department don’t want to hear anything with version numbers, hardware/software requirements and service packs. In addition, there’s a list of words I really try to avoid, including: platform, content, repository, database, Data View Web Part, JavaScript, HTML, web service and many, many more that only serve to make their eyes roll back in their head. We are trying to remember to talk about SharePoint in business terms, or in terms of the business process we are working with. Not only do our customers understand those terms, they appreciate the fact that we do, too.

I Told You My Problems – Those of us working the IT side of the fence always have a new language to learn, a new version of something on the horizon and a new bug we can’t crack. Newsflash – nobody cares! In the old George of the Jungle cartoon series, there was a cartoon called Super Chicken. When his sidekick would complain, Super Chicken would chide him with “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred!” Well, we all chose to work in this field. Droning on and on about how hard you are working, all of the things that should be but aren’t working or even how awesome your last accomplishment was, doesn’t count as communication. Save those stories for the next user group. Your customers want to hear about the progress you are making on the new feature they asked for. They want to see a demo and they want to hear you describe things in a way that tells them you really do understand the business requirements they trusted you to meet.

The Toastmasters discussion is still raging on LinkedIn. People are getting defensive on one side and angry on the other. Messages are being written in UPPERCASE. It’s reached the point, like all long discussions on LinkedIn, where newcomers who haven’t read the earlier comments are repeating complaints that have already been aired. There’s no way to stop this; there’s no ‘Undo’ option on a communication failure. These are mistakes you simply have to avoid making in the first place.