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.

Wherever – Whenever – Now

imageWednesday morning, I was involved in a business process that, over the course of four hours illustrated one of the points I plan to talk about at the AIIM Conference next month in New Orleans – the way we work and the way we need to work. While we worked through our issue, I was following some comments about an article from Cisco, regarding all the ways they think Microsoft Lync is inferior to their product. Ironically, the Cisco conversation underscores a second point of my presentation. OK, before this gets too hypothetical, let’s get to the story.

One of our engineers contacted the SharePoint designer on my team, asking if she could create a place for him to store some information about the sites we insure. They realized that the best place was on a site that we are building for our Emergency Response group. Our designer looped me into a message exchange and a phone call via Lync, and we all exchanged emails amongst ourselves, the ER group and our Systems Administrator. The interesting thing is that my SharePoint designer was in Florida on vacation, the engineer was working from home and the people in the ER group were traveling. Not only did it not stop us from making progress, I was the only one that realized that I was the only one of us in the office!

We often here about how remote workers need access to company information in order to do their job. In addition, we hear (and talk) about how well SharePoint helps us to meet that important requirement. But providing remote access isn’t the same as supporting remote workers. In order to allow remote workers to work, we have to provide an environment in which they can conduct business, not just read, write and store digital content. Of course, we have email, but email is too slow and lacks the functionality to support remote work. Remote work often requires a fluid conversation, and email can’t deliver that experience. Messaging systems can, and that’s what we use Lync for. Here’s a short list of what we could do via Lync, as we worked on this micro project:

  • Message Traffic – Instant messaging is a conversation exchange of information. It’s fast, easy and the conversation can be opened up to more people as necessary.
  • Voice – When a complicated question came up during our project, my designer simply called me (added voice) to the discussion. We talked for a while and then we dropped back to text messages.
  • Screen Sharing – We frequently run into questions like “how do I give (person) access to read the contents of this library?” The answer is “here, let me show you” followed by a screen-sharing session. Again, this can be between two people or the entire group. In addition, I can share my screen with you, or you can give me control of your screen.
  • Video – While it wouldn’t have been helpful in this exercise, we can also add video to a Lync conversation if it adds value.

In my presentation, I have a slide that speaks to “using technology” as being something Information Professionals have to do in order to further our collective cause. It doesn’t make any sense to own all this stuff and then postpone a meeting until we can all be in the same room. The other point that I make is that you should use “whomever” works. My SharePoint designer was on vacation, but she was available. If she hadn’t been available, I could have snagged my Systems Administrator. Lync lets me know their status by the Presence indicator, which is another powerful feature of unified messaging.

The point that the Cisco Twitter discussion supports has to do with the pace of decision making today. Simply put:

  • We don’t have time to be late adopters – Technology changes too fast to take a wait and see attitude. By the time we are done analyzing the current offerings, something new has been released. We have to be better at defining our actual requirements, and then move toward meeting them.
  • Imperfect solutions aren’t a type of failure – There’s an old saying “perfect is the enemy of good” which has long governed the work that I do. It’s not that I don’t want to deliver quality solutions, but there can be a big difference between a solution that is good enough and one that is perfect. Also, given the pace of change, the bar of perfection is constantly being raised.
  • The cost of doing nothing – While you’re waiting for the perfect solution, you are living without the benefit of the good solution you could have.

We looked at Microsoft Lync, and we looked at Cisco’s solution several years ago (before Lync was called Lync) and we chose Microsoft. Does Cisco do some things better? Who cares, Lync works for us.

No Train Wrecks Allowed

clip_image002Earlier this week On several occasions this past week, we were trapped inside a Mobius loop of inactivity due to failures of network equipment that resulted from the failure of some AC equipment as well as ill-timed changes to our DNS servers. Having tossed most of our technology eggs into the network basket, we limped along without phones, email, SharePoint and even access to our shared folders. Of course, we have contingency plans, but at what point do you pull the trigger on a change that requires relocating people? I can’t answer that, but I know it isn’t an amount of time that is measured in hours, unless something has been destroyed – enterprises, even small ones, just don’t move that fast.

I am counting on Microsoft to understand this fact about enterprises. Consumer pressure to respond to social, mobile and usability issues aside, they can’t expect to drag corporate America behind them at warp speed. The enterprise will turn about as quickly as the Enterprise. As we sit here today, looking at Windows 8, SharePoint 2013 and the next version of Office, we are in no hurry to adopt any of them. Sure there are machines here that are already sporting the Metro soon-to-be-named interface, but they are R&D items. In the past, we have been among the early adopters of new technology, but this time, we are likely to drag our feet – here’s why:

Mass – Despite the recent wave of annoying technical problems, our current configuration works pretty well. SharePoint, Lync, Exchange, SQL Server, and a whole bunch of systems that use those technologies are humming along. Those systems are talking to each other, and people are getting work done. Most of the job descriptions in my department include references to “staying current” and “researching emerging technologies” but the core requirement of every position’s job description is one that deals with “maintaining technology that is critical to company operations.” Watching over the past week as people lost phones, Internet access and email, I was reminded as to just how important that requirement is. The next generation solutions don’t only have to be released to manufacturing, I need to know that they all work, that they all work together well, and that they support our installed base of software and solutions. Given the speed at which Microsoft is remaking everything, I’m thinking we might not get to that one-big-happy-family state until a bunch of Service Pack 1’s are released.

Motion – Projects don’t stop when new releases are announced, even when the new technology will impact the solution being developed. For example, we are working on a SharePoint-based solution that is using the Mickey-Mouse method of enlisting workflows associated with multiple lists to iterate over the items in one list. SharePoint 2013 is said to support loops in workflows, but that doesn’t mean that we are going table this current project until we are on SP2013. One reason is that I don’t know if the way SharePoint will support loops will do us any good. A second reason is, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the feature get yanked out at the last moment. Finally, I have users waiting to use this solution. We may tweak our design to make it easier to change our workflows once looping is available, but for right now, it’s full speed ahead.

Here’s an example of how mass and motion combine to create momentum: prior to Microsoft announcing their upcoming slate (no pun intended) of tablets, we standardized on iPads. By standardize, I mean we put one in the hands of 2/3 of our employees, so that’s the mobile platform we have to work with through 2013. We have promised those same people a very specific app later this year, and I am still planning to build that app in xCode.

Planning – Microsoft might be reluctant to give me a roadmap that extends past the end of this year, but I have to give my boss one that stretches well into the future. In addition, I have to complete my 2013 budget request within 45 days. It was this time last year that we decided to buy those iPads, and when I think back, I didn’t see any reason why I should have made a different decision. So, looking ahead, I see continuing progress on using SharePoint to help us manage digital content and to improve the effectiveness of certain business processes. Our plans are based on what we know we can deliver during 2013. I stopped writing lists of accomplishments that begin with “due to the later than promised release of…” a long time ago. Our hardware, software, storage and bandwidth budgets will all be predicated on what we know (in September 2012) will happen in 2013.

Welcome 2012…Reprise

clip_image002As far as years go, 2011 wasn’t one of the best. Personally, I started the year in the care of a physical therapist struggling to mend a shoulder injury. Turning to business, and keeping in mind the business that we are in (insuring nuclear power facilities), 2011 brought us a little bit of everything. Topping the list were the devastating events in Japan, and as the year comes to a close, our thoughts and prayers remain with the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the earthquake and tsunami in March. Closer to home, our domestic insureds had brushes with tornados, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Our offices were closed due to snow on three occasions and dark for a total of 5 days from storms Irene and Alfred. 2011 was also a year in which we seemed to make a technological bet against Microsoft. We agreed on a strategy that put an iPad in the hands of about one third of our key users and saw us solidify our support for iPhones. As I write this blog entry, I am watching my MacBook Pro receive files from my MacBook Air and those files include my XCode development environment. So, what is it that has this SharePoint guy looking forward to 2012? In a word, everything.

If you follow any of my blogs, you know that we made a lot of progress on several SharePoint projects in 2011. We are entering 2012 on a roll, and one of the first things we will do is showcase some of that success to others in our small company. In addition, when we placed our bet on Apple, we counted on Microsoft to see the light and support iOS too. On Christmas Eve, I had a conversation with a friend from his iPhone Lync client, four days later, that client was running on my iPhone too. Rumor has it that Office apps are not far behind, and that’s a good thing for me, for Apple and for Microsoft, at least according to my own informal research – the top story on this blog in 2011 was “SharePoint on My iPad!”

My optimism is bolstered by the awesome performance of my team. My Systems Admin took everything we had learned about SharePoint and the way we use this powerful tool, and built our SP2010 environment from the ground up to fit our needs like a well-made glove. The woman on our team, who has been responsible for the user experience of SharePoint, stepped forward from the confidence-infusing session we had with Marc Anderson, and crafted some awesome features for our engineers. More importantly, she helped demonstrate that SharePoint has a role in our future development. Again, my informal statistics would indicate that SharePoint as a development platform is a good thing for others as well – “Symply the Best” my post about our training session with @Sympmarc, sits nicely in the top-10 SharePoint Stories posts of all time.

For the non-SharePoint fans in my world, we will be hiring a new developer in 2012, and he won’t be focused on SharePoint. His (or her) job will be to replace an aging generation of applications that run our niche business. On the other hand, he won’t be able to escape SharePoint’s reach entirely. Our users have already told us that they want the things that SharePoint does well to reside in SharePoint. So, contacts, tasks, and documents will be in SharePoint; while workflow and reporting will walk the lines between fat-client, client server and a browser powered by SharePoint.

2011 started with what seemed to be a series of sharp divisions between Apple and Microsoft, SharePoint and desktop, and documents and structured content. 2012 is starting with all of those worlds beginning to coalesce around the concepts of information and solutions. That brings me to AIIM, the organization that has been predicting, nudging, supporting and cheering this merger on for years. Rounding out the list of (my) popular blog entries is a collection of stories that are grounded in the concept of Content-Centric Applications, the term introduced to me by Jane Zupan of Nuxeo that I have embraced as the model for my future. As we start to define and build our next generation applications, structured and non-structured data will share center stage. AIIM has anticipated this development and seems well prepared to help lead the way with a new certificate program, a new conference and, at least in our corner of the world, a renewed interest in chapter events. I won’t quote Mr. Scrooge and claim to be “as giddy as a schoolgirl”, but I am looking forward to 2012 and I wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year.