Aug 29, 2010

Choosing online collaboration tools for teams

some rights reserved by schwa23 on flickr
We know teams are the way to get things done, but it’s hard to collaborate when we’re geographically dispersed. Working together at a distance seems to cry out for technology, but which one? I thought I’d ask a bunch of smart IT guys about it. After all, they have teams trying to get work done too. Here’s some of what I heard from the experts at the LinkedIn group, Chief Information Officer Network

E-mail is still the default collaboration tool -- it’s familiar and effective to a point. It becomes unwieldy quickly, however, when more than a couple of people are involved. How often have you struggled to make sense of a long email thread with non-chronological messages crossing each other? When you use e-mail to send documents for comment, keeping track of versions gets crazy quickly. That’s when you say there must be a better solution. Naturally, Microsoft and Google appear, as if by magic, each with their own supporters.

SharePoint from Microsoft is a big favorite. Ten of my advisors said they used it -- though not all were enthusiastic about it. Companies with broad Microsoft licenses tend to choose it as part of a package. It stores documents, schedules meetings, includes chat… On the downside, for any complex implementation, outside resources may be required. Some say it needs to be supplemented with more communications and social media tools. Jive SBS was mentioned as an option for adding rich social media features for internal (and external) collaboration. Yammer didn’t come up in the discussion, even after I asked about it, so let’s assume it’s not gaining much ground yet.

In support of Sharepoint, Linda says you can't beat using something that integrates with the rest of the Microsoft tools and Office suite. It saves on training and removes the need to have people learn new tools -- she says she’s seen it work for companies with 95,000+ users with a Project Management portal featuring business intelligence/dashboards pulling data from diverse systems (MRP, ERP, CRM, SaleForce, financial systems, etc.), even creating forms that work with legacy systems.

Google apps were mentioned by four people. I work on volunteer teams that use GoogleDocs, which allow any of us to update a document or spreadsheet. (You can work with .ppt files, but we haven’t so far.) Google Docs are good for users who need the cloud because they have no home server platform.

In the other camp, Mike is a fan of Google Apps Premier (GAP). His company has a number of facilities, and one had a fire last year. With a major proposal due, his team used Google Docs and Google Sites with online chat without missing a beat, he said.

Richard also likes Google Apps because it’s on the web, not dependent on internal factors, and collaboration is real time, as several people can work on a document at once.
And Android has the potential to bring Smartphones into the picture.

Some of the other tools mentioned were:
  • Microsoft Groove
  • ActionBase
  • Cisco WebEx
  • ExpertChoice
  • Wikis
  • MS Project
  • SmartSheet
  • Tableau
  • IBM Lotus Notes

Joaquim has a new iPad and is trying apps. He reports that TODO lets you manage projects, back them up on your desktop/notebook, and share activities with your team, via e-mail. He wonders if tablets will change the game.

It's not the tools but the thinking

The anti-tech solution came from one person -- cutting off access to computers to get people to talk to each other. It’s true that it’s too easy to e-mail people who work a few feet from us rather than taking time to talk face-to-face or to have a quick stand-up meeting. As Patrick said, “If your people sit next to each other but never peer over cubicle walls to talk to each other, all the Sharepoint, clouds, unified communications, etc. will do nothing to change that fact.” Shelwyn said that if you have a collaborative team, almost any tool will probably do.

David echoed what many lean professionals already know -- “Collaboration is more about mindset than it is about the tool. A collaborative culture will leverage any of the tools mentioned above. Likewise, a siloed culture will let them go to waste. Focus on changing corporate mindset and the tools will help the process. They'll never drive it.”

Tom likes to get team leaders in a room for 10 or 15 minutes every morning to understand what is on the agenda for the day and where team members can give or get help. He said it helps build a culture where team members openly discuss concerns/issues/opportunities with peers, and the synergies benefit the overall team performance immeasurably.

These comments are apropos to teams that are geographically close. The issues that come up with distance are more complex. Either way, getting people comfortable with the tools, so that the tools don’t get in the way of people interacting, depends on thoughtful choice and implementation.

Gian said tools need to be very easy to use, and interconnected with the applications that people use every day to do their work. They also need to be customized to business unit or clients they serve, he said, and require a dedicated resource(s) to administer and edit content to ensure that there is enough value that people want to use it.

Addressing the need to collaborate before you automate, Madhu shared his favorite ways to break corporate silos and get employees to collaborate:
  1. A common goal, challenge, or interest motivating employees to come together for a common cause.
  2. Reward or encouragement during the early adoption stages - This need not be monetary but need to have something to encourage and go the extra mile.
  3. Feedback once the common goal has been achieved leaves everybody with a good taste and encourages them to do it again.

Afzal pointed to a need organizations often forget about or skimp on: training. While some would disagree, he sees an age disconnect in the acceptance of tools and technology as a catalyst and facilitator for collaboration. “The generations who did not grow up in a world of global communication have a tendency to feel less at home with using SMSes, instant messaging, video and even audio conferencing, not to mention white board applications, distributed file systems, etc.,” he said, adding, “Any CIO who goes into the deployment of tools without understanding the nature of their user base, and their readiness to accept the tools, is looking for trouble!”

Many thanks to the folks who chimed in to answer my question on the Chief Information Officer Network on LinkedIn.

Aug 14, 2010

Baby invents social networking strategy on iPad

I was riding in the back seat of a Jetta in Chicago traffic, with my 18-month-old granddaughter in her car seat on my left and my son on my right. He had handed her his iPad with an app for babies -- by touching the pad she could make letters and numbers show up, and make them bigger or smaller or dance around by touching them in different ways.

She seemed to have accidentally exited the game, so she handed the iPad to her daddy, who touched the game's icon, opened it up and gave it back to her. After that happened a few times and they passed the toy across me, I decided to help her. It didn't take long to see how to swipe the icons across, find the distinctive and recognizable one for the game and return it to her. Yes, the iPad is indeed very intuitive to use. But I asked my son why the game kept closing on her, and he showed me the spot on the iPad frame that exits apps.

Then I caught on to her strategy. She was closing the game on purpose, so she could get dad's attention and involve him in her own iPad social interaction strategy -- apparently one that was much more satisfying than playing a silly alphabet game some geeky educator had designed to keep her occupied.

Babies invent new strategies constantly. I wish it was easy to get to that state of open play where new ideas are the best.

Aug 10, 2010

Saturday afternoon with Captain Karl's Lean Nation

Captain Karl
I spent part of Saturday afternoon 5S-ing old files, and decided to make it even more productive by catching up on podcasts of Karl Wadensten’s Lean Nation radio show. If you haven’t heard it, you’re missing something remarkable. Every afternoon at 4 pm Eastern time, Karl, president of VIBCO, interviews someone with an enlightening story about lean, current authors like John Toussaint, and influential thinkers like Jamie Flinchbaugh, Andy Carlino, and Don Dinero.

Karl also talks to people like Bill Hodge and Paul Bonin from UPS and Kenn Fischburg, President of Consumer's Interstate Corp (also known as Toilet Paper World) about his company’s experience with these supply partners and how they helped folks at VIBCO make lean improvements. Hodge, Bonin, and Fischburg were all knowledgeable about lean, willing to visit VIBCO and see what they could offer to streamline processes, and well aware of what the impact on VIBCO’s operations would be.

Starting with shipping, which Karl rightly recognizes at the critical link between you and your customer, the focus was on common problems and not a sales pitch for “what Brown can do for you.” VIBCO’s processes were like those of many companies, requiring rekeying of data when shipping costs were found and handoffs to UPS took place as well as lookup of specific orders -- and VIBCO ships a lot of items. In customer service, representatives had to flip through web pages to tell customers what the price differences would be if they shipped UPS ground vs. next day vs. other options. These were multiple daily transactions, all waste.

You don’t have time to keep up with new services from all your vendors, and VIBCO didn’t know everything UPS could do for them. By being on site, observing what was happening, and identifying frustrating little obstacles, Paul was able to help people solve problems. New abilities for data linking from UPS could add actual shipping status and cost to order records without rekeying, and tracking data could be made visible to customers automatically. (Don’t you love it when you order from an online vendor like Zappos and can see when your order gets on a truck, makes it to Louisville, to Toledo, and on another truck to you, all from a link in an automated order acknowledgement.) Wow, now VIBCO’s order shipping people are moving their customer’s equipment and parts to them, not typing.

In customer service, the rep can enter the order while on the phone with the customer, flip through the various options based on the shipping weight and not have to change pages once. It saves more than time. For customers on the phone, that long pause when the customer can only wait is gone. It’s a better buying experience.

Karl also talked about how UPS helped out when an urgent order just couldn’t be ready by the standard UPS pickup time. Paul happily shares his cell phone number, and he’s ready to arrange whatever he can to handle an exception. Not only will Paul help VIBCO, he offered to hook up any listener with a rep in their area who would do the same good partnering that he does.

At the other end of the value stream -- purchasing -- Kenn Fischburg’s applies the lean model to buying office and operations supplies. His website makes it easy to place a credit card order for any number of categories of common products, which will be shipped, usually within 24 hours, from one of TPW’s 26 warehouses. Kenn talked about an early “aha” moment, when a customer asked, “Do you sell candy too?” Kenn’s answer was, “If you want me to sell candy, I’ll sell candy!” That’s grown to a proverbial one-stop-shop for busy purchasing employees.

Toiletpaperworld has a jump on a lot of companies in bringing a friendly social media side to its relationship with customers. It’s capable of being funny -- see the toilet paper survey data in  -- and Kenn writes a blog that appears on the website and in Facebook. Who doesn’t need a trivia break in the office when you’re ordering the most mundane supplies in the world?

Toiletpaperworld has more lean practices internally, which they also share with customers. I wrote about those last year: Helping your customers get lean. (I think the post might have been based on something else I read, which I should have cited, but thanks, Kenn, for the link you added to the Toilet Paper Encyclopedia.)

During the rest of my 5S afternoon, I listened to more about supply chain improvement when Leslie Taito from RIMES hosted a talk with Cheryl Snead, CEO of Banneker Industries and Ron Nussel, Founder and President of ICR Group. I topped off the day by listening to Karl talk to Michael Brassard of Lean Pathways about strategy deployment.

I must confess that, as a print-biased learner, I rarely use podcasts or videos to keep up with lean, but I’m going to do more of it. I’ll be listening to Karl Wadensten’s Lean Nation, because his interviews are so engaging and intense as well as being well grounded in a solid understanding of lean principles. I’m scheduled as a guest August 16, to talk about trends I see, so listen in and send me feedback. It’s a rehearsal of sorts for my debut behind the microphone at the IQPC Process Excellence Leaders Meeting in Chicago September 13-16. Don’t let me make an idiot of myself.

Aug 2, 2010

Massively collaborative projects

Call it a cloud. Call it a community. Call it a project. Social networks on the web can collaborate to produce great things. Everyone knows Wikipedia, but not everyone knows about Project Gutenberg and one of its support communities, the Distributed Proofreaders.

To step back in time to 1450, Johann Gutenberg started a massively collaborative social media phenomenon when he invented the printing press. It freed knowledge from monasteries, clergy and wealthy aristocrats. A man with a bit of capital could print easy-to-read books, newspapers, and pamphlets that almost anyone could buy or distribute for free. Once almost anyone could learn to read, the church or government lost their monopolies on information. It was a revolution. By 1776, the coffee houses of London were raucous networks of idea exchange about the latest news in print. Lloyd's of London coalesced as a collective securitization of merchant shipping risk. Postal services had volumes of new mail to take from person to person.

Now that digital information is freed from paper, just as when printing freed it from parchment, old books are being freed from libraries. Printing saved knowledge from isolation and the risk of destruction, and digitizing knowledge has an almost infinitely greater potential.

Project Gutenberg starts with scanned documents, the same as Google Books. Image scans, like PDFs or specialized viewers, have their limits. Books available unless you have the right program or device. What happens when formats become obsolete? Because Project Gutenberg renders documents in text, they can be viewed or converted almost universally. You can download nearly any out-of-copyright book you can think of, for free, from the Project Gutenberg library on the web. Now the project is moving into more obscure and specialized works, those even more in danger of loss.

Getting from scan to text with people
To get from scans to text is rocky road. OCR (optical character reader) software is unable to make sense of broken type, smudges on paper, and so on. Here's where the massive collaboration comes in: Thousands of human beings, working for no pay, are inspecting the defect-ridden text rendered by OCR, stripping out page headers and footers, and opening up knowledge to anyone with internet access.

The Project Gutenberg Distributed Proofreading (PGDP) network has been around for a while. It has released 18,793 meticulously inspected books to Project Gutenberg. 3,016 are in progress, 688 currently being proofread. How big is the effort? Of nearly 100,000 registered users, 535 people helped in one typical, more than 1,000 in a week, and more than 2,000 in July 2010.
Distributed Proofreaders cumulative results

Not fancy, but functional: The proofreading interface
As if to show that collaboration doesn't have to depend on expensive glitzy platforms from bigtime software vendors, it has evolved on old but robust open source platforms, to include a dedicated project management application, phase gates, community-developed standard work, continual improvement, project bulletin board discussions, an active wiki for collective member knowledge, social interaction, teams, mentoring, and lots of feedback data to members on team and individual progress.

It is a culture as much as a structure for a work process. People drawn to the community have a shared purpose: getting out-of-copyright books into the public domain, usable in any format on any reader, preserving knowledge and classic works. While the number of pages in the works at any given time is immense, the goal requested by the community from any one proofer is a page a day. It's a takt that is easy to swallow.

A sociable experience
As you peel back the layers of the work, the social media levels begin to reveal the personalities of the leaders, as well as the new entrants and the workers who are developing their skills. A conversation on a project discussion board or in the wiki starts to feel like friendship after a while, and our emotional satisfaction brain circuits begin to create engagement. The member becomes part of a team.

In a wiki, people don't always explore the “history” and “discussion” tabs, but they are where the social richness is found. In the Distributed Proofreader wiki, the work process is discussed at high level of knowledge and conscientiousness, a sense of holding the members to high standards, and I'm in awe of the people who make such a huge commitment to creating defect-free texts to share with the world.

From a lean perspective, you might ask how much inspection is appropriate. PGDP has three levels of proofing, two levels of formatting, and a couple more levels of rendering before a text is released. There is a way to record whatever is changed at each level, to show whether proofreaders are just changing the same word back and forth, and to identify give feedback to proofreaders who need more training on the standard. There are a couple of experiments that carry a text through many rounds (the one I saw is up to 10)  to see how people behave when given an endless opportunity to change things. At all times, the original scan is available and the project manager usually has the paper text for validation.

What can we in the lean community learn from the Distributed Proofreaders? Some of our projects produce documents, so there is a direct set of lessons. We can also learn how much work people are motivated to contribute when they believe in the importance of the result. Motivation comes out of interaction too. There is an extraordinary emphasis on fairness, civility, and respect for people that is not found in an old-style business culture. And the technology does not have to be the latest in order to produce a good project experience.

In fact, lean tells us that when team members work in close proximity, frequent face-to-face interactions, white boards, paint on walls, and pictures are all more effective than computerized "knowledge management systems" that become knowledge prisons.

But as our teams are forming across functions, organizations, and industries, we need online tools to collaborate, conduct team projects and interact. We won't all have satellite conferences, vast simulations, and virtual worlds to work within.

Project Gutenberg took years to create, and we need to move faster. What open tools do you use for team projects? The venerable conference call? Webex or Go-to-Meeting? Google Docs (my teams use them a lot)? Dropbox? Sharepoint? Have you found something else?
Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm