Steven Westwell’s blog

My outlook on a few things of interest to me, and hopefully you.

Posts Tagged ‘Instant Messaging’

Unified Communications: Choosing the right method of communication

Posted by Steven Westwell on April 1, 2008

Synopsis

Nothing causes me more psychological pain in the morning than the outlook status message “updating inbox (3.35mb)”. On the up side this grants me the time to go get myself a coffee and some breakfast.

The last thing I want to do is wait for 20 minutes or more whilst outlook downloads a 2 or 3MB file, before I can read the rest of my email. It’s worse if I have only been a CC on a 2 or 3MB presentation or document sent to someone else for their review, and I don’t remember signing up to those 1MB weekly PDF newsletters I keep getting? 

I suppose it could be worse, it could have been an excel spreadsheet being sent to the team, and each team member may have responded attaching his/her copy with their comments and changes applied.  We will be tackling this situation in detail in the follow up posts on SharePoint Vs Excel.

Maybe I’m being a little unreasonable, this sort of thing happens en-mass in almost every company I have ever worked in. Basic computing lessons teach us how to use email and how to attach files, so why wouldn’t it be the most commonly done thing?

What can be done?

Email is one of the most inefficient ways to transfer files, and one of the quickest ways to utilise storage all over your enterprise. Typically each file sent via email exists a number of times within the enterprise, be it on your local machine in a PST file, your Mail server, your Enterprise Mail archiving solution or backups of any of the above. When you apply this logic to emails larger than 1MB it soon stacks up.

It’s no surprise then that one of the most appealing benefit metrics of collaboration & unified communication software is the reduction of email attachment sizes and enterprise storage requirements.  However user adoption is critical to the success of these factors.

If user adoption fails, what can we do by policy? well, we can always look to limit attachment sizes via exchange of course we then force the impact over on to the collaboration tools, however these are designed to manage such burdens via site quota, user quota & retention policies etc.

What can we do better?

As an individual however there is a number of things that can be considered when thinking about sending a communication

table of consideration

table of consideration

The above table only really works when you are considering a single factor, when you begin to combine them the decision over which medium to send your message becomes a little more complicated. 

Email: Often best placed when a reasonable size of message is required to be sent beyond that of “can you remember to send over your status report please?” or even for those smaller messages when the recipient isn’t online, lowest file sizes possible

IM: Typically much shorter than an average email, at least per message sent, sometimes transcripts of conversations can seemingly go on forever! These messages are usually conversational or consist of short one line notifications i.e. “do you have a minute to run through this spreadsheet?”, “yeah, shall we grab a coffee first?”.  Another useful feature of instant messaging is the ability to transfer files between two users, either Peer to Peer shared folders (as in Live Messenger) or one to one file transfers, these file transfers can also handle a reasonably sized file depending on your connectivity and the amount of time both you and the recipient will be online for.

Collaboration workspace:  interactive, known size of team / participants, drives process or aim for production of document(s) and collation of supporting materials, suitable for the majority of team focused documentation up to around 50mb. Blogs and wikis

Portal: basic interaction, large numbers of viewers, reasonably varied file sizes

Static Intranet: zero interaction, large numbers of viewers, any file size 

Phone: sometimes, just sometimes, its good to talk.

Moving between mediums

The more integrated your product set, the easier it is to shift between mediums. smart tags allow seamless integration between instant messaging presence information and a multitude of other products, using the Microsoft suite as examples, the smart tags can be found in office side panels, outlook To: and From: fields, sharepoint lists

When it all works well together the following little ramble of events is possible:

You could be editing a document in word and see the original authors presence information in the side panel or on the sharepoint site you are editing the document on.  You can click on their name and within seconds be instant messaging, a link to the document in sharepoint gets pasted or the document is shared in real time via application sharing… The conversation starts to flow a little and a couple of clicks later you can be in a Voice over IP call to their IM Client, desk phone or even Mobile phone.  All your changes are made and you save the document back to the sharepoint site, you set the status of the document to final in the document library’s meta-data and walk away…

The status change triggers a workflow, reviewers assigned to your document set are notified by email that a final version is available… they spot a couple of issues and want to talk to you about it via:

  1. Email including link to document?
  2. Email with document attached
  3. Collaboration tool?
  4. IM?
  5. VoIP/phone?

Questions and queries can often be made quickly and discussed easily via IM or Phone, if the user is not available, then mail is still a very good option.

Comments are discussed, the reviewer finishes their review but still feels more work is required, summary feedback is given via:

  1. Email including link to document?
  2. Email with document attached
  3. Collaboration tool?
  4. IM?
  5. VoIP/phone?

If the workflow has been set up as described above, it is fair to assume that further workflow will be in place to handle the feedback / approval process, probably with in built email notification. In order to ensure traceability of the review IM or Phone  are not necessarily persistent and many people use their inbox to drive their daily tasks, remembering a long since past conversation could cause confusion at some point.

I’m sure many of my future posts will include more thorough examples of collaboration scenarios and how they can be best utilised to improve employee performance.

Regards,

Steven

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Differences between social and workplace technologies

Posted by Steven Westwell on March 27, 2008

I was glad to see that my previous post provoked an interesting article by David, a good friend of mine who’s blog you can find in my blogroll. David posted an article on fractured online identities.

David made some valid points on the drawbacks of many social networking sites in the public domain, which in turn triggered another essay of an entry by myself on what differentiates public and workplace targetted implementation of social & collaborative technologies.

I will apologies in advance for using both facebook and sharepoint as examples, they are both platforms I am familiar with, and in many cases I will only be using these as illustrations of the points I am making.

One of Dave’s key points that I would like to talk about is the walled and closed off communities that online social networking sites employ and the fragmentation of your online identity by the creation of accounts on each of these. In the workplace this is less of an issue, Active Directory and identity management systems tend to be used to ensure the integrity of an employee’s identity within the workplace systems.  If we then treat each company as a walled community, federation of services allows other trusted company’s to utilise these identities and overcome such problems.

A good example of this is the federation between the company I work for and a partner company, if I log into my corporate instant messaging client (Office Communicator) I can add users from within my own company and that of the partner. When using sharepoint on projects using resources from both companies all of the user information is consistent. 

-If you are using both Office Communicator and SharePoint then you also get embedded presence information and a multitude of communication options, I will cover these in another post soon on Unified Communications which will be the real successor to my previous post.-

There are many ways in which the above one true identity goal has been attempted within the public domain, Microsoft Live IDs (also known as xbox live and MSN Passport), OpenID etc…

However, many social networking sites choose not to use these… why? lets begin with our facebook example:

I would imagine facebook makes a significant amount of revenue from its advertising and application partners, the latter I am uncertain of, but it’s easy enough to spot the facebook applications which actually charge money for features (i.e. the gift application that costs $1 per gift).

So lets focus on the advertising, a typical business model for many websites.

In order for a social networking site to make money from advertising it must have a known userbase of people that will actually see the ads, a simple way to do this is to monitor the number of users you have in your community… and how do you implicitly increase this number? by making anyone who wants to use your site or access the information on your site create a new account, its a lot easier than analysing your web logs.

Great, another login you need to remember, but another statistic for selling adspace: “We have a userbase of X and are growing at Y% each month… wouldnt you like to advertise your products against people with Z in their list of interests?”

So couldn’t social networking sites leverage unified identities? sure, some probably do, even beyond Microsofts own live spaces which integrate in the same way across all Live services (xbox live, live mail, live messenger, live spaces etc…). You only need to create a single list of your interests and when you create a new account on a social networking site and grant permission for the site to pull this information from your identity provider of choice, fantastic.

I can only see a few drawbacks to this ideal, firstly competition between identity vendors, secondly, their adoption by social networking (and other) sites and finally user adoption… the average non techy user who makes up the majority of the internet, who may only log onto a computer in their home once or two times a week… would they know about or care to use such an identity provider, when at the time in question they only want to use one website that all their friends are talking about.  In a couple of months maybe they will want to use a different one instead? if they wanted to use another site would they want to be seen as the same person? or would they want a new alter ego? what if a friend invites you to view something on a site they are signed up to, but you do not trust the site with your contact information… do you want to give it access to your information? and what if your identity provider dissapears off the web?

I personally have two distinct identities, my professional identity and my personal one. A good example of this is that I have two Live Messenger accounts, one for talking with colleagues and one for communicating with friends and family. I can turn the personal one off when at work to ensure I do not get messages during meetings with clients about which pub we will be going to that night.

– I will be covering this further in the next UC post mentioned earlier, control and appropriate methods of communication that is… not which pub we are going to tonight… we’ll be deciding that over sushi later-

Within the workplace, the IT department will typically pick a platform for collaborating.  From a knowledge management perspective it makes sense to unify your information sources, even if you use best of breed platforms at each level, some cohesion between the products is desirable.

To allow multiple platforms with the same functionality and/or dispersed collaboration environments would complicate things greatly… where do you go for that critical information? how many different places do you have to learn to go as a new joiner to the company? which geography and user groups are using what technologies/servers/sites? some world class products still retain this problem if inefficiently implemented.

Thats why companies invest in technologies such as Microsoft Office SharePoint Server to pull together your corporate repositories that are created with more readily a cheaply available software like the Windows SharePoint Services component of Windows Server 2003/2008 or even smb network shares… The single corporate identity makes this possible, permissions and access levels are retained across systems and your single point of entry is smart enough to filter what you see accordingly regardless of source.

In my opinion the roles of technology in the workplace are better defined, Windows SharePoint Services can be used to create and generate information, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server acts as a portal that pulls together your information into a one stop shop, outlook acts as a think client viewer of your portal or content source to keep the important aspects at your fingertips, RSS is always present to grease the wheels of interoperability… how are these defined outside of the workspace?

Facebook attempts to cover most of these, an individual creates content, the home page provides you with a portal view of all of your friends and your email client / facebook inbox acts as your receptical for messages.  These are all determined by the facebook website and there is no seperation of functionality, there are only a few slight hints at interoperability with RSS feeds for notifications and status updates.

At least in the corporate environment this architecture is determined and planned, technologies evaluated and functionality chosen to suit the needs of the business, a known user group… hardly the be everything to everyone approach online communities are attempting in order to grow the userbase and drive ad revenue.

In my previous post I glossed over the public networks where possible, and used it purely as an example of evolution of the users mindset and acceptance of change, It is a very different game to the corporate environment.

I think a common theme in both Davids post and my own is user adoption is critical to the success of any implementation, be that driven by fad or training. Implementation of a technology will not ensure success within the workplace, users must be willing to accept change, be trained appropriately and it helps if they have a reason to use it… how does it directly make their life easier when they embrace it?

Hopefully I can provide some examples of the latter in future blog posts.

Regards,

Steven

upcoming posts:

Unified Communications: Choosing the right method of communication

Collaboration: Excel V SharePoint (i) with custom views, concurrent editing & notifications

Collaboration: Excel V SharePoint (ii) with workflow, RSS and Outlook integration

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