Monthly Archives: November 2010

Why users need to take a “hands-on” approach to technology

Man with head down on his desk in front of his computer.Every time I hear someone lament about how their computer couldn’t possibly be working correctly, or it is somehow making their life more difficult because “it” should be here to “do that” (whatever the ubiquitous “that” happens to be), I enjoy handing them a hammer and nails and telling them they now have the tools to build their dream home… get to it.

Funny… another one of those articles written over 10 years ago that, until recently, I thought was completely irrelevant today – but after having worked with a few government entities that were deploying computers and new workflows for the first time – I found myself repeating much of the same mantra as I had with the introduction of new technologies and computers in both the Army and the Railway industries nearly 20 years before.

As with all these “older” articles – the fundamental truth remains valid today as it did then.

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Every time I hear someone lament about how their computer couldn’t possibly be working correctly, or it is somehow making their life more difficult because “it” should be here to “do that” (whatever the ubiquitous “that” happens to be), I enjoy handing them a hammer and nails and telling them they now have the tools to build their dream home… get to it.

On those rare occasions that I’m not immediately swatted up the side of the head, I’m often told “I can’t… I don’t know how”.

Yes… but you do have the tools in your hand that can “do that”.

Users need to clearly understand that computers aren’t magic. Likewise, the myth that “technology will make all our lives easier” is one of the biggest lies since “income taxes are only an interim measure to pay for the Great War”. There is a balance; and the pivot point is the knowledge, skills and expectations of the user.

The fundamental “truth” that the users need to understand is that the computer is nothing more than just another communications tool… no different from a telephone, television or VCR.

It will not auto-magically perform all the tasks that will move us into a Roddenberry-esk (yes, that’s a Star Trek reference) era of only “happy work” and lots of leisure.
Regrettably, just as with programming a VCR, there is a requirement to spend some time learning about the new technology.

Users shouldn’t feel that the technology is being thrust upon them however… and that they are in some kind of do-or-die/learn-or-leave environment (unless that really is your corporate culture).

Contrary to other myths, computers have actually replaced very few people. Instead, workflow and business process change.

More often than not, the “personnel savings” that come from implementing these new information systems are quickly eaten up by the requirement for support staff, subject matter experts, or simply the redirecting of the efforts of the old staff away from their manual duties to now focus upon the benefits of the new system.

Efforts wind up being directed towards system validation and ensuring its operation derives the maximum benefit from the investment (engaging in tasks such as data integrity verification, report generation, monitoring, trend analysis, etc.).

Likewise, the velocity or reaction time of the organization changes – to make better use of the information derived from the information technology – thus creating a strategic advantage (one of the reasons why we embraced the technology to begin with).

It is essential that users understand that act of learning and adapting to change rarely puts the operator or the new computer, technology or work-processes at risk (although a good hiccup in the system can be quite aggravating, and perhaps invoke a heart attack in those operators who haven’t seen their doctor prior to initiating training).

I still believe that the greater threat comes from not knowing how to operate and leverage the technology, rather than the risk of an aneurysm from using it.

Ever notice how Grandmother seems to have problems using the VCR (we’ll ignore the clock part… since most of us can’t do that)?

Many of us view the VCR as a pretty basic technology… put in the tape… press play, record, rewind, stop, etc… and it does what we want. Too simple?

It seems simple because we already possess the foundation knowledge required… probably gained through a similar technology that many of us regularly played with as a child… a tape recorder.

The lesson to be learned here?

Technology is changing fast… and its getting harder and harder to keep up.

There will quickly come a point where a novice user no longer possess the critical foundation knowledge/concepts required to adapt to the new operating systems and software (not without a LOT of effort).

That’s not to say that it’s going to be impossible; but users must be encouraged to make every effort to LEARN NOW! Encourage novice users to keep “black books” of lessons learned… participate in discussion forums and user groups where they can share their insights and ask questions.

Reward/acknowledge those “expert” users who help the others (yes, this can be a double-edged sword… and you need to watch out that these same experts don’t get overworked/abused).

All this effort by the users should be thought of as an investment… and as with retirement savings programs, investing at a later time will probably take significantly more capital to achieve the same degree of gain compared to investing just a little bit early on.

While I don’t necessarily advocate the use of pressure or scare tactics, users who want to procrastinate and not participate should understand one key lesson:

While almost no one has been replaced by a computer,
many have been replaced by a competent computer user….

FAX and e-mail integration… convergence for the small business

Frustratred woman at desk surrounded by paper.“Convergence” is essentially the joining of multiple information and media streams into one seamless integrated work environment. The integration of customer data/relationship management systems with the telephone system and operator workstation is one example of “convergence” that is taking place on the desktop. It’s often believed that convergence is only for the well- established large company… but there are many forms of convergence that can take place… and integrating them into your operations is easier, and less expensive, than you might think.

This is an article that I actually wrote a long time ago, but the lessons here apply just as readily today as they did when I originally published it.

What is intriguing is that many of the new small office/home office printers produced today have the same electronic fax services similar to those of a dedicated/on-line FAX services and are a great solution for those who have a phone line available to dedicate to the machine and work in the same network environment.

For the hardened road warriors like myself however, where you change networks and work locations as often (or more often) than you change socks, a dedicated 3rd party eFAX service (like J2.com) remains the solution of choice – and has been mine for the past 10 years or more.

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Like many businesses, you’ve probably come to realize that having a web site and e-mail is an essential part of your customer relationship management strategy; especially if you offer any type of operations/call centre or helpdesk.

While its usually not too difficult to keep electronic copies of outgoing documents (whether those are letter, e-mails or even the “original” versions of FAXes) incoming FAXes are often a challenge.

FAXes that are requesting service, information, or advising of a problem can be lost or misfiled; someone may be required to re-type the information (introducing the possibility of human error) when they send an internal company e-mail to have someone look into the problem, or get back to the customer.

Likewise, a FAX that is a signed “authorization” to bill, or engage in some activity, could be critical to maintain for billing or legal purposes in the future.

Obviously you could use a scanner to capture these documents in electronic format… but at the cost of the time and effort for someone to actually do this (and lets be honest, that “hot potato” from an irate client is going to be copied and around the office before anyone has the time to scan the original).

The ideal solution, of course, is for the FAX to be scanned in as its arrives.

Solutions

There are two main solutions that you can consider:

  • establish your own FAX server
  • subscribe to an on-line FAX-mail service (a “virtual” FAX server)

Establishing Your Own FAX Server

This would be in the form of a computer* that would quite literally replace your FAX machine, and operate its own FAX management software.

* note that as I said at the beginning of this article, you no longer need a computer/dedicated server; many of the new multi-function printers today have this capability built in

Advantages

  • you control your own service
  • many packages also permit outgoing FAX management
  • retain your existing FAX line
  • can automate FAX broadcast to multiple customers – sending out mass “FAXings” to clients/leads on services

Disadvantages

  • hardware/software purchase, set-up and configuration
  • you may need to manually integrate with office e-mail system (it may not automatically mail to your operations desk, or receptionist)
  • not quickly or easily replaced in the event of a failure (unless you keep the old paper FAX machine handy)

This would be a largely dedicated PC** that would be running 24/7 for this service, and require regular backups, surge-suppressors (both on the power and telephone line), UPS (battery backup systems), etc.

** once again – less of an issue now that multi-function printers do this, but you still should have a backup power supply and surge supressors.

Subscription to a FAX-mail Service

With this solution, you would essentially be “outsourcing” your FAX server service.

Advantages

  • quick set-up; no initial capital outlay
  • redundancy is the responsibility of the service provider (remember to check those service level agreements, and research their performance/outage records)
  • FAXes are automatically forwarded to an e-mail address that you specify (to your receptionist, or helpdesk/operations centre for instance)
  • it can be relatively simple and quick to set up additional FAX numbers for special/VIP clients, promotions, etc.
  • some services also include out-going FAX capability (but be careful of outgoing fees – especially when sending a FAX broadcast to multiple receivers)

Disadvantages

  • you don’t own/control the receiving number (however, you could auto-forward your old number to the new one through your telephone company… this would also provide a fallback plan if you should need to go back to your old FAX, or change service providers)
  • carefully evaluate the overall cost of the service (monthly fee) as well as any incoming/outgoing charges per page, against (1) the total cost of ownership of your existing FAX system and (2) the value added by receiving documents electronically (or, not having someone within your company manage the incoming FAXes and scanning them); these services can be expensive if you receive a lot of documents, or if you want to make FAX broadcasts (you may wish to be selective about which incoming FAX lines/customers you broadcast the number/service to)

Method of Operation

Ideally, you want to capture all incoming FAXes (using either method) and have them immediately sent to a central reviewing/dispatch point (once again, either your receptionist, admin assistant, helpdesk, etc.). This person would review their content and:

  1. Automatically forward the incoming FAX to the appropriate team(s) for review.
  2. File the FAXes in some sort of log (ideally sorted by customer and/or issue) or into a customer relationship management (CRM) system.

This would provide you with the electronic document that you could store with all your other electronic documents for that customer/issue (such as e-mails, letters, etc). As these would be stored on your computer system, all information could be backed up (because we know you all back-up your office computers – right?) on the same media for long term retention/storage.

Other Advantages, Tips and Tricks

Quick document scanning. I personally like to use my FAX-mail service as a “quick” scanning service. I generally don’t like taking the time to set up my scanner, play about with the image and quality, just to capture a single document in electronic format for filing. If the document fits info a nearby FAX machine, then I just send it to myself. Actually, this works equally well with multi-page documents that, once again, would be a real pain to scan one by one (although many multi-function printers now provide multi-page scanning).

FAX-screening. One of my clients was receiving a mountain of unwanted FAXes… and no amount of unsubscription requests to these various broadcast services/marketing companies seemed to do him any good. As a result, he was spending a small fortune in FAX paper and (worse) FAX-print cartridges. Establishing his own server gave him the ability to screen his incoming messages and only print those that were of interest; the others were easily deleted.

Extra value for small businesses. As a small business owner, using a FAX-mail service allows me to eliminate the cost of maintaining a second telephone line for incoming FAXes (admittedly, I still use my own – or my client’s FAX machine for outgoing FAXes), and I receive my FAXes immediately after they are sent… I don’t need to return to my home office, or have an administrative assistant process them and alert me to any immediate problems or issues.

This service also proved invaluable when I was working overseas… as my FAX-mail service provider could also be configured for voice mail.

All I needed to do was to change the service from FAX only to FAX/voice mail, and forward my cell phone and office line to the FAX-mail service while I was working in South America.  All my incoming FAXes and voice mails arrived on my laptop computer – allowing me to keep in contact with my customers (and not miss out on future contract opportunities).

FAX management is one of those little, annoying, but incredibly important issues that affect anyone with a small business or consulting practice (especially if you work from home) – and finding a solution that “converges” multiple services together (such as fax, printing and email) you can easily leverage the benefits of a conjoined solution that is stable and supports you wherever you may happen to be.

Case Study of IT/Business Misalignment: Web-Branding

Man screaming at this laptopMany business leaders view information technology (IT) as little more than office automation: word processing, spreadsheets and presentations.  IT has changed the workspace, and business functions that once were exclusively the domains of experts in those disciplines must now include integration of the new technologies.

This is an older article of mine; but the point still remains true today.  It should also be noted that some of the details of this case have been subtly changed in order to protect the less than innocent…

Business leaders need to understand how technology changes their discipline; likewise IT managers need to understand business operations in sufficient detail so as to recognize problems early and offer innovation that will benefit the business as solutions become available. 

Failure to align business leaders and IT professionals will result in missed opportunities and eventual failure in the “hyper-competitive” market.


When I was an IT Director, I was often fond of wandering around the offices to get the general pulse of the company and ensure that I understood what people were doing and how my team may be able to help the business.

During one such visit, I was stopped by the Vice President of Marketing and Sales who was proudly showing me “his” new corporate web-site and how his hand-picked external consultants had succeeded in giving them a predominant position on various search engines (this VP felt that he had such an important function, he didn’t want to use the in-house IT team and instead went to external consultants who, invariably, were friends of friends who played with computers a lot).

He sat me down in his chair and told me to type in the name of his premiere product line into Google:  (lets call it Belt-Remote for lack of a better name).

The results came back:  top of the search engine list.

“This is what you get for outsourcing to the right team; our product is TOP of the search engines” he proudly announced.

“Well done” I said.  “So, what’s a Belt-Remote?”

He looked at me as though I was an idiot.  “It’s our industry leading crane remote control.”

“Aah… I see.  So what happens if you search on that”.

“Search on what?” he asked.

“Search on the products function – not the brand name.”

He still looked confused, so I typed in “crane remote control”.

Sure enough, all of our competitor’s websites came up, with our new corporate site nowhere to be found.

He started to look worried.  “Well, that doesn’t matter… because when people want our product, they will come directly to our website.”

“Yes, but if people already know the brand name of your product, they also probably know the company that makes it.  The majority of people searching the web for product info only know what function or tool they are looking for.”

He looked at me dubiously so I sat him down in his chair and told him that we’re going to buy a computer.  I told him to search for “Presario”.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Exactly my point.  Why would you search for a new computer by product or model name?  You would probably look for personal computer or laptop instead, now wouldn’t you?”

It was roughly at this point that I was kicked out of his office due to other “pressing” matters.

This VP was following conventional marketing strategies, which suggest you want your model or band name to be associated with your product and your product only.

How many of us still ask for a Kleenex instead of a facial tissue?  You can still find people that will ask you for a “Xerox” of something instead of a photocopy.

The conventional rules of marketing and branding in the internet work differently however.

Because the consumer is searching through a large wealth of information and products based upon a general description of its function, purpose or tool-set, its better to ensure that any general query about products that match yours come to the top of the search engines.  This is a lesson that our competitors clearly knew and understood.

How could this have been prevented?

The IT staff should have been involved with the product marketing strategy from the on-set.  Too often IT professionals are viewed as just tool providers and technical specialists; they are not seen as being a resource for strategic business decisions.

Because this VP had assumed that IT staff were nothing more than a tool or tactical resource, he saw nor problem with outsourcing to a team that provided him exactly what he asked for:  top ranking on search engines for his branded product – by name.

Unfortunately that wasn’t really what he wanted – but acting upon the difference between what was asked for and what is wanted can’t be easily accomplished if not all the players on the field were in the pre-game brief (or completely ethical).

Business leaders need to understand that not only is technology changing, but the business itself has changed as a result of the technology.

Likewise, IT staff need to not just focus on the tools (and toys) of their profession; it’s essential that they understand what the business does, what it needs, and how they may have done things in the past.

It’s only through the cooperation and integration of business and information technology teams that real long-term success can be achieved.

“Minuting” Documents

9ecd376e5371efaef9aad9bc9143aed8_XLI never cease to be amazed at how much paper is on my desk and inundating my project files despite living in this “paperless” era.

Post-Its aside (which invariably disappear when you need them most) one of the key problems that many of us encounter is how to keep track of updates and other various notations on activities/events with a paper document.

Now admittedly there are organizations that employ complex document management systems that do, indeed, scan in such noxious pieces of paper for storage, retention, forwarding and annotation – but unless you are lucky/unlucky enough to be burdened with such a system, and haven’t elected to burn out your own scanner and fill up your local disk drives – the question remains:  how do you annotate documents and “circulate” them for action within your team/organization?

The military dealt with this problem through a process called “minuting” – where numbered notations were made on the face of a document that addressed to-dos to individuals within the team/organization, and their responses until – ultimately – the document was “retired” to central records for retention/storage.

How It’s Done

Every original document starts off as the original minute #1.

Subsequent minutes are numbered successfully (2, 3, 4 etc) and follow the same general format:

<#> <Addressee>
<minute text – instruction, note, action, etc>
<signature/date>

Often people will cross out the number on the previous minute – so you can readily find the next one that is “current” on the page.

They can also be placed pretty much anywhere on the page – wherever there is an open space to make your next item.

doc-minutes_full

Sample document with “minutes”.

Adding a “Note to File” (NTF)

A special “addressee” of a minute is the file/document itself – the NOTE TO FILE – where you can append notes and general information/history into your minuiting records.

Strengths

Minutes provide a quick means to send out action items and have a traceable history for non-electronic documents – without the mess (and potential loss) of Post-Its or other attachments.

Shortcomings

It’s critical that everyone “respects” an original document – recognizing that it may be the only existing history of actions and events associated with the original subject.

As a result, not only should people keep track of whatever “minuted” documents they have in circulation – they have to be cognizant that it may be necessary to retain the original document after it’s been circulated and acted upon to retain the record of what happened.

Now in some cases this is the time that you may want to scan the final draft – and then retain an electronic image of the final document within your electronic document repository.

While this is a good strategy for long term record keeping – you then need to also consider either the destruction or, at least isolation of that original document (lest someone add additional minutes) resulting in a variance between the electric archived copy and the original (which may start an all new round of circulation).

Conclusion

Ultimately this was a technique best used within small teams – and remains so today.  Consider its inclusion as a tool/technique within your project management communication strategy – but pay attention to that long term retention plan.