Email isn’t evil. How we inflict it on each other might be! 

Email arrived with the dawn of the Internet in 1971. Despite its death being predicted multiple times over the years, it remains the primary means of communication for most in the workplace.

It has hung on because of its insane levels of flexibility. I’ve seen email used for..

  • Formal communication
  • Instant messaging
  • File transfer
  • Document archive
  • Notification center
  • Post It Notes
  • Task list
  • Workflow
  • Team management
  • Collaborative working
  • News letters
  • Surveys
  • Image gallery

Because we can use it for this multitude of things, doesn’t mean we should.

The underlying problem is that you have no control over what you receive in your inbox. Anybody can send you anything. By making email a centralised repository for absolutely everything, we end up entering into servitude with our inbox.

Each working day involves whizzing through incoming email, trying to pick out what requires action on your part and what can be ignored. Some people try and limit themselves to pre-defined blocks of ’email management’ time. But many more work with their email open, chirping away in the background like a hyper active budgie.

Independent research from Atos estimates that the average worker spends 40% of their time just managing incoming email. Worse still, much of this time is gauged to have no measurable benefit.

There’s plenty of strategies to try and wrestle email under control. Inbox Zero, enforcing people to write briefly with well defined actions, discouraging the dreaded mass CC (and its moustachioed evil brother BCC). These all stop short of tackling be larger issue. We need to just stop using email.

Well, I say stop, but there are some uses for it that are unavoidable. Try and sign up for a website without using email for verification – devilishly tricky. Also, in terms of a one to one communication platform for external contacts it’s hard to beat for ease of use.

Inside our organisations however, we can make massive strides to stem the flow of internal email chatter. For every point on that list I made above, there’s a better dedicated web service or application that can handle it properly.

“Ah – but aren’t we just distributing the workload elsewhere, not actually reducing it” I hear you cry. True, some of those tasks we need to do as part of our jobs, they are unavoidable. But by placing them into clearly defined systems we’re forcing ourselves to treat them as different entities. By virtue of them not all being in the same place, we’ve got half a chance of managing time effectively on each task and not getting interrupted by the chirp of unrelated incoming email.

Email absolutely has a place, but we should really try not to inflict it on each other quite so much. Especially inside our places of work.

You want Innovation? Learn to love failure!

Innovation – a huge buzzword that has been doing the rounds increasingly for the last year or so. Technology is driving change at such a rapid pace that organisations are looking to embrace a ‘culture of innovation’ in order to be more responsive. But what does that actually mean?

In order to innovate, you need ideas. Where do these ideas come from? Traditionally the appraisal process (where line manager reviews staff performance and sets objectives) should bring ideas out into the open and get them into the business plan. In terms of sourcing ideas that are truly revolutionary that doesn’t seem to happen.

Why is that? Is it because people are not able to generate ideas ‘on demand’ during that yearly mandated period? Is it because organisational hierarchies subject anything new or challenging to ‘death by committee’? Is it because we’ve been fed a steady diet of risk aversion since the beginning of time? Is it because fluid innovation and rigid business strategy are almost opposing concepts?

I’m fortunate enough to work in a progressive organisation that is trying to make strides in these areas. But any organisation that has a rigid hierarchical structure will suffer from some or all of these road blocks to adopting a culture of innovation. It is a symptom of our workplaces being designed to tackle predictable tasks in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Let’s be really clear though, innovation is no magic wand. It is actually an inherently wasteful process that’s jam packed with failure. Even if you subscribe to a ‘fast failure’ model where you iterate rapidly through different decisions and directions you’re still working on projects that may never come to fruition.

However, we’re deluding ourselves if we pretend that there’s no failure in our normal working lives. We fail all the time, large and small, but most people have gotten good at mitigating it, spinning it or burying it. That’s a shame because we only really learn how to change things for the better when we can understand what went wrong.

So, what’s more desirable? – An intensive period of controlled failure that will deliver some valuable data in terms of what not to do. Or to continue on as we are, applying bandages to failing systems and processes and pretend that everything is okay.

Unfortunately, innovation is not just something that can be turned on like a tap. People need a sandbox in which to play and develop ideas without the crippling pressure to generate results. The key is to keep the invested resource (be that time or money) to an absolute minimum to start with. Fail fast, document your findings, move on to the next iteration or idea. Speed is essential. If you assume that 90% of the concepts you evaluate are destined to be shelved, you need to work your way through the chaff to get to the wheat as rapidly as possible. Even the chaff has a use. Imagine how valuable a few months worth of discarded ideas would be? Can you see any commonalities? Are we trying to do something we’ve already done before? Will this idea work now that external factors have changed?

Much of this thinking comes from the Silicon Valley start-up scene where small teams of developers try to capture the next technological zeitgeist before anyone else. The methodologies of Agile development are finding their way into mainstream thinking. Much of it is common sense. Build a minimum viable product (a workable prototype that has the core features) and release it. If it’s a success, iterate and build on top of what you’ve got. For those startups working long hours with meager initial funding, the key is to get to a functional product to market with as little resource wasted as possible before anyone else. That sounds pretty desirable no matter what sector you’re in huh?

Obviously, most organisations don’t have the luxury of a department dedicated to the pursuit of innovation. But in truth, I think it should be part of everyone’s job description to make it happen. It can’t radiate from one corner of the business or be demanded from the top. People need the time, authority and framework to go and experiment.

In order for any of this to work the stigma around failure needs to go. All the greatest innovators are prolific failures. What separates them from others is that they push forward and keep learning from their mistakes in search of a greater understanding. In essence, this is the sort of culture we need to start baking into organisations (particularly the public & third sector) to unleash that stored potential for creative problem solving in staff which is otherwise largely untapped.

Working Out Loud

I can’t stand buzzwords and business speak. So, on the face of it I should’ve avoided ‘Working Out Loud’ at all costs.

I stumbled across the term whilst researching the use of Yammer within various organisations. At first glance, it seems like the sort of snake oil that social media “experts” pedal whilst promising MASSIVE ENGAGEMENT and HYPER-CONNECTED SYNERGY.

Upon further reading though, it actually turned out to be a very practical approach to working that makes a lot more sense in our ever more connected lives.

So, what does ‘Working Out Loud’ actually mean?

“Working Out Loud starts with making your work visible in such a way that it might help others. When you do that – when you work in a more open, connected way – you can build a purposeful network that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.” – John Stepper

As someone who works in IT, the bulk of the workload can be largely invisible to the majority of the organisation.. unless something goes horribly wrong! Additionally, if those around you can’t grasp the technical challenges involved it can be hard to get recognition for a job well done. In an attempt to do a little bit of PR, I started making progress updates and decision processes more visible via platforms like Asana and Yammer. In essence, this is one of the core practices of Working Out Loud. 

Working Out Loud IS NOT about bragging to the rest of the organisation about your achievements. It’s about giving your colleagues an opportunity to work with you. In some way it’s also about encouraging those serendipitous conversations where you’re struggling with the exact same problem as someone else in the organisation, albeit from perhaps a different perspective.

Working Out Loud does require a good dose of honesty. If you only share your roaring successes, you’re depriving people of valuable lessons learned when you’ve failed. And actually, if you’re being open and transparent in the way that you approach work, you should have reduced your chances of huge catastrophic failures because somebody should’ve steered you in a different direction.

Obviously the effectiveness of Working Out Loud largely depends on the culture of your work place. If your organisation isn’t very open, you may find that there’s a great deal of resistance when you try and lift the veil on what you’re doing.

Working Out Loud can also be threatening to traditional rigid ‘top down’ management structures, perceived as trying to circumvent the chain of command or going rogue!

But Working Out Loud doesn’t have to exist purely inside the work place. The same principles can be applied to Social Media. If you can’t work transparently inside your workplace, why not try and connect with others with similar interests in other organisations?

Configuring iPhone 6 for Enterprise

I’m sure I’m not alone in grappling with the thorny issue of rolling iPhone 6’s out to business users. The problem lies within Apple’s Activation lock which is designed to make stolen iPhones unusable.

Basically, once an iPhone (5 or newer) or iPad (4 or newer) has been signed into with an iCloud login and ‘Find My Phone’ has been enabled, the phone is linked with that iCloud account. Even when wiping the phone via recovery mode, the phone will first check back with Apple to see if it’s listed against a user before allowing you to set it up. If it is listed, it’ll prompt for the associated iCloud account login to unlock and activate it.

So, if a phone is returned to IT without first being wiped by the previous owner, you’re pretty much left with a very expensive paper weight.

There’s a couple of ways around this, and whether they are viable or not will depend on the size of your business and how big your fleet of Apple devices are.

First you can lock personalisation of the phone down and provide a company wide user profile using Apple Configurator. Obviously, iPhones are seen as ‘personal’ devices and people tend to want to use their own Apple account so that they can install their apps, backup their photos etc. so this could be a hard sell unless you’re talking about communal devices like iPads.

Second option is to have them pre-deployed by Apple. Drawback is you have to purchase your units direct from Apple and not a reseller. In our case almost all of our kit is purchased through our mobile provider as part of a contract.

In the end I opted to go for a bit of a half-way house with Apple Configurator and put the phones into supervision mode but with a profile that’s largely unrestricted. This allows staff to use their own iCloud login and even enable ‘Find My Phone’.

A supervised phone can be put into recovery mode (hold down the home button when powering on) and connected to Apple Configurator to wipe and restore the device, even if it has a iCloud account associated with it.

One important note – you have to disable the ability for users to wipe their own phones. This will remove the supervision mode from the device and leave you vulnerable to having the device locked out.

Are you deploying Apple kit in your organisation? It’s always good to hear about other people’s experiences – leave a comment or tweet me!

Windows 10 – Better but not yet great

I’ve been playing with the Windows 10 technical preview on and off during the week and whilst not particularly groundbreaking (some would even say it’s disappointingly safe) it does quash some of my annoyances with Windows 8.1.

ScreenShot576

They’ve tried to reconcile the jump between using it with a mouse and using it with a touch interface by putting windows controls on the Metro (or whatever we’re calling it now) apps. All the charms have been binned (yay!). The much hated full screen Start Menu is gone and is now bolted onto the side of the old-skool Start Menu.

New stuff includes virtual desktops (ace!), resizable start menu, and better snapping for windows to help you utilise those massive monitors more effectively. Additionally all Windows 10 apps will work across multiple platforms (laptop, tablets, phone etc.) which ties into Microsoft’s new vision of doing everything, everywhere. This also might help attract developers to the Windows app ecosystem which has been pretty low quality to date.

So, all in all – nothing that’s going to set the world alight, but Microsoft is in a bit of a tough spot where it has to innovate to keep up with it’s competitors whilst not alienating the huge amount of Enterprise customers it has. Speaking as a sysadmin, it’s a step in the right direction and will at least provide some much needed stability in the transition from Windows 7 (or Windows XP if you’re a council/bank).

I (tried to) Watch

See what I did there?

So despite the live stream bombing out every few minutes I did manage to catch most of the Apple Watch announcement. I’m genuinely surprised about how closely aligned it is to Android Wear. Apple have never been first to market with hardware, but when they do arrive they usually do it best.

Couple of immediate concerns…

  • Reliance on Siri. Still sub-par compared to Google Now. I hear Apple are expanding operations for Siri though so watch this space.
  • Battery life! That watch is doing an awful lot of stuff. The Moto 360 suffered from 12 hours of battery and that was substantially bigger.
  • Simplicity. I’ll say it again, this watch is doing an awful lot of stuff. The way you twist. long press, touch, hard touch(?) & swipe didn’t seem as immediately intuitive as an iPhone or iPad. The benchmark will be my 3 year old daughter who can use our iPad with no intervention.

HOWEVER, it’s not all doom and gloom. The device isn’t going to see the light of day until “early” 2015. That’s plenty of time to optimize battery performance and tweak the interface. I saw one analyst state that the demo wasn’t actually aimed at consumers at all. It’s aimed at the app development community who now need to embrace this new device and come up with some tangible ways that it can improve upon using an iPhone alone.

Don’t write them off just yet – they’ve got a bit of a track record for this sort of stuff.

Waiting on the iWatch

More than anything else, I’ll be interested to see what Apple has to say about wearables tomorrow.

Google’s foray into smart watches has been like a public beta trail. Whilst the Moto 360 is undoubtedly the best looking of all the offerings, it’s also the one with the worst battery life, poor performance and intermittent Bluetooth connection. There’s some promising ways it can potentially work with Google Now, but for the moment it just isn’t quite there.

Moto 360
The Moto 360. Looks good, works bad (Source : Android Headlines)

Apple will no doubt apply their own unique engineering and design prowess, but it’s hard to see how they can improve upon the constraints of the current technology. If you consider that your iPhone, which is packed with sensors and high resolution screen, only lasts a day per charge, how much can they improve upon that with something that’s got even less room for battery? Do you really want to be removing your watch and charging it every day like your phone?

iwatch
Artist impression of what the iWatch band could look like (Source : MacRumours)

Of course, the other option is that it doesn’t have a display at all (much like Fitbit). This actually makes a bit more sense to me as I can’t see Apple wanting to sell you a device which is more or less doing the same job as your iPhone (albeit with massively reduced functionality). Apple is great at selling a lifestyle, so I’d expect an understated designer band packed with all manner of sensors that could work in conjunction with your other Apple devices to provide metrics on health, travel etc. etc.

Whatever happens – it’s going to inject some much needed competition into the race to make smart watches relevant.