Archive for April, 2010

Slaying the email monster

Posted in Web2.0 Productivity with tags , , on April 24, 2010 by Lance Strzok

If you get way too many emails, consider creating and sharing your own set of rules that you will generally enforce when it comes to email. Work with your friends and coworkers to reach a common understanding of some kind of architecture that will work for all of you.

Here is a possible example of some common rules that may help you and your group:

If you want me to do something with it now, put me in the To: line, add an importance (!) to it, and in a short paragraph, explain what you need from me with regard to the issue that follows in the email below, and when you need that decision made and back to you. You can include a desire for a phone call, or any other type of returned communication in order to meet your timeliness needs. (Remember, I may be checking my email from my phone while traveling). 

If you put my name in the CC: line, your email will go into a cc: folder by way of a “email rule” and I will not likely look at it. But if it makes you feel good, and the person on the other end of the email feels better knowing I am on the cc: line, then feel free. Do not put my name on the cc: line if you want me to read your email.

Draft your emails with purpose and brevity in mind. Tell me what you want from me, why I am involved, when you need it, how you want it, who else is involved, and what it is going to be used for.

Do not use the “reply all” feature and explain to those that do use it that those emails will likely be deleted by any of us involved.

Make sure your Subject line tells me something about the topic, and if applicable, time and importance, action or decision and dollar figure associated with that action or decision. Doing this correctly will get your email read by me, and incorrectly done will likely lead to a conversation on time management. If it is an announcement, put “Announcement” at the beginning of the Subject: and then the announcement topic.

Ask yourself if email is the appropriate tool for communicating the information at hand or the activity that is taking place. Often, there is a better tool available for the work that is being done. Examples: Is this a task? Do we have a tasking system that will handle this information more appropriately? Is this a discussion? Can anyone else benefit from the discussion? Then let’s move the discussion into a tool that handles discussions and captures that information in a place that is useful to the others involved. Allow others to subscribe to the conversation or unsubscribe based on their own desires. Some other tools to consider before email are: Chat, Blogs, Wiki entries, Document management systems, Microblogging, Social media, or Social bookmarking tools. Don’t forget the phone, it can be the right way to communicate in a lot of cases as well as the fastest way to resolve issues.

Do not attach files to your emails. Instead, put the file you want to attach in a document storage location with a URL that will allow those people you want to read it to have  access to it and be able to edit it with the permissions you have set on it. Again, no attachments, just links to the file in one location. In short, this will save money, time, and confusion since the document exists in one place and is edited by all there. See the “office rules for editing documents” write up for more on editing documents, check in, check out rules etc…

Check email three times a day. In the morning, lunch, and 30 minutes before you leave for the day. While you are checking the mail, consider using the three folders (follow up, archive,  and hold) mentioned in “The trusted Trio“. One that you will handle immediately, one that you will put emails that need greater time and attention, and then one that holds longer term issues.  When you open your inbox, put them into one of those folders and then handle the ones that need to be or can be handled immediately.

Turn off your email when you are not doing your email. This will stop the popups, and distractions. You can stay focused on doing your tasks rather than thinking about the one that just popped in.

Don’t use email for communications that involve a lot of money or people’s livelihood or lives. It is one thing to hold a meeting or have a phone call and follow up with information in an email, but the mixture of hands on, phone calls, and emails should be a good one. If it is important, make sure you have a conversation first, then follow up with an email reminder or summary if you think it is wise.

Please share your ideas and thoughts on additional ways to control the flow of email in your work by commenting below.


Links to email related resources:

Email Overloaded

The trusted trio

The inbox makeover

Inbox Zero By Merlin Mann

As always, thanks for reading and commenting.

Modern Production Expectations

Posted in Web2.0 Productivity with tags , , , , , on April 16, 2010 by Lance Strzok

So I recently missed two stops on the Metro as I began to refine the question into, “What should a modern day production system do?”

To lay out the general environment, let’s just say that there are many writers on many topics around the world that may want to contribute collaboratively to this system in an effort to make sure it is accurate and represents the collective knowledge on the subject at the time.

These are some things that I thought of:

* Web based
* Notify me when someone else is writing on a topic or interest of mine
* Show all new pages and/or trending topics
* Alert me when the product reaches milestones, is rejected, edited or approved
* Allow for comments by the person that rejected or approved the document as it went through the process
* I want to be able to define and change styles, fonts, headers, keywords, meta data, on single or groups of documents easily
* Low barrier to entry, edit and create documents or articles
* Flexible approval process that accommodates definable paths for approval if necessary
* Discoverable to all at all stages in the process
* Links to other tools and tells them when a product is started, completed or hit a milestone
* Delineate between significant and minor edits
* Be searchable in all stages of development
* Include what we knew and when we knew it in a record that can be traced
* Easy sourcing method embedded in the tool that links to actual sources or discussions of the source
* Include a feedback mechanism for completed products
* Easily moved, removed or replaced in its entirety (database)
* Easily backed up
* The ability to add keywords, categories or metadata at a later date to bulk groups of documents
* The ability to remove undesirable metadata
* Integrates with other tools and services easily
* For every non-minor change, prompt for a source, significance and classification
* For existing sources in the document, have them appear on a drop down for selection
* Notifications for all that subscribe by either email or real simple syndication (RSS)
* Links to contributing authors and a mechanism to view which authors created what material
* Link to other documents in the same or similar categories
* People that read this also read this…
* Accept, use or allow creation of templates for initial layout and article formats
* Images have their own link and can be shown or not shown as a user preference
* Be able to edit and watch edits being made in near real time color coded by author (etherpad like)
* Highlight text
* Color text
* Annotate during edit
* Easily export or transfer to xml, html, pdf, and opendocument formats
* Generate statistics on various aspects of the articles including which authors contributed and how much
* Generate a list of those people that are watching the product being made and those that read the article when it is completed
* Show where the document is in the review or approval process as it is defined
* Integrates with other new media tools
* Mouse roll over any text shows – classification, author, and source
* The ability to link to a section or paragraph by way of a URL
* Autobuild an outline or table of contents as the product is being made or within the template
* Search within an article
* Be searchable from other tools
* Automatic lat/long, location, and place name recognition for use with geographic selection of reporting
* Place for questions related to the document that can be watched by the contributors, and the other followers that may want answers to questions in the document
* Temporal recognition
* Easily embed graphics
* Text flows around graphics
* System finds and makes links to related documents based on metadata, and words within the document
* Selectable contributors (IC, Agency, COI, or specific Individuals)
* Single sign on, hooked into PKI and LDAP mechanisms
* Inexpensive
* Robust track changes
* Notification of changes
* Undo button
* Transparency of comments, and creation
* Discussion page for resolution of differences
* Classification roll up (Document classification is as high as any content within it)
* Dirty word check or links to a standard dirty word service that is updated by the community
* Spelling check and grammar check as you type

So tell me what else you would want your production system to do so that I can include them in future requirements.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

To Sharepoint or not to Sharepoint.

Posted in Web2.0 Productivity with tags , , , , on April 16, 2010 by Lance Strzok

I have been evaluating Sharepoint 2007 for utility within our organization and although the very word “Sharepoint” seems to bring to mind sharing, I find that when combined with most of the workforce I am in, sharing is far from what happens. I have since started calling it “Stovepoint”. Not that the software is completely to blame, but also what features are turned on or turned off when installed.

One of the biggest problems I have with it is editing documents on the Sharepoint server using any other browser other then Internet Explorer (IE). I prefer Firefox at the moment as my primary browser, but it does not open and allow editing of content on the Sharepoint server, so I have to open the file in IE, and then go on editing. I would prefer that the server be agnostic to the user browser, and just let me edit and save the document. In my case, where I want to collaborate with people around the world, I can not assume that everyone of them has access too IE to use in order to update that file.

The blogging software is lacking when compared to WordPress, and I like all the user support and development for WordPress plugins, addons, and the general extensibility.

As for the Wiki feature, I would prefer the same syntax and capabilities as well as support for Media Wiki software used by Wikipedia.

I found I wanted to do a lot more with Real Simple Syndication (RSS) then what Sharepoint had to offer. Modern workforces are looking to more then just a few tools to handle the mountains of data that are available to them. RSS, and the ability to ingest, sort, search, and display as well as re-feed out that list to other members of a team are important. The closest I have come to that is Using Feedreader.

One of my major concerns is collaborating with the wiki or blog or documents from outside of the organization. At least in our organization, that capability just does not exist. I can collaborate with the people in my organization, but not outside of it, and frankly, I already tend to do that fairly well. I really want to reach collaborators outside of the organization, and get ideas from outside of our spaces.

Now before I get a bunch of responses that say “it can do that”, you have to consider that all I am using is the base tool. No additional widgets, no developers to make it do what I want. Just a bare install. I say this because to add any additional effort has to be approved, budgeted for, and might happen some time in the distant future, which does not solve my problems now.

I have an additional concern about the general dependency on Microsoft Office tools in general. We seem to rely on Word, PowerPoint, and Excel spreadsheets and Outlook more then we should. I don’t believe there is any real competition to MS tools, and that only in recent times are we starting to see MS taking input from users and programming to meet user generated requirements. I think more of their recent tools are getting better for this reason. But I will always look to open source to provide good alternatives to MS tools that will keep costs down, and drive future innovations. A good example would be Firefox capabilities driving changes in IE as a browser. I am sure there are other examples and would love to see them in the comments below.

My overall recommendation has to be to use our instance of Sharepoint for our internal website. Hanging documents there that are read only or archived would be fine. Actively edited docs, well I don’t think I would push using it for that since I tend to seek collaboration on a global scale. I would also ban attachments, and go for sending links to a URL with the file to be edited on the other end using another piece of software.

Before closing, I do want to make sure that I say something important about Microsoft. I like 3 products of theirs very much. Excel, Word, and Powerpoint. I know there are strong less expensive competitors out there for those tools, and I hope it continues to spur innovation and improvement in those tools. Especially in the areas of seamless integration with other successful tools.

Please let me know if you think I forgot some more important things to mention with regard to this decision (like cost, or support). I would love to hear good and bad so that I can help my organization make a good decision on keeping it, or adopting other services to meet our needs.

As always, thanks for reading.