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Keep Or Save? September 9, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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Why won’t people make up their minds?  For fifty years, we in the computing business have been building bigger and bigger systems designed to store everything everyone ever wanted.  When we’ve finally gotten to the point where we pretty much could store everything for everyone, they want to start getting rid of stuff!  What do they want?

Abraham Lincoln once said (and I’m paraphrasing a bit):

You may save all the documents some of the time; you can even save some of the documents all the time; but you can’t save all of the documents all the time.

Or something like that.  Abe, bless his heart, never imagined multiple petabytes of cloud-based storage.  If he had, he’d know that we could store everything all the time, but we really don’t want to.

Now that most of us have stored way too much stuff, document retention is a real problem.  Most of the data we keep is useless, and some of what we keep can present legal or security problems.  We need to keep only the data that is important for running our businesses.

Many companies are trying to solve the problem of document retention by foisting the problem off onto IT. Let me be completely clear on this: document retention is not an IT problem.  Document retention is a business problem that IT can help with.

Often, people on the business side of this problem create policies that address “email retention” or “file retention.”  This is not much different from creating a policy on “paper retention.”  Email is not a document, nor is a file.  Email, files, and paper are simply mechanisms to store a document.

For example, an email message, a file, or a sheet of paper can all hold a representation of a contract.  Regardless of the media, they should be retained for however long your document retention policy says that a contract should be kept.  It may be easier to find and destroy electronic versions of a document, but the retention rules are unchanged.

For similar reasons, email is not considered destroyed when you remove it from your Inbox and save it on your hard drive.  It is not destroyed when you move that file to a DVD, and it still isn’t destroyed when you print the file and destroy the DVD.  It’s destroyed when you finally shred the paper and the intellectual content of the document is no longer available in any form.

Effective document retention is important, and IT plays a big role in helping the business find and manage their documents, no matter how they may be stored.  But the best way we can help is to make sure that the policies are set by the business, not by IT.  Once the policies are in place, we can help find ways to make implementation easier and more effective.  And that’s something we should be doing for all of the people, all of the time.

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Management By Colorforms August 31, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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As big a fan as I am of technology and tools, sometimes the simplest things really are the best.

At my company, we have some sophisticated tools for tracking our project portfolio, managing schedules, resources, and priorities.  We use these tools to drive planning and prioritization meetings, as well as to help our customers understand our planning and resource processes.  They provide greater insight into the ebb and flow of the work we do.

There are tools at the other end of the spectrum, too.  In addition to our portfolio management system, I also keep a list of various projects on my white board.  These are the projects that matter to me, for one reason or another.  Some are big, some are small.  Some are strategic, some are tactical.  Some have great political implications, while others may be the linchpin of a critical operational process.  But all of them matter to me, somehow.

Next to each project, I place a 2×2-inch vinyl square, either red, yellow, or green.  This is the same kind of vinyl used in those Colorform sets from our childhood, where you would stick different vinyl shapes onto a slick black background to create pictures.  That same vinyl sticks nicely to a whiteboard, and allows me to express my gut feel about a project.  Red expresses grave concern, yellow shows some doubt, and green denotes that all is well.

I update the squares as the mood strikes and as updates flow in from my team.  When good news arrives, a project may “go green;” bad news pushes a project down to yellow or (yikes) red.

Each day, as I arrive in the office, I place a small purple dot next to each square.  If someone comes and updates me on a project, I erase all the dots next to it on my board.  If a project is neglected for a period of time, the dots accumulate.  If a lot of dots collect next to a project, I know to go hunt down someone and get an update.

This highly complicated scheme was originally created to help me keep track of lots of projects quickly.  It certainly works in that regard.  But the real value of this system is what it has done to my team.

As people come and go in my office, they always stop and check the board, looking for their projects.  They want to know that they are green or yellow, and do not like being red.  They want to make sure that dots are not piling up.  This generates lots of conversation, which is always a good thing.  The board also lets people know which projects are top-of-mind for me, although I sometimes need to remind them that projects missing from the board still matter.

Just as importantly, people must come into my office to see the board.  At some point, it was suggested that I aim a webcam at the board, so people could review it from afar.  I declined.  I like that people must go to the board to see what is going on, and I like the quality conversations that ensue.  I am also told that people stop by when they know I am not here, for a “safe” peek at the board.  That’s OK, too. As long as people are talking and interacting, good things will result.

In spite of all of our fancy tools and systems, simple things often work best.  What’s the simplest tool you use to be an effective leader?  Have you considered Colorforms?

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Solutions Without Technology May 27, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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Of the many aphorisms that I enjoy using, one of my favorites is

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I pull this one out when someone is using some system in an inappropriate way.  People get so comfortable with their favorite tools, they use them for everything even when a better solution is readily available.

This is an easy accusation for an IT person to make.  Most software systems are so complicated that it is easier for a user to twist an existing system into an unusual solution than it is to learn some completely arcane new system.  People just want to solve problems and get on with their jobs and lives.  I know this is hard to believe, but they don’t look forward to exploring and mastering that latest version of some new desktop application.

Those of us in IT would do well to listen to our own advice.

How many times, when asked to help solve some problem, do we immediately reach for a computer?  Typically, the answer is “all of the time.”  We’re in IT; we know how to make computers do interesting things; therefore every problem can be solved with some technology-based solution.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Many problems do not exist for want of a technology solution.  In fact, many of the day-to-day business problems we encounter are rooted in process, flow, and data collection.  While you can certainly throw software at all of those areas, you can also fix a lot of issues by talking to people, understanding their real needs, and proposing ways to change things in a non-technical way.

Within IT, we have developed a broad range of skills that are not rooted in technology.  Process analysis, data management, project management, user interface design, audit and compliance, risk management: the list is long.  Why, then, when someone is gracious enough to give us the opportunity to help, do we reach for the hardware?  We perpetuate the perception that we are nothing more than geeks, when if fact we have so much more to offer.

I’ve been on projects where the real solution was to have a user interface designer rework a paper form layout.  I’ve seen errant projects saved by sharing good project management skills.  I’ve seen business processes reworked by applying disaster recovery discipline.  In all of these cases, not a single line of code was written in pursuit of a solution.  Instead, IT people spent time listening, sharing, and collaborating to help users do their jobs more effectively.

People in IT chafe at being known solely for their technical expertise, yet we fall into our old habits when confronted with a problem.  We need to follow our own advice, set down the hammer of technology, and look for effective non-technical solutions to many of the problems we’re asked to solve.  We’ll grow in our ability to be of service, and we’ll begin to build a better reputation with our end users.

Life On A Barge January 12, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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My company ships some of our products by barge, up and down the Mississippi river.  When you ship things by barge, people are naturally inclined to ask things like “Where is my barge?”  Answering that question is more difficult than you might think.

Barges are extremely low-tech devices.  They are nothing more than an enormous steel bucket, floating in the river.  They are moved about by tugboats, and a single tug can have as many as 30 barges lashed to it as it moves up and down the river.  Sometimes a barge will break loose and float away, coming to rest in some nook or cranny of the mighty Mississippi.  Most barges are owned by a few companies, and you rent your barges from one of these companies.  You might rent a barge for a single trip, or for many trips over a period of time.

Being a technology kind of guy, I had an instant answer for the barge question.  Just attach a GPS transmitter to each barge, and collect position data in real time.  Put a snazzy web site in front of the data, enable authorized user access, and you’re good to go!

(This was a few years ago, so these days I’d include a barge Twitter stream, a barge blog or two, a barge-cam streaming live to Hulu, and an app [iBarge?] so you can track a barge from your iPhone.  If there was time, maybe even an app that would identify a barge using a picture you snapped from the shore using your phone.  Not to mention a search engine that looks for #barge hashtags on Twitter and aggregates them, along with matching Flickr barge photos, on trackmybarge.com. Web 2.0 really enhances the whole barge management experience in ways that Mark Twain could only dream of.)

I pitched this plan to the barge people, and the idea quickly sank.  First, barges have no power source.  This meant that the GPS unit had to be battery powered with solar charging panels.  Second, barges get banged around a lot, so the unit had to be hardened and waterproof, and would need to be welded somewhere on the top edge of the barge.  The rough estimate for such a unit was $1,000 each, which worked out to a $1,000,000 investment to outfit a fleet of 1,000 barges.  This didn’t  include the whole web and data infrastructure, or programming effort.  (Not to mention the blogs, webcams, and Facebook app that would soon follow.)

A bit miffed, I aked how they currently track the barges.  Easy: each morning a clerk calls each of our tugboat pilots on their cellphone.  She asks them where they are, and they reply with a mile number on the river.  She knows which barges are tied to each tug, and she writes each barge number and the mile marker on an index card that she puts on a bulletin board in the office.  If you want to know where the barges are you, you can stop by the board or call her.

Just as importantly, the pilots like to be called each morning.  It’s nice to hear from the home office, and a friendly voice on the phone is a pleasant way to start each day.

The clerk makes $25,000 a year.  My solution pays for itself in 40 years.  Analysis over; project cancelled.

As we get completely wrapped up in applying technology to everything we encounter, it helps to remember that some things work fine just as they are.  And in the end, processes that work because people like to hear each other’s voices are probably worth keeping, even if only for a little while longer.

Imperfect Integration April 15, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking.
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Social networking sites are getting too clever by half, providing more and more features to lure users into their web of connected people.  What they are missing are the features that connect their “walled gardens” to other equally useful networks.

As I’ve posted before, I like different systems for different features.  LinkedIn is the gold standard for professional networking, delivering controlled access to professional colleagues in a manner that most closely mimics (and respects) real-world relationships.  Plaxo is the best contact management tool I’ve seen, with unparalleled cross-platform synchronization.  The Plaxo Pulse, which provides a Twitter-like stream of activity for your connected contacts, is interesting and becoming more useful.  My blogging platform is WordPress, which seems to meet my (limited) needs at this point. To be honest, I don’t know that I have the energy for Twitter, although I’m willing to tinker with it.

The problem with these systems is that they don’t play well together.  They want to attract users, confine them to their system, and keep them there for all levels of service.  I understand the rationale: eyeballs = dollars.  But I dislike the constraints, which makes it harder to use all the services.  I want them to interoperate seamlessly, but they aren’t there yet.

Plaxo makes an attempt at this, allowing you to hook feeds from other sites (like this blog) into your Plaxo pulse.  The problem is that Plaxo pulls the content into Plaxo, instead of connecting to the actual source.  As a result, updates lag and the Plaxo version gets out of date when I update the content.  More importantly, readers in Plaxo don’t see the full blog unless they click through to it.  Reading this in Plaxo?  Click here to read these posts in their full glory, see what I am reading, explore the archives, peruse the tag cloud, and subscribe directly (if you are so inclined).

LinkedIn has fairly pathetic contact management.  Why can’t it get my contacts from Plaxo, so that everything is in sync everywhere?  Why can’t LinkedIn connections be mirrored in Plaxo automatically (and vice versa)?  LinkedIn also has a simplistic Twitter-like feature, as does Plaxo.  Why can’t LinkedIn and Plaxo integrate my Twitter stream so I can update things in one place and see them everywhere?

I suspect this will all happen in due time as this space coalesces and matures.  Like other web technologies (and the web itself), we need this period of experimentation and overlap to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  At some point, it will settle out, great sums of money will change hands, and one integrated system will remain.  Until then, we’ll all be updating lots of similar sites, over and over again.