Peter Campbell's blog

Tweaking Twitter

Twitter is my favorite social network. Why? Because it's easy to use (type a short message and hit enter); it's easy to follow (just keep scrolling through the main page); it's more casually interactive than the competitors; and, because I follow it in Twhirl, which is always in the upper-lefthand corner of my desktop, it's always there. To contrast, I usually have Facebook open in a Firefox tab, as well, but I can go for hours without thinking to click on it.

If you've been curious about Twitter, or you tried it, once, but couldn't see the utility, now might be a good time to try again. Getting started with Twitter can be a bit of a challenge if you don't know many people who are on it, but we have an active community that Idealware readers should fit right in with. The nonprofit Twitter pack gives you a quick index of people that you might actually want to follow. And as we move into nonprofit conference season, with NTEN's big shindig up in April and Techsoup's Netsquared a month behind it in May, there are a lot of people joining in. Just be sure that, before you follow a bunch of us, that you tell us who you are in your profile, and maybe post an introductory Tweet -- most people will not automatically follow back a blank slate.

Convenience, simplicity, immediacy, camaraderie -- these are the terms that I associate with Twitter. There are some features that I'd love to see, though. These could all be implemented by Twitter, or some by a clever third party.

First, I'd like to have the option, and for my followers to have the option, of typing an introductory note to appear in the email announcing that someone has a new follower. That way, if I follow you (assuming that you're on Twitter), I can say "Hi, you, I'm following you because I can tell by your tweets that you read the Idealware blog, and that indicates a refined taste in blogs" or "Hi, you, I see that you have all sorts of tweets about Android and the T-Mobile G1. I'm a fellow G1 user." Make this optional, sure, but the ability to set some context when I'm establishing a social relationship would be a welcome addition.

Second, please, make the user lists (followers and followees) into a manageable interface. Let me sort them by name, location, average number of tweets a day, whether they're following me back, how long since they last tweeted, how many tweets they've posted total. These are all useful metrics, and I can gleam some of them on Twitter; others via useful tools like Tweepler, which takes a stab at this type of manageability. And let me add people to groups, something that I really appreciate in Facebook's feature set. This can be done, in a fashion, by Tweetdeck, but only if you want to donate that much of your screen's real estate to your Twitter client. Twhirl added spellcheck this week, so I'm not going anywhere soon.

Third, while we all appreciate innovations like "Mr. Tweet", a service that analyzes your Twitter connections and makes additional recommendations, the main algorithm for this service seems to be "who are your friends following? You should follow them, too". Seems logical. But the result is that Mr. Tweet tells me, and everyone else, that we should follow the Twitter superstars, mostly social media gurus with followers in the thousands. Analysis of my profile should reveal that I use Twitter to converse with friends and associates, and follow very few people like that to begin with. So a recommendation engine based on my behavior, as well as my friends lists, would be great -- the current options are like a Google without the option to search on terms, just a button that returns the most popular sites on the web.

Those are my top three -- add your Twitter wish list requests in the comments.

The Road to Inbox:0

In the last week or two, Google's GMail app added a bunch of new features, at least three of which are, to my mind, insanely significant. As you probably know, GMail is about three years old, still in beta, and from it's release, the most innovative approach to email that we've seen since the whole folder metaphor was first thought up. The three new features are Offline, Keyboard Shortcuts for Labeling, and Multiple Inboxes. Offline and Multiple Inboxes are added through the "Labs" section in settings;if you use Gmail, you can use the label if you have Keyboard Shortcuts turned on.

I love Gmail because it is designed to do a lot of my maintenance for me, and I can keep all sorts of mail (I'm up to 729 MB) and find anything instantly. Key to all of this is GMail's gleeful abandonment of the file cabinet metaphor, an imposition on computing from the early days that is intuitive to humans, yes, but not the most efficient way to manage online information. And maybe this is why I've always appreciated Google - they got from the start that you don't organize massive amounts of information by sorting it all into separate piles, an idea that most of their competitors have not let go of.

Here's how I use Gmail: Using pop forwarding, I feed three separate email accounts into my primary GMail account. I have it set up to reply using the address that the email was sent to, and each account is automatically labeled with a specifically colored label identifying it's origin. I have 36 labels defined, and 66 filters that primarily label messages as they come in. I "star" messages that relate to current projects, and I try to keep my inbox to less than 50 messages at any given time. Cleaning up the inbox is a matter of labeling the messages that aren't accounted for by the filters, deleting the ones I don't want, and archiving.

Offline, of course, simply gives me a local copy of my inbox for those rare times when I'm out of plugged in, wireless, or AT&T; 3G range of a connection. But having a local backup of my inbox is, um, priceless.

Last week, Google introduced new dropdowns for labeling and "moving" messages. The "Move To" tab is somewhat ironic, because GMail doesn't store messages in different places. It identifies them by their labels. New messages, on arrival, are labeled "inbox", and "archiving" a message is simply the act of removing the "inbox" label. So the "Move To" menu was strictly a concession to those who can't let go of the folder idea, so I have little use for it. But, in addition to the new dropdowns, Google also introduced a keyboard shortcut. Typing "l" (lowercase "L") brings up the labels dropdown; typing the first few letters of a label takes you to that label, and hitting "Enter" applies it to the current message or the selected ones. This allows me to select and label messages far faster than was possible when the mouse was required to open and then scroll through the dropdown menu.

Multiple Inboxes allows you to put as many boxes of messages meeting specific criteria ("has label", "is starred", "is a draft", any search criteria) on your GMail home page. For users with wide displays, these can be placed to the right or left of your inbox. Since I work a lot on my 15" laptop screen, I chose to add inboxes under the main inbox. To start, I've added starred items in a box under my inbox, which lets me keep things that don't need immediate responses, but should be handy to refer to, right where I want them. Another creative use (as tweeted by Sonny Cloward) is to have a box with all items labeled "task", but I actually use the recently-added "Tasks" function for that.

Regardless, you've heard me rave about Gmail here if you follow my communication posts, but that was all before they added these features, making GMail another 33% more awesome than the competition to an information management geek like me.

The Sky is Calling

My big post contrasting full blown Microsoft Exchange Server with cloud-based Gmail drew a couple of comments from friends in Seattle. Jon Stahl of One/Northwest pointed out, helpfully, that MS sells it's Small Business Server product to companies with a maximum of 50 employees, and that greatly simplifies and reduces cost for Exchange. After that, Patrick Shaw of NPower Seattle took it a step further, pointing out that MS Small Business Server, with a support arrangement from a great company like NPower (the "great" is my addition - I'm a big fan), can cost as little as $4000 a year and provide Windows Server, Email, Backup and other functions, simplifying a small office's technology and outsourcing the support. This goes a long way towards making the chaos I described affordable and attainable for cash and resource strapped orgs.

What I assume Npower knows, though, and hope that other nonprofit technical support providers are aware of, is that this is the outdated approach. Nonprofits should be looking to simplify technology maintenance and reduce cost, and the cloud is a more effective platform for that. As ReadWriteWeb points out, most small businesses -- and this can safely be assumed to include nonprofits -- are completely unaware of the benefits of cloud computing and virtualization. If your support arrangement is for dedicated, outsourced management of technology that is housed at your offices, then you still have to purchase that hardware and pay someone to set it up. The benefits of virtualization and fast, ubiquitous Internet access offer a new model that is far more flexible and affordable.

One example of a company that gets this is MyGenii. They offer virtualized desktops to nonprofits and other small businesses. As I came close to explaining in my Lean, Green, Virtualized Machine post, virtualization is technology that allows you to, basically, run many computers on one computer. The environmental and financial benefits of doing what you used to do on multiple systems all on one system are obvious, but there are also huge gains in manageability. When a PC is a file that can be copied and modified, building new and customized PCs becomes a trivial function. Take that one step further - that this virtual PC is stored on someone else's property, and you, as a user, can load it up and run it from your home PC, laptop, or (possibly) your smartphone, and you now have flexible, accessible computing without the servers to support.

For the tech support service, they either run large servers with virtualization software (there are many powerful commercial and open source systems available), or they use an outsourced storage platform like Amazon's EC2 service. In addition to your servers, they also house your desktop operating systems. Running multiple servers and desktops on single servers is far more economical; it better utilizes the available server power, reducing electricity costs and helping the environment; and backups and maintenance are simplified. The cost savings of this approach should benefit both the provider and the client.

In your office, you still need networked PCs with internet access. But all you need on those computers is a basic operating system that can boot up and connect to the hosted, virtualized desktop. Once connected, that desktop will recognize your printers and USB devices. If you make changes, such as changing your desktop wallpaper or adding an Outlook plugin, those changes will be retained. The user experience is pretty standard. But here's a key benefit -- if you want to work from home, or a hotel, or a cafe, then you connect to the exact same desktop as the one at work. It's like carrying your computer everywhere you go, only without the carrying part required.

So, it's great that there are mission focused providers out there who will affordably support our servers. But they could be even more affordable, and more effective, as cloud providers, freeing us from having to own and manage any servers in the first place.

Colossus vs. Cloud - an Email System Showdown

If your nonprofit has 40 or more people on staff, it's a likely bet that you use Microsoft Exchange as your email server. There are, of course, many nonprofits that will use the email services that come with your web hosting, and there are some using legacy products like Novell's Groupwise or Lotus Notes/Domino. But the market share for email and groupware has gone to Microsoft, and, at this point, the only compelling up and coming competition comes from Google.

There are reasons why Microsoft has dominated the market. Exchange is a mature and powerful product, that does absolutely everything that an email system has to do, and offers powerful calendaring, contact management and information sharing features on top of it. A quick comparison to Google's GMail offering might look a bit like "Bambi vs. Godzilla". And, as Michelle pointed out the other day, GMail might be a risky proposition, despite it being more affordable, because it puts your entire mail store "in the cloud". But Gmail's approach is so radically different from Microsoft's that I think it deserves a more detailed pro/con comparison.

Before we start, it's important to acknowledge that the major difference is the hosted/cloud versus local installation, and there's a middle ground - services that host Exchange for you - Microsoft even has their own cloud service. If you are evaluating email platforms and including GMail and Exchange, hosted Exchange should be weighed as an additional option. But my goal here is to contrast the new versus the traditional, and traditional Exchange installations are in your server room, not someone else's.

Server Platform

Installing Exchange is not a simple task. Smaller organizations can get away with cheaper hardware, but the instructions say that you'll need a large server for mail storage; a secondary server for web and internet functions, and, most likely, a third server to house your third party anti-spam and anti-virus solutions. Plus, Exchange won't work in a Linux or Novell network - there has to be an additional server running Microsoft's Active Directory in place before you can even install it. It can be a very stable product if you get the installation right, but getting it right means doing a lot of prep and research, because the slim documents that come in the box don't prepare you for the complexity. Once you have it running, you have to run regular maintenance and keep a close watch - along with mailbox limits - to insure that the message bases don't fill up or corrupt.

GMail, on the other hand, is only available as a hosted solution. Setup is a matter of mapping your domain to Google's services (can be tricky, but child's play compared to Exchange) and adding your users.

Win - GMail. It saves you a lot of expense, when you factor in the required IT time and expertise with the hardware and software costs for multiple servers.

EMail Clients

Outlook has it's weaknesses - slow and obtuse search, poor spam handling, and a tendency toward unexplained crashes and slowdowns on a regular basis. But, as a traditional mail client, it has a feast of features. There isn't much that you can't do with it. One of the most compelling reasons to stick with Outlook is it's extensibility. Via add-ons and integrations, Outlook can serve as a portal to applications, databases, web sites and communications. In a business environment, you might be sacrificing some key functionality without it, much as you often have to use Internet explorer in order to access business-focused web sites.

But where Outlook is a very hefty application, with tons of features and settings buried in it's cavernous array of menus and dialog boxes, Gmail is deceptively uncluttered. The truth is that the web-based GMail client can do a lot of sophisticated tricks, including a few that Outlook can't -- like allowing you to decide that you'd rather "Reply to All" mid-message -- and some that you can only do with Outlook by enabling obscure features and clicking around a lot, like threading conversations and applying multiple "tags" to a single message. Gmail is the first mail client to burst out of the file cabinet metaphor. Once you get used to this, it's liberating. Messages don't get archived to drawers, they get tagged with one or more labels. You can add stars to the important ones. It's not that you can't emulate this workflow in Outlook, it's that it's fast and smooth in GMail, and supported by a very intelligent and blazingly fast search function. Of course, if that doesn't float your boat, you can always use Outlook - or any other standard POP3 or IMAP client - to access GMail.

Win - GMail. It's more innovative and flexible, and I didn't even dig deep.


Exchange, of course, is not subject to the vagaries of internet availability when you're at the office. Mind you, much of the mail that you're waiting to receive is. And Outlook - if you run in "Cached mode" - has had offline access down for ages. GMail just started experimenting with that this week. If you're not in the office, Exchange supports a variety of ways to get to the mail. Outlook Web Access (OWA) is a sophisticated web-based client that, with Exchange 2007 and IE as the browser, almost replicates the desktop Outlook experience. OMA is a mobile-friendly web interface. And ActiveSync, which is supported on many phones (including the iPhone) is the most powerful, stable and feature-rich synchronization platform available. Exchange can do POP and IMAP as well, and also supports a VPN-like mode called Outlook Anywhere (or HTTPS over RPC).

GMail only supports web, pop and IMAP. There's a mobile GMAIL app which is available on more phones than Activesync is, but it isn't as robust or full featured as Microsoft's offering.

So, oddly, the Win for remote access goes to Microsoft over Google, because Microsoft's offerings are plentiful and mature.

Business Continuity

So, not to belabor this, Exchange is well supported by many powerful backup products. In cached mode, it mirrors your server mailbox to your dektop, which is additional redundancy.

GMail is in the cloud, so backup isn't quite as straightforward. Offline mode does some synchronization, like Exchange's cached mode, but it's not 100% or, at this point, configurable. Prudent GMail users will, even if they don't read mail in it, set up a POP email program to regularly download their mail in order to have a local copy.

Win - Microsoft

Microsoft also Wins the security comparison - Google can, and has, cut off user's email accounts. There seem to have been good reasons, such as chasing out hackers who had commandeered accounts. But keeping your email on your backed-up server behind your firewall will always be more secure than the cloud.

But I'd hedge that award with the consideration that Exchange's complex ity is a risk in itself. It's all well and safe if it is running optimally and it's being backed up. But most nonprofits are strapped when it comes to the staffing and cost to support this kind of solution. If you can't provide the proper care and feeding that a system like Exchange requires, you might well be at more risk with an in-house solution. The competence of a vendor like Google managing your servers is a plus.

Finally, cost. GMail wins hands down. The supported Google Apps platform is free for nonprofits. Microsoft offers us deep discounts with their charity pricing, but Dell and HP don't match on the hardware, and certified Microsoft Administrators come in the $60-120k annual range.

So, in terms of ease of management and cost, GMail easily wins. There are some big trade-offs between Microsoft's kitchen sink approach to features and Google's intelligent, progressive functionality, and, in well-resourced environments, Microsoft is the secure choice, but in tightly resourced ones - like nonprofits - GMail is a stable and supported option. The warnings about trusting Google -- or any other Software as a Service vendor -- are prudent, but there are a lot of factors to weigh. And it's going to come down to a lot of give and take, with considerations particular to your environment, to determine what the effective choice is. In a lot of cases, the cloud will weigh heavier on the scale than the colossus.

Regime Change

I’ve been pretty fascinated by the news reports about how the Obama staff reacted to the technology in place at the White House. If you haven’t been tracking this, you can read the full story, but the short story is this: the Mac/Blackberry/Facebook-savvy Obama staffers were shocked to find ancient systems and technology in use at the White House – Windows XP, MS Office 2003, traditional phone lines, and web filtering in place – in other words, the same stuff my org uses. I found myself both sympathetic and skeptical regarding their plight, because I am a big fan of all of the new technology that they are familiar with, but they walked into a network that is a lot like 90% of the businesses out there. The Bush Administration, perhaps surprisingly, was fairly current in their use of technology.

Some quick things I draw from this:

* The Obama campaign distinguished themselves by their smart use of modern, internet technology, and that use played a major role in their successful campaign.

* The shock they’re facing is less about the technology in place than it is about the culture they’re moving into. Political teams run freely and nimbly, and Howard Dean established the Web as the infrastructure of choice in 2004. Businesses, like the White House, do not drive so close to the cutting edge, for a variety of good reasons, such as the need for standardization and security.

* Over the next few months, the Obama-ans are going to compromise, and I’m dying to learn what choices they’ll make.

In my work, I'm on both sides of that fence every day, working with staff to understand why we have to standardize in order to manage our systems, stay a little behind the curve in order to avoid risk, and stick with applications like Microsoft Office because they have the mature feature set that we require. At the same time, I rally my staff to be creative in finding tools and solutions for our people, to stay abreast of which new tools are going to be worth the risk in terms of the benefits they offer, and understand that, should we get too far behind, it will be as risky as being too far out on the technological edge. We don't want to fall off of any cliffs, nor do we want to stand still as all of the other cars race around us.

Some of us, like the leader of the free world, can't imagine a day without a Blackberry; others, like a former free world leader, don't even want an email account. Most of us live in this world where we have to creatively embrace the new while we tighten our grips on the traditional, because technology platforms thrive on stability while they obsolesce rapidly. Where the Obama White House winds up might be a good indicator of where we should all be. I hope we’ll have a window into that.

The Death of Email (is being prematurely reported)

Friends of mine who are active on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are fond of proclaiming that email is dead. And, certainly, those of us who are active on these networks send less email to each other than we used to. I'm much more likely to direct message, tweet, or write on someone's wall if I have a quick question, comment or information referral for someone, the latter two if it's a question or info that I might benefit from having other people in my online community see.

But I don't see these alternatives as ships carrying the grim reaper onto email's shores -- I think they're more likely the saviors of email. As I said a couple of weeks ago in my "Myth of KISS" post, email applications are heavily abused, and they're not very good at managing large amounts of information. This hasn't stopped a good 90% of the people online from using email as their primary information aggregator. We get:

  • Personal emails

  • Mailing List items

  • ENewsletters

  • Automated alerts

  • Spam!

  • and a host of other things

in our email inboxes every day. The inbox places new messages on top and older messages scroll down and out of sight. Almost every email program on earth lets you, as you make time for it, pull emails into named folders, mark them as important, order them by name or date or subject, search for them, and archive them to some other part of your storage space, but none of them do more than some basic filtering and prioritizing for you, perhaps IDing 90% of the spam and, if you're a power user, allowing you to place messages from certain people in special folders.

The exception to the standard email processing rules is Google's GMail, which does innovative threading and labeling, allowing for, in my opinion, a superior tool for information management, but it's still a lot of work. The tools will improve, but it's kind of like hiring a better maid service to clean up congress - they'll make the halls shinier, but the same legislators will show up for work on the next day.

The answer is to acknowledge that email applications, as we know them, were never meant to process upwards of twenty or thirty messages a day. The information management defaults assume a manageable number of items, and many of us are way past that threshold. The power of alternative messaging mediums is that they are tailored to the types of messages they deliver, and their tools sets are accordingly more refined and targeted. If you get newsletters and alerts in your email, switch to RSS. If you do a lot of short messages or work coordination, look at IM. If you announce or broadcast information, or survey your contacts, use Twitter or Facebook. These mediums are, so far, much less susceptible to spam, and you can ignore messages once you've read them or skipped them, they don't have to be deleted. The closer you get to only receiving personal email in your inbox, the easier it will be to keep up with it

So these new mediums aren't gunning to eliminate our old, old electronic friend - they're just allowing it to go on a long overdue diet.

Help for the Helpers

If you're in a job that involves supporting technology in any fashion, from web designer to CIO, then the odds are that you do help desk. Formally or not, people come to you with the questions, the "how do I attach a file to my email?", the "what can I do? My screen is frozen", the "I saved my document but I don't know where". Rank doesn't spare you; openly admitting that you can do anything well with computers is equivalent to lifetime membership in the tech support club.

A full time tech support job is, for the most part, an extended roller coaster ride with more down slopes than up. People who are drawn to this work are generally sharp, eager to assist, and take pride in their ability to debug. The down side is that, day after day, it's grueling. There's always a percentage of people who would just as soon smash the machine and go back to their trusty Selectrics. They aren't always happy or polite with the friendly tech who comes to help them.

But the most debilitating aspect of the work is that support techs don't manage their workload. It's randomly and recklessly assigned by the varying needs of their co-workers and the stability of their systems. They never know when they're going to walk in the office to find the donor database is crashed, or the internet line is down. The emails come in, the phone rings, and, to the people calling, everything is a crisis. Or it certainly seems that way. The end result is that career support techs often develop a sense of powerlessness in their work, and the longer it goes on, the less able they are to take proactive action and control of their jobs.

So here are two complimentary actions that can be taken to brighten the life and lighten the load of the support tech.

1. Deploy a trouble ticket system. And make sure that it meets these specifications:

  • Incredibly easy for staff to use. Web-based, linked from their desktop, with, ideally, three fields: Name, priority and problem. The software has to be able to grab additional information automatically, such as the time that the ticket was submitted, and, optimally, the user's department, location and title, but the key point is that people won't use the system if the system is too annoying to use.

  • Every update is automatically emailed to the user and the tech. This is critical. What an automated trouble ticket does best is to inform the customer that their issues are being addressed. Without this communication in place, what stands out in user's minds are the tickets that haven't been resolved. Confirmations of the fixes, sent as they occur, validate the high rate of responsiveness that most help desks maintain.

  • Be clear that the scope of the problem will influence the response time. Fixes that require spending or input from multiple parties are not slam dunks. This communication might warrant additional checkboxes on the submission form for "requires budget" or "requires additional approvals", but formalizing this information helps the customer know that their issue hasn't just been dropped by the tech.

  • Have a default technical staff view that puts open tickets on top. In environments where the telephone is the primary support funnel, things get forgotten, no matter how good and organized the tech is.

There's more to it - good ticket systems feed into, and include links to additional support resources. And they don't replace the telephone - IT has to be readily available. But there should be an understanding that users follow up phone calls with tickets. These are the key strategies that help the seemingly unmanageable stream of support calls fall in line.

2. Allow the support staff to breathe. There has to be an understanding, primarily understood by the support tech, but reinforced by his or her manager, teammates and staff, that only emergencies demand emergency response times. In fact, treating every call as an equally important, must be fixed immediately situation is a strategy for failure. Support Techs need to do effective triage, and put aside time to analyze and act proactively to solve user problems. If they deal with the same questions over and over, they have to write and publish the solutions. If the calls indicate a common problem that can be solved with a better application or an upgrade, they need to be able to step back and assess that. Smart managers will enforce this measured approach. At first, it will go against the grain of service-oriented staff, but it's a must, because the measured response begets the more comprehensive solution to any problem.

The Myth of KISS

Keep It Simple, Someone*! If there ever was a common man's rallying plea relative to technology, this is the one. How many people do you know who got an iPod for XMas, only to learn that, before they could use it, they would have to learn how to rip their CD collection to disk? And upgrade the hard drive, or buy additional storage? All of which is a piece of cake, when compared to setting up a wireless network or removing persistent spyware. The most frequent request that I get from the people I support as an IT Director? "I just want it to turn on and work!". I can relate. Which is why I'm here to tell you that keeping it simple can be a questionable goal, at best.

The fact is, it's not easy to manage even a home computer. It's gotten better: they're nice enough to color code the audio ports on a new PC, and put little labels below the connectors, and more and more things connect over USB, making the "where do I plug it in?" question a little easier to answer. And, wow, they even put a few ports on the front now. But we're a long way from the day when operating a computer is as easy as operating a toaster, and I, for one, question whether that will be a happy day.

My biggest case in point is email. Email is the application that everyone in the family knows and uses. It's compelling. Even the most technology-averse people can't escape the argument that communicating with family, friends and associates electronically is inexpensive and convenient. But the problem I see is that, once most people learn email, they don't want to learn anything else. Want online community? Sign me up for the email mailing list. Want news headlines and informational updates? Send it in the email. The problem with this is that email is an astonishingly useful application, but there's a point where it breaks down, and that point is when the volume of email becomes greater than the capacity to keep up with it. Email has a huge flaw as an information management tool: important things scroll out of sight. It's a FIFO medium (First In, First Out), that doesn't prioritize information for you, so that message from Aunt Irma supercedes the spam from the travel agency which supercedes the alert that your home is in foreclosure which supercedes the announcement that dog food is on sale... you get my point. And managing the email, staying on top of it and storing it in folders is a job.

So I advocate for making an early investment that pays off later -- learn a few more applications. Read RSS feeds in an RSS reader; visit your major social networks and online communities at their web sites; eschew the mailing lists -- or subscribe using an alternate email account that you follow with another application. Do some research before investing in any application or gadget -- there's a powerful argument that digitizing your music will save you time and effort in the long run, but that's of little use if, as happened with a friend of mine, you buy the iPod the day before you're shipped out to an island on military duty, with no chance to get any music on it. Keep It Separated, Sally, and Knowledge Informs Strategy, Sam. Because the idea that funneling all of that information through one conduit is somehow simpler than doing some up front research, management, prioritization and segmentation of information is a self-defeating myth.

* Substitute your favorite subjective noun starting with the letter "S".

Filling the Communication Gaps

We've come a long way since the Pony Express. It's hard to imagine living in a time when your options for communication were limited to face-to-face, sllooowww mail, and, perhaps, carrier pigeon. Today, we have the opposite problem: there are so many mediums to choose from that a key communication skill is to gleam the method that the person you want to reach prefers. I was taken aback by an Australian ruling that Facebook was an acceptable medium for serving subpoenas, until I read that the defendants had been unreachable by phone or email for months beforehand. At first I thought they were just avoiding the subpoena -- still a big possibility -- but then I reconsidered. How many people have completely abandoned their primary email accounts, assuming that anything in them is spam, in favor of only reading their mail on Facebook or MySpace? Probably a considerable number. I know, just from my day-to-day business dealings, that I will reach some of my coworkers more effectively by phone than I will by email, and vice versa.

So we have postal mail, the telephone, the telegram, facsimile, short wave radio, walkie-talkie and intercom holding up the old guard. And we have email, cell phone, IM, chat, IRC, blogs, Twitter, forums and social networking services charging in as new(er) mediums. And I'm sure I've missed a bunch. The internet has opened up a Pandora's box of communication mediums. So why use one over another? If we break it down to a manageable number of mediums, say, Phone, IM, email and Twitter, there are some intriguing differences. These differences don't imply that one is better than another, but, certainly, one is more practical, courteous or efficient than another in a given circumstance. I evaluate the mediums on a few defining attributes:

Private or Social? While allowing that you can send group emails and IMs, and hold phone conferences, these mediums are primarily suited for one to one or a few conversations, whereas Twitter, and many of the web-based mediums, are social, with a large and partially unknown audience included.

Ambient or Invasive? A phone call is invasive, as is, to some extent, an IM. The sender is sitting there waiting for a response, so the courteous thing to do is to immediately re-prioritize whatever you're doing and respond to them. Email and tweets, on the other hand, are casual mediums. Ignoring either one for an hour is within the bounds of the sender's expectations.

Convenient or In Need of Management? I can send and receive IMs and Tweets and forget about them; phone calls as well, although voicemail needs to be dealt with. Email, on the other hand, is a demanding application. i have to manage it, sort it, categorize it, and clean it up.

Disposable or Archived? Phone calls and IMs, unless I record them, disappear after the conversation is ended. Emails and tweets are saved and searchable, giving me an always available archive of my communications (unless I delete them).

I suggested in a post last week that Twitter bridges the gap between email and IM, just as email bridged the gap between the letter and the phone call. Since then, I've been trying to figure out if a social, ambient, archive-able and convenient medium like microblogging is compelling in my organization. I took a look at Socialcast, one of the many corporate Twitter clones popping up, and I was very impressed with their implementation, which breaks the messages into statuses, ideas, questions and links.

Selling my staff on a tool like this is proving to be a challenge. The argument for it is fairly nuanced, and urging anyone to try something new on faith isn't easy. They're asking why this is better than the Microsoft Messenger chat application, or a more full-featured Sharepoint site? Those are good questions. Micro-messaging software lacks some of the features that these other mediums sport, but it provides a very simple and powerful, approach to information sharing that is far more collegial and less invasive than chat, while it's simpler and quicker to use than Sharepoint. And my bet is that, in the war of communications mediums, it will ultimately be the ones that are easiest to use and least disruptive that win. Or it should be.

Keys to the Kingdom

Being a career nonprofit IT type, I've repeatedly had the unpleasant experience of walking into a new job, only to find that critical information, such as software licenses and server passwords, are nowhere to be found. So before I can start to manage a new network, I have to hack it. This sort of thing happens in other industries as well, but it strikes me as something that plagues nonprofits. On one extreme, we might have staff who become bitter and malicious as they depart, destroying records and withholding passwords. But even if the situation isn't that dramatic, keeping track of sensitive, critical data is a bit tedious, and concerns about security and confidentiality make it additionally complex. Protecting and keeping this information available to the staff that need it can save a lot of time, money and frustration. Here are some suggestions:

Follow procedures: in tight budget and staffing conditions, the approach to IT management is often reactive and chaotic. Many key NPO IT Managers came into the role as "accidental techies", which implies that many nonprofits only support technology by accident. In an environment where the Office Manager, Donations Clerk or a volunteer ends up deploying the servers and installing applications, it's a safe assumption that there aren't well-crafted IT policies in place. In this environment, losing critical passwords -- or even failing to ever write them down -- can be a regular occurrence.

Involve all stakeholders:Don't assume that your It staff - who are already struggling to juggle the big projects with user support -- are keeping good records. Audit them, assist them and back them up. Finance can take a role in tracking license keys along with purchase records. And far too many nonprofit executives don't even ask for the system passwords. There is no good reason - no matter how many a tech might come up with - why the CEO or head of security shouldn't keep an updated, sealed envelope with key passwords in the safe in case of sudden turnover or emergency. I've worked with a lot of techies who would scream about this. "The CEO can't have the password! They'll delete files! They'll mess it all up!" Well, the CEO shouldn't use the password. But they should definitely have it.

Foster a culture that allows technology staff to succeed: in two of my personal cases, the staff before me had left en masse and bitterly. They took the main network password with them and wiped out a lot of the IT records. Clearly, this is immature and unprofessional behavior. I wouldn't think to defend it. But the circumstances that lead some immature techs to be resentful and abusive can be fostered by certain work conditions. If you are a nonprofit executive, there are some things that you can do to create an environment that is less conducive to bitterness and abuse.

  • Have realistic expectations for IT. If you don't know how easy or hard it is to, say, upgrade a server or roll out a CRM system, don't make assumptions. Hire a consultant, get a sense of what's required, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

  • Participate. Have all staff participate in technology planning and adoption. There are people who install systems and there are people who use them. The installation has to be a joint process. Techs can not be held accountable for determining user's needs, and users can not be solely responsible for evaluating technology. Whenever IT buys the system without user input, or users pick a system without technical oversight, the relationship between IT and staff becomes strained. Joint responsibility and accountability for system choices is required for a healthy environment.

  • Be appreciative. Tech support can be a very thankless job, and the smaller the staff and budget, the less rewarding. When your computer stalls or malfunctions, it can be frustrating. Even if you, personally, don't take that frustration out on the tech who comes to fix it, are the rest of your co-workers that patient?

  • Don't hire extremes. When hiring technical staff, assess their people skills. Make sure that their focus is on how technology supports the org, not strictly on the technology. At the same time, assess the non-IT staff for their technical skills, and hire people who are competent and appreciative of technology. We are long, long past the day when all computer support and expertise could be delegated to the IT Department.

It boils down to organizational culture and priorities. The hectic, resource-strained environments that many of us work in aren't conducive to good record-keeping habits. This problem is bolstered by the general case where upper management is, for various reasons, ranging from misplaced faith to technophobia, not thinking of IT as a keeper of critical organizational records. But the truth is that a failure to keep it all written down is inevitably going to cost you, in dollars and productivity. The best solutions are holistic - create a culture where accountability for organizational assets is clear to all and shared by all, and, in particular, understand enough about the technical demands put on your IT staff - accidental and otherwise - to allow them to prioritize the small stuff along with all of the big projects and constant fires they put out.
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