Sunday, 30 January 2005

Wiki - over hyped, but still useful

There is a lot of hype around Wikis (and Blogs as I've said before), but Jon Udell writing in Computerworld ("Togetherness with another name", 27 Jan 2005, p.21 - there is a version of the article here) I think presents the most balanced commentary I've seen for a while. He pin points two useful attributes of a Wiki:

  1. It reduces Web publishing to the bare essentials so that anyone can contribute (like a Blog); and
  2. The Wiki encourages consensus above individual authorship.
Point 1 provides a lot of value in it's own right, for example the NSW KM Forum (I'm part of the forum's coordinating committee) is using a Wiki system to provide a quick and easy Web content management system (CMS). Unfortunately we had to password protect the site because of Wiki-spam (sad, but true), but that aside it works really well.

Thursday, 27 January 2005

Research to help multi-site organisations collaborate better using technology

The excellent IT Section of the Australian newspaper reported an interesting initiative out of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). In a year long project, UTS researcher Melanie Kan will be investigating how workers in large multi-site organisations use technology to communicate with each other.

As I mentioned in another post, I'm very interested in how we design collaborative workplaces. However it was disappointing to hear that one output of the research would be "a piece of software or a technology". IMHO I would be very surprised if they can come up with once bit of new technology that will magically improve multi-site collaboration. But let's wait and see what they come up with I guess.

BTW If you're interested in this area, have a look at Steelcase's research on workplace design, information technology and teams.

Sunday, 23 January 2005

PDF options unlimited

I've always encouraged people to make use of Portable Document Format (PDF), especially when sharing files by e-mail or across the Internet. Unfortunately I think people may be under the impression that in order to create PDF files you need to purchase expensive software. In fact while there are many good reasons to use Acrobat software from Adobe (the original designers of the PDF format), these is a good range of alternative PDF software options to suit all budgets and needs, including freeware and open source options.

One freeware PDF tool I discovered recently is PrimoPDF. It's a free no frills tool for creating basic PDFs. Like many of the freeware tools it makes use of Ghostscript, however installation is simply and straightforward. It is also ad free so there are no annoying pop-ups. To create a PDF you just print the document to a virtual PDF printer - you can then choose to create a PDF that is suitable for on screen viewing or high-quality printing.

I actually use a combination of free and commercial software. I have a copy of PublishPDF Pro (retails for around A$200) installed on my desktop PC that I use when I need more control over PDF output, such as such security and encryption. However on my laptop I usually find myself using the native PDF export function in OpenOffice, an open source alternative to Microsoft Office, for creating simple PDF of documents I've created. I use PrimoPDF for everything else.

Thursday, 20 January 2005

e3 stylus replacement for old PDAs

Recently I acquired an old Palm Vx PDA. Having been a Psion Series 3 fan many years ago (would you believe I used it to write Uni assignments on it back in the early 1990s) I did try a Series 5, but after the flap mechanism broke and I had trouble syncing with a corporate network I gave up. One thing I know about PDAs is that for them to effective it really has to be all or nothing. Anyway I decided to wait and see how the new PDA/phone combos evolved before buying a new one... then someone gave me this Palm Vx. I thought, ok I'll give it a go and see how it fits in with how I work.

I had great fun in the first few days checking it out and even signed up for the AvantGo service so I could read the Sydney Morning Herald on the train when I travel up to Sydney. Then I promptly lost the stylus. That's when my troubles began. The cheapest replacements I could find initially were going to cost around A$30-A$40. You can almost buy a new PDA for double that now, so I decided that wasn't cost effective enough. Afterall I was just after a bit of plastic!

A bit more googling and I finally discovered a product by BIC called e3. This pen has a PDA stylus, pen and pencil in a single unit. It's not quite what I want but at only A$10 it's cheap enough and hopefully chunky enough that I won't lose it. The only odd thing is that in Sydney at least the only retailer who I could find that stocks the e3 is WC Penfold's.

PS I do miss my Series 3. RIP.

Wednesday, 19 January 2005

SMEs breaking the break-fix habit

I'm not sure who should be worried the most, but it looks like the big boys in the IT industry have just figured out what most people serving the SME market knew already... that people in small business like to do business with people they know and trust. This is just one of the conclusions from research firm IDC in their report, Outsourcing and the SME.

However, there was some good news in IDC's report. They say that "SMEs are realising that the break-fix approach is not the long term solution to their IS management problems". I certainly agree that if you do want to get more out of information technology, then breaking the break-fix habit is certainly one of the steps.

But while I'm pleased to see this as a trend, I would urge any size of business to think carefully about outsourcing any element of IT as a solution to their IT management problems. Outsourcing IT means that risk is transferred to the service provider, but you still need to manage this transferred risk. Unfortunately this often requires a degree of IT know-how and I suspect this may be why some SMEs hesitate to outsource in the first place. It also goes some way to explain why trust and relationships are so important.

Monday, 17 January 2005

Notes from a visit to the Ark workplace

Today I took a bit of time out of my busy schedule to visit the offices of Assai in Sydney. Physically their office space has a capacity for 30 people but Assai have an unusual arrangement because they actually share their open plan office with six other small professional firms as well as some virtual or hotdesking tenants. My reasons for visiting them is that I'm very interested in how organisation create collaborative environments, physical and online.

The administration of the office, called The Ark, is community based. This means they operate on a fixed cost basis (with exception of telephone calls) that covers things such as stationary but also the use of other facilities like meeting rooms. Despite that fact that there are many different businesses operating in the space, there appears to be a strong sense of community in place and this guides people to do the right thing and use resources fairly. Compare this to most corporate open plan environments!

From the perspective of the integration of technology into the workplace I was particularly interested in the fact that they put their services - cabling and air conditioning - under the floor rather than above as is typical. It means that they have greater flexibility to rearrange the layout because power and data are underneath. They also use a cordless DECT phone system that means people can wander around the office or even go down to a cafe below but still have access to their landline. However, I can also see great potential for a wireless data network in this environment - particularly for the meeting room and informal spaces - so that the spaghetti of blue LAN cable can be banished. I would then be interested to see how that impacts on their use of shared space.

It is very easy to look at The Ark workplace from just a single architectural, social or technology perspective. But what appears to make this environment work is the fact that they have thought about both the social and technology infrastructure needed for a "community" to exist.

Sunday, 16 January 2005

Corporate blogs - revolution or evolution?

Don't take this the wrong way, but I can't help not getting excited about the idea of corporate blogs. This has nothing to do with denying the impact that blogs have had on the Internet, but in the corporate environment I really think this is more of an evolution than a revolution.

For example, excited utterances reported a new article in Free Pint on corporate blogs that stated, " specialist blogging software had been available only since early 1999". I'm very sorry, but if you wanted to implement a corporate blog then the technology was definitely available much earlier with Lotus Notes. Evidence of this comes from the fact I spent four years in a corporate environment that made full use of it's Lotus Notes infrastructure. Even before I got there in 1999 they had been using Notes to drive discussion forums, many of which in practice could be described as a corporate blog (which isn't that hard when you look at the possible uses for corporate blogs). In that context I found this interesting comment by the man behind Lotus Notes (and now Groove), Ray Ozzie, in his own blog:

"In 1993 or thereabouts, we saw the emergence of TCP/IP, HTML, HTTP, Mosaic and the Web. From our perspective, all of these were simplistic emulations of a tiny subset of what we'd been doing in Notes for years. .. I am quite embarassed to say that we frankly didn't 'get' what was so innovative about this newfangled 'Web' thing, given the capabilities of what had already been built."

Of course what does make blogs different from Lotus Notes is the fact that content can be shared through an open standard, RSS. This also means that there are a whole bunch of non-proprietory blogging products out there that make the provision of self-publising tools very cost effective. No doubt this has contributed to the take up of blogging inside and outside the firewall. However, in the corporate world at least, revolution it isn't!

Saturday, 15 January 2005

Back to basics phones

Talking of information appliances... I remembered that Vodafone in Australia have recently released a range of budget mobilephones that focus on long talktime but minimal features. Apparently people "were often dissatisfied when fancy features such as video phones had compromised battery life". While they aren't the first to do this, it's a good reminder that sometimes less is more.

Friday, 14 January 2005

Usability and Information Appliances

In the last few days I've finished writing an article for a magazine on the topic of usability. Typically I end up researching quite widely but because of space (and time) constraints some of the peripheral ideas end up being put aside. In this case I was side tracked momentarily by the concept of information appliances. They sit at the opposite end of the spectrum from all singing and dancing, multifunctional technologies. Information appliances can help to reduce some of the complexities around achieving usability by focusing on discreet tasks and by positioning technology within a specific and often physical context. A good example is Steelcase's RoomWizardTM. For more on information appliances see the Appliance Studio site. It is also worthwhile looking at the success of self-service kiosks in airports and a well known fast food chain - not only are they a good examples of information appliances in practice, the airport kiosks also show how you can empower customers with information technology.

Thursday, 13 January 2005

Hello world

Hello world. The inspiration behind this blog, and also my business Chief Technology Solutions, is the idea of helping organisations of all shapes and sizes to "get on, not get by, with information technology". I would love to take credit for this tagline but the idea for it in fact comes from a report that is part of the excellent and higly recommended body of research work by the UK's Work Foundation's iSociety project.