Archive for December, 2008

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Connect the Dots

December 29, 2008

One of the biggest things in the Academy is communication. Just like any other organisation there’s a whole heap of discussion about the right ways to communicate and about who receives what information, and about what constitutes too little and information versus information overload. There will never be a perfect fit for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth exploring the options we have available and trying things out from time to time.

Social networking is something that is often mooted amongst the technical communities as a possible option for improved communication in the organisation and is something that I have considered pursuing on several occasions. The reality is however that there are some additional factors with creating a social network in the corporate environment (CESN) that need careful consideration before implementing any potential solution.

Productivity

Anything that is put in place to enhance how people work be it faster, smarter, or cheaper is looking at the productivity of the organisation. Whilst the whole point of social networking is to provide a medium through which to improve communication and knowledge sharing, productivity can be thought of very much like any sort of investment. “It may go up as well as down”.

The diagram below I’ve dubbed the social networks productivity spectrum.

Productivity Spectrum.png

At one end people can spend their time idly checking the network believing that they are being productive whereas in fact they are not focussed on the work they need to do. In such an instance the social network is no longer a tool but more of a source of procrastination – otherwise known as “The Facebook Effect. At the opposite end of the spectrum a person can spend their time providing valuable input, but finds themselves involved in too large a proportion of the network to the extent that not only does their own work suffer but perhaps even that of the others involved who may find the constant need to validate their decision with or respond to queries from the individual. In the middle of the spectrum is the ideal balance of contribution that allows everyone to work effectively.

In implementing a CESN it is impossible to ensure that all users will fall into the middle of the spectrum, but the guidance given for the purpose and use of the network should include information about the organisation’s expectations on such purpose and usage. Rather than deciding what is the right way to use it I think just some general guidance on what is appropriate usage is all that’s required but even so there may be several people in an organisation that might have input into what reasonable usage is.

Speed of Thought

Communication is the name of the game with social networking and like any real world grapevine it is always surprising how fast communications can occur. Whilst this can be invaluable in corporate terms, it can also be a danger. Corporate communications are often filtered and throttled to ensure that information gets to the right people at the right time. Mis-information put out into a social network can quickly cause problems that are probably less manageable than through any other communication medium due to the openness and far reaching communication. In many systems some sort of moderation (e.g. flag posts for publishing) would ensure that this situation cannot arise, but the nature of social networking is such that it cannot be constrained by this sort of control system – it simply wouldn’t work.

On balance this one is very tricky to weigh up- there could always be a risk that misinformation can generate poor decision making or even create mistrust. The only solution is really to fully trust all users of the social network. Again here there is nothing beyond guidance and training that can be used to manage this risk.

Red Tape

Whilst any social networking solution should probably be (certainly initially) limited to Academy employees only, there is still as ever a legal consideration. There have been cases where social networks have been used to harass and victimise employees and in order to protect an organisation there does need to be due consideration to appropriate policies and possibly even training in order to ensure that users are aware of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate use.

An investment in time to write an appropriate policy or to enhance an existing computer systems usage policy would have to be included in implementing any social networking solution and there could even be a need to incorporate ‘external’ usage agreements should the social networking system be hosted by a third party.

Integration

A CESN is just one element of collaborative working and it would be useful to consider how it could integrate with the Gateway work towards a collaborative Intranet/Extranet. Close integration may be possible but could add considerable expense to the work. Establishing something entirely separate may mean that a highly valuable resource cannot be fully utilised an (for want of a better term) leveraged.

Looking at social networking options that provide integration with the sorts of technologies being considered for the Gateway is obviously a wise consideration, but until various decisions are validated and ratified then choices are simply educated guesses and there is always an associated risk of poor choice.

Administration

Whenever a new system is implemented there should always be consideration given to the administrative overheads required to maintain it. Who will add and remove user accounts, create / remove /archive sub-networks, check backups add additional storage capacity, etc.? Resources, be they financial or human, are always finite. Any undertaking should be supportable and allocated to a trustworthy and sustainable source.

Budgets are always stretched and staff are always asked to fit more work into their hectic schedules but irrespective of this there is always a need to invest in order to advance – the question is simply where should the investment be from?

Engagement

Even if a CESN is put in place there is always the chance that it will not be successful because people do not use it or do not understand how to use it. Whilst people can be conscripted into using a social network, the uptake will always be better through invitation but the question then becomes who to invite.

Most people are familiar with social networks so it may not seem difficult at first. However how many people are familiar with how best to make use of a social networking tool in a closed environment? The nature of the Academy is that there are a combination of academic and non-academic staff. Academic staff may be experienced in using social networks across disciplines and perhaps between institutions and departments. Non-academic staff are probably more familiar with using social networking purely in a social environment. Neither quite maps to what would be required of a CESN for the Academy … but both have something to offer.

Considerations for ranges of experience (of using social networks and working with communications), work areas (including administrators, projects staff, advisers and managers) and opportunity (i.e. ideas for areas of work people could use the CESN for) are necessary to prime the use of the social network. However it would seem from much of the available case studies on CESNs that invitation and natural evolution will provide the strongest basis for embedding into the organisational culture … once the right opportunities to make best use of it are established.

Which finally brings me to easily the most important consideration…

What for?

A social network is in essence a way to communicate and share when a face to face meeting or collaboration is not possible. As well as supporting the networking of people in different geographic locations social networks also allow people to communicate in a way that allows them to respond and contribute when it is convenient to them (just like e-mail) in a single point of contact.

However if people are presented with a CESN what would, could and should they do with it?

No matter how much research I have carried out I haven’t quite managed to identify what gap this might fill for the Academy. I can see many uses within the wider academic and corporate spheres where social networks can be used but I personally still struggle to establish what specific issues and requirements the implementation of a CESN for the Academy will address.

Whilst I feel that the Academy’s technical community could provide ideas for how to use a CESN I wonder if it would then become a technical community social network (which I think would have merit over the existing mailing list)? Could it be that the best way to find an answer to this question is to provide a social network in which people could discuss potential uses?

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Spot IT

December 28, 2008

My background is as a systems developer and I like to think that I’m quite a good developer in so much as I like to achieve outcomes using the minimum of effort. In my book “a good programmer is a lazy programmer“. So whilst this post does not relate in any way to programming it does relate to me finding ways in which to update this blog with the minimum of effort. In this particular case through something you may have noticed a little way down on the right side of the page called “Spot IT”.

Like most users of the Internet I regularly find interesting web sites. Now whilst I could post a blog entry for every site I come across it usually isn’t worth it as I don’t always have an insightful comment to make about every site I visit. However there are some sites that I feel might warrant a sort of ‘side note’ and this is where Spot IT comes in.

For day to day web browsing I use Mozilla Firefox and I have a good habit of bookmarking the sites I am interested in. Because I don’t always come across these whilst sat at my work computer I use a free add-on for Firefox that synchronises my bookmarks with a service called Foxmarks. An additional feature available from Foxmarks is the option (via the web site interface) to share folders of bookmarks. This sharing is offered through HTML pages as well as an RSS feed option.

I have set-up a shared links folder on my Foxmarks account and from this I have set up an RSS feed ‘widget’ on this blog that simply then lists the bookmarks. This means that when I find a site of interest that I’d like to share through this blog I can literally just bookmark it to my shared links folder. Foxmarks updates the RSS feed within 30 minutes of synchronisation and that’s it – really simple syndication of bookmarks.

It isn’t social bookmarking like delicious but it is just a really lazy way of keeping something new and up to date on the Reboot IT blog. If you want to keep a closer eye on my Spot IT list then you could of course just subscribe to the RSS feed.

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Quick Response Encoding

December 11, 2008

A little while back prompted  by a discussion doing the rounds on the Acadmy technical group I had a bit of a look into quick response codes (QR Codes).  These are a type of data matrix represented by a collection of  pixels in a square grid that are usualy used to represent something like a URL.

A number of pieces of software are available for today’s camera equipped mobile phones that allows these images to be decrypted and acted upon.  For example a QR code on a poster may allow a user with a suitably equipped mobile phone to take a snapshot of the code and immediately be taken to a particular web site on their phone’s browser.

Many phones come preloaded with the software and one of the most popular QR code readers is the Kaywa reader, however at the time my work phone was an HTC phone and Kaywa doesn’t support HTC phones.  Instead I managed to find a reader from a site called QuickMark.

The QuickMark reader seems to work as well as the Kaywa reader so there were no problems there and both are simple to use.

Both sites also offer encoding services.  Here I think there is a big difference…

The Kaywa Encoder (http://qrcode.kaywa.com/) is very simple to use and gives you the option to encode:

  • URL – simply the URL for a web site
  • Text – a piece of text
  • Phone Number – a telephone number
  • SMS – a phone number and a short piece of text to send

The URL I’ve already discussed, but the text can be used to do things such as reveal promotional information such as a web site password for a special offer or simply a fun message.  A phone number could be useful on a web site to save someone having to type it into their phone to call you. Finaly a predefined SMS could be used to request information to be texted back to the sender.  All fairly useful stuff I guess.

The Kaywa Encoder also allows you to select the size of the resulting PNG image to be produced upon encoding  – small, medium, large or extra large.

So what does the QuickMark Encoder have to offer?  Well it has lots more to offer … but it is a little bit harder to use.  First of all the list of things that can be encoded is much more extensive:

  • Website – a URL
  • Bookmark – a URL and a name for the bookmark
  • Phone call – a phone number
  • Send SMS – a phone number and a short piece of text to send
  • Send Email – an e-mail address, subject line and some content for the body of the message
  • Address Book – some basic contact details
  • meCard – contact details in meCard format (more than the address book option)
  • vCard – contact details in vCard format (more than the meCard option)
  • Text – a piece of text
  • Encryption – a piece of text encypted with a text based key
  • Partial Encryption – a display, an encrypted message and a text based key
  • Magic Jigsaw – a small image
  • Geographical Coordinates – a Google Maps location

Whilst some of these seem a little pointless to me the range is quite simply amazing as there’s even more listed under China Mobile DIY – presumably for QR code readers on mobile phones in China.

It doesn’t end there either.  The QR code can be downloaded in a number of file formats including PNG, GIF, JPG and SVG.  there’s also an option to view it as “raw text” which I guess is what the readers actually decodes it to and then executes.

So what about the size?  Well this is hidden away under advanced an option (found in the menu links on the left of the page).  It’s the last option and actually allows you to select from a staggering 30 different size options.  Along with this there are options to set the level of error correction for QuickMark (four levels) and QRcode (four levels) and the character set (six options).

After looking at this I really wanted to add a vCard to the back of my business card on a sticky label.  Unfortunately the more information, the larger the QR code needs to be and the ability to focus mobile phone cameras for what is effectively macro photography is frustrating when you look at the amazing reolution now available on modern phones.  The short if it is the technology isn’t quite there yet for this, but some of the QuickMark formats for infomation might spark off some good ideas such as using the geo co-ordinates for treasure hunts or contact details on office doors.

So how inventive can you be with all these encoding options at your disposal?

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Push the Button

December 11, 2008

I thought I’d start my first post with a bit of a why I’m starting this blog….

For the last couple of days I’ve been attending an event for The Higher Education Academy where the staff from all of our subject centres and our office in York got together to collaborate and discuss various topics as well as have a bit of a seasonal do.

The sessions over the course of the two days were quite varied (and captured in a special away day blog) but one in particular was the starting point for this blog.

Terry McAndrew from the Academy’s Bioscience Subject Centre was facilitating a technology session during which there was a bit of discussion about blogging and about some of the ways that the technical community within the Academy were sharing information and informing other members of the community about interesting.  A brief conversation with Terry after the session about a particular web based service brought up the topic of perhaps having a few more blogs in the Academy’s technical community to inform on useful things like that.

So after a spot of thinking for some hopefully slightly geeky play on words I created the “Reboot IT” blog and so the time has come to push the button on my first post and publish it to an obscure corner of the Internet.