Using technology with intention

Who is in the room - flickr - Latente 囧

There is a great quote by Sir James Matthew Barrie, the Scottish journalist and author. In 1896 he wrote “The printing press is either the greatest blessing or the greatest curse of modern times, one sometimes forgets which.”

From a modern perspective it is easy to see the blessings of the printing press in regard to the dissemination of information and enabling mass education and literacy. 100 years later it is difficult to understand the printing press as a curse (though we might accuse the Internet, or email or such a thing) but given its use in the mass production of propaganda material in both world wars there are clearly times that it has been used for contrary purposes.

Ultimately the difference between whether a tool is used well or used poorly is intention. Often we rush towards the outcome without realising the the outcome is the result of a process. For digital technology the basis of intention is the right combination of task, environment and app (an app is really just a digital tool).

So to be effective with technology we first need to be able to break down objectives and activities into tasks. This allows us to identify which of those tasks are informational in nature and best suited to digital technology. Secondly a task could be undertaken in a number of different environments and the choice of environment can have a material impact on our effectiveness in that task. There are two key choices when it comes to environment, the first is the physical location, the second is the platform. Take for instance the task of annotating a report for an upcoming meeting, the choice of location might include our desk, at a cafe, on the train, at the breakfast table or reclining on the couch. Our choice of platform might include our laptop/desktop, our tablet, our smartphone or on paper.

The third domain of intention is application. This is the tool that we choose to complete the task. In an analogue or paper based world we an extremely limited set of tools at our disposal. We might have a set of different coloured highlighters, our favourite fountain pen or a set of post-it notes in a range of fashionable colours but none of this is likely to make a substantive impact on your overall effectiveness. Fundamentally this is because the underlying technology, paper, is a poor medium for finding, sharing and repurposing the information that we create during the annotation process. In a digital environment we could have a multitude of apps and the choice of app can have a substantial impact on overall effectiveness. Apps can differ in a number of different ways and choosing an appropriate app is in itself an important skill.

This is not a choice that we have always had and therefore it is not a decision that we are used to making. For a long time our digital tools have been dictated to us and for the most part tied to a particular location, our desk. In fact for much of the time since the industrial revolution we have been going to a location called ‘work’ because that is where the technology was. Even when weaving looms gave way to typing pools and subsequently to personal computers linked on a Local Area Network (LAN) we have continued to go to the place where technology is located.

It is only with the growth of powerful mobile technology, ubiquitous network connections over wifi and cellular networks and the growing cloud computing infrastructure that our notion of work is changing. In the 21st century going to work is no longer about the destination but rather it is now about the activity. Ultimately, intention is about activating the choices that we have to improve performance rather than blindly continuing to do the things we have always done.

Photo credit: Latente via flickr

Is the pen really mightier than the keyboard?

There is an interesting debate currently going on amongst academics and other big thinkers across the internet about the effectiveness of our digital tools in adding understanding and recollection. So given that the internet allows us all to have our say, regardless of our level of expertise, I thought I would add my two cents to the conversation before we all get distracted by a new cat meme.

The debate seems to have started with some research out of the US suggesting that paper and pens were a superior form of notetaking than keyboards. The research titled The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking argues that people who take notes using pen and paper remember more and show a greater understanding of the subject matter than people who take notes on a laptop. It hypothesized that the ability to capture information faster on a keyboard led to greater verbatim note taking and as a result students had to exert less cognitive load in building understanding and connections between content. It was something the authors called ‘desirable difficulty’…which just might be my new favourite phrase to drop into conversations.

So in response Clive Thompson, journalist for Wired Magazine and author of Smarter Than You Think (which just might be my new favourite book title to drop into conversations) wrote a piece on Medium titled The Joy of Typing: How racing along at 60 words a minute can unlock your mind. Clive doesn’t question the science of the aforementioned research but rather suggests that although the ability to type fast might provide a negative outcome when it comes to capturing information it is a positive when it comes to producing it. Clive refers to what academics call ‘transcription fluency’, how quickly and fluidly you can get down the things in your head. To back this up Clive points to research that suggested not only are typed essays generally of a higher standard than hand written ones but that the fastest typists created better essays that slower ones.

So it seems that on one hand we shouldn’t be using keyboards for note taking but we still need top quality keyboard skills for content creation.

So, here’s my opinion…

Firstly, I would suggest that none of the above research is terribly surprising. Paper and pens have been our preferred ‘memory augmentation’ device for centuries and following a minimum of 10 years of formal schooling in Western countries it is perhaps expected that we have developed some fairly effective systems around ‘paper technology’. Similarly, the keyboard and word processing programs we use on our laptops have evolved from typewriters, a technology primarily aimed at formal content production but probably rarely used in the lecture theatre for note taking.

But so far we have only compared a 1980’s technology (keyboard/laptop) with an 1890’s one (mass produced pens and papers). When we look at the technology of the 21st century technology we are seeing new opportunities that bring the benefits of both these technologies together.

One of the advantages of touch enabled devices such as the iPad is the ease of non-linear note taking. Using apps such as the awesome iThoughts, you can tap into the advantages of digital (faster data capture and the ability to search, share and repurpose your notes) with the advantages of paper, the ability to capture information in non-linear ways and make connections between disparate bits of information. In fact there is significant amounts of research on mind-mapping and the benefits in terms of both information recall and building understanding (for a fairly thorough summary check out Mind Mapping: Scientific Research and Studies by Think Buzan.

This seems to be the classic and/or debate. When we get access to new technology we often see the decision as one of substitution, we get to have the flexibility of paper or the efficiency of a keyboard. But when we start engaging with technology more deeply we see that that we could have both. Our mindset shifts from one of substitution to one of augmentation and we look for ways to augment the flexibility of paper with the efficiency of a keyboard (for more on this you should check out the SAMR model showing the benefits of new technology in a teaching environment).

Personally I think that the worst thing we can do is assume that we already have it right, that there are no more opportunities for improvement. Rather than protect the ways that we currently work (which is often done out of fear or to justify why we haven’t changed) we should be always actively seeking to to improve on the status quo. And when the status quo for students and knowledge workers is a 150 year old technology then it would seem that the improvement opportunities could be quite significant.

Photo credit: Tools of the trade by Damien Pollet via flickr

What does it do for me?

CeBit Australia
Today I went to the CeBit Conference in Sydney. Whilst browsing the many exhibitors I came across a startup software developer spruiking their customer relationship management (CRM) solution. There are heaps of CRM solutions out there in the marketplace so I decided to stop and ask what makes this CRM special.

The developer then proceeded to give me the run down on how they had done all the development in Australia, what coding language they had used, how they were going to develop a non-native app in gibberish, gibberish, gibberish…

[tweetthis]We care to know what technology can do for us and what makes it special for us.[/tweetthis]

Call me selfish but this wasn’t the answer I was looking for. To be honest I didn’t care what made his CRM special to him, I wanted to know how it would be special for ME. I didn’t care what it did, I only cared about what it would do for ME.

This is actually a really common problem for people who work in IT departments. The focus too much on what the technology does for them and not enough on what it does that their user actually cares about.

And how do you find out what your user cares about? Well, you have to start a conversation and ask them.

Our survival depends on how we respond

Sydney Hobart 2004

From both an individual and organisational perspective our ability to respond effectively to our environment defines our future relevance and ultimately our survival. When talking about responsiveness I often use the story of the 2004 Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. The race stands out as one of the most challenging on record and only half of the fleet making it to the finish line. The difference between the boats that finished and the boats that didn’t was largely about how they responded to the difficult conditions and there is a great lesson somewhere in here for how businesses need to start thinking about digital technology.

There are four defining characteristics of responsiveness: awareness, intention, function and action. When it comes to awareness it is well excepted that the conditions will be variable. As a result, most boats in the race have invested heavily in awareness. Technology has allowed navigators to track changes to wind, wave and other weather conditions in near real time.

The second characteristic of the successful boats was having the right intention. The intention of some skippers was overwhelmingly about winning the race. This included two of the pre-race favourites, Skandia and Konica Minolta, both of which failed to finish because of structural damage to their vessels. For others winning was secondary to the safety of their vessel and crew, I was lucky enough to be on one of these boats instead.

The third characteristic of successful boats was function. This is about having the right gear and maintaining it in the right condition. The boat I was sailing on was built by a commercial boat builder as his personal boat. As a result it’s hull was nearly twice as thick as other boats of a similar size. We may have sacrificed some speed but we had the right boat for unexpected conditions.

The final characteristic of the successful boats was action. The experience and ability of the crew to act in accordance with the skippers intention and within the functionality of the boat. Our crew consisted of young and old, experienced and novices.We had three ex-professional fishermen aboard and the oldest woman to ever compete in the Sydney Hobart (Norma turned 80 days before the race). The watches were structured so that there was always an experienced crew member available to mentor and support the novice ones.

So what does this got to do with digital technology in business? Firstly, many organisations are unaware of the exponential impact of technology in business. The operating environment is changing fast and many organisations are not aware. Many still operate under a false mantra of stability and have invested little in understanding the opportunities and challenges of digital technologies.

[tweetthis]Our survival depends on how well we harness digital tools to weather difficulties.[/tweetthis]

Secondly, most don’t realise that in business there is no winning or losing, just survival, and survival ultimately means working to your conditions. We are operating in a knowledge and information economy and our future relevance is going to mean engaging our organisations in digital tools sooner rather than later.

Thirdly, we need to equip our people with the right tools. We need to be looking how we can digitise our information and knowledge flows so that our people can find the right information wherever and whenever they need it. We need to be investing in mobile and we need to be investing in cloud.

Finally we need to make sure that our people are guided and trained to act. They need to know the digital imperative and have the skills to act appropriately. We also need to identify the digital masters and digital leaders in our organisations and provide them with the resources to train and guide others. And we need to do these things as if our organisations survival depended on it. Because ultimately it does.

Cyborgs at work part 3: How do we get there?

This is the third part of a three part series on cyborgs in the workplace. If you haven’t read Cyborgs At Work Part 1: Are you for real? and Cyborgs at Work Part 2: The Technology, I suggest you start there.

Cyborgs in the workplace might seem like a distant reality but personally I don’t think we are far off a significant tipping point when it comes to personal technology. It seems that many individuals and organisations are already investing heavily in mobile technology, primarily in smart phones but increasingly in tablet computers such as iPads and Android tablets.

From the work I have done with organisations it seems that much of this investment in mobile technology is being undertaken without a clear objective and no real understanding of what the technology makes possible. As a result there are many examples of stalled iPad pilot programs and a general frustration amongst users as to how to get value out of the devices they have.

Like many new technologies, including the current debate in Australia about the NBN, it is not always clear what benefits will deliver. But this is a small hurdle and with a bit of training, support and time users will identify amazing opportunities to apply mobile technology in unique and valuable ways. I think this will be the tipping point. Just like the problem gambler who’s addiction starts with one big win, I think that when users experience their first big boost to productivity and effectiveness they will immediately start looking for their next ‘hit’.

Unlike other competitive activities, such as elite sport, there are no rules against performance enhancing technologies in business. Once mobile technology moves from the early adopters to the early majority there will be a massive pent up demand that will drive us towards a more seamless integration between people and technology. In a couple of years, as users search out the next big boost to personal effectiveness, wearable technology such as Google Glass will become more common work place. And once you have seen your colleagues walking around with something like Google Glasses on their face most wearable tech will become acceptable.

Given that we already live in a society that is obsessed by its mobile devices this future might seem like a scary prospect. My feeling is we are currently too caught up in the novelty of technology but as we find more and more practical applications for it we will start to see it more as a tool than a toy. As someone who uses mobile technology in my business every day I can vouch for the fact that I rarely want to use it in my down time. In fact I am far more conscious of work-life balance and other quality of life issues than I ever have been previously.

For most, this new world of work is just around the corner, and for some, it is already here. The only question left is ‘what type of technology you will be using when the cyborgs come for your job’?


Photo Credit: XPRIZE Foundation via Flickr

Simon presents on mobile technology as part of AMP’s Amplify Festival

AMP Samplify session on mobile technology

The view from AMP’s theatre: The most amazing, and distracting, backdrop I have ever presented in front off

It was with great pleasure that I presented a Samplify session in Sydney as part of AMP’s Amplify Festival last week. I have long admired the work of Annalie Killian and the Amplify Team in bringing amazing new ideas into both AMP and the broader community. It was a dream come true to be able to contribute my own ideas to such an great initiative.

The response from AMP staff was fantastic with the first session selling out and a second session almost reaching capacity. As much as I might like to think that this is all about me, the truth is that mobile technology users are crying out for someone to help them understand the why what and how of mobile technology use.

If you would like to find out more about the session you can read a great summary of the session by Johanna Scott on the Amplify blog.

Cyborgs at work part 2: The technology

This is a follow up to Cyborgs at work part 1: Are you for real? If you haven’t read it already you might want to start there first.

So if we are going to see cyborgs in the workplace, what are the technologies that are going to provide a competitive advantage in the future workplace?

Personal computing devices

I think that perhaps the most important technology will be our ‘personal computing device’. Although this sounds remarkably like a personal computer or PC, the best example of this currently is a tablet or smartphone. The primary purpose of these devices is to provide

  • A platform for supporting our work tasks
  • Digital storage to augment our memory
  • Connectivity to online resources
  • Digital communication channels

Although tablets and smartphones are considered intuitive relative to our current desktop operating systems, they will be crude compared to what we will see in the future. Services such as Google Now are  starting to take a more predictive approach to delivering the information that we need when we need it. This will become more commonplace and greatly increase the usefulness of these types of devices.

Heads up displays

The next important technology will be heads up displays that allow us to receive information in more natural ways. Currently to access  information through our personal computing devices we need to get it out of our pocket or bag, enter a pin, open the relevant app, and search for relevant information. Although this is a vast improvement over conventional PCs, it still requires a very intentional decision to be made before we access information. Technologies such as Google Glass will go a long way to removing this barrier and I have no doubt that future technologies will include the ability for this type of information to be projected directly into your thoughts.

New input interfaces

Whereas personal computing devices and heads up displays are already with us, wearable technologies that deal effectively with information capture are still a little way off. Currently the best method we have for information capture, for almost any computing device, is the keyboard. Although there is a move towards voice recognition as an alternative the lack of multitasking ability with voice (ie holding a conversation and taking notes at the same time) means that this will probably not become a keyboard replacement.

Instead we are going to see more gesture based interfaces emerging (such as the Leap Motion controller) and this will ultimately give way to thought controlled interfaces. Some thought controlled interfaces have already been commercialised but the current generation of the technology is difficult to use and cumbersome to wear. In the pipeline are devices no bigger than a 10c coin that will read our thoughts and send them over Bluetooth to be deciphered by our personal computing devices and then projected back to our heads up display.

In addition to these general technologies there will be a number of more specific technologies to enhance our ability in specific tasks or roles. These might include powered exoskeletons to both enhance and protect construction workers or Watson like artificial intelligence systems to help doctors diagnose and treat cancer patients.

Much of the technology required to create cyborg office workers is already in existence. Although this technology will continue to improve over time I believe there is little apart from social norms to stop this occurring right now.

In the final chapter on cyborgs in the workplace we will look at how this future might play out and what might be different in a cyborg friendly workplace.

Does my organisation need iPad training?

Has your organisation deployed tablets yet no one seems to be really sure what they are meant to use them for? I have had two recent clients that have undertaken quite large scale tablet deployments and more than 12 months after deploying the majority of the devices are just sitting on their staff’s desks.

This seems to be a result of the following

  • Enterprise mobility projects being undertaken in and ad-hoc manner without a clear vision of what the tablets are meant to be used for
  • The general assumption that if you know how to use a computer you know how to use an iPad or Android tablet
  • Tablet deployments being undertaken by IT departments that don’t have a mandate (or budget) for training and development
  • Organisational development teams who do have a mandate for training don’t know what training is required and where to source it from

Without focused training the result tends to be an ‘organic’ learning approach that creates unnecessary data security risks (as users play around with different apps) and which delays any potential return on investment from your enterprise mobility project (due to lack of use).

If you want to a valuable and safe tablet deployment you need to provide training for your users on

  • How their various devices are different and what tasks are best suited to what device.
  • The risks of mobile technology and how to mange them effectively
  • The apps that can help them meet their objectives and how they work

Tablet deployments can be expensive exercises and it is right to expect a return on your investment. This is only achieved when users start using their devices. If you are struggling to get engagement with your tablet deployment perhaps it’s time to invest in some training.

Mobial presents at the Knowledge Management Leadership Forum

Simon Waller presenting on knowledge management and mobile technology

Photo courtesy of @NickyHW

On Wednesday 26 June, Mobial presented at Melbourne’s Knowledge Management Leadership Forum (KMLF). The KMLF is a face-to-face education and networking forum, run by Knowledge Management practitioners for Knowledge Management practitioners and attracts a diverse audience from across the public and private sectors.

The focus of the presentation was the use of mobile technology as a personal knowledge management tool to compliment an organisations existing knowledge management systems. You can follow some of the conversations on the Mobility in the Workplace Storify by Nicky Hayward-Wright

Thanks to Nicky Hayward-Wright, Luke Grange and the rest of the KMLF team for organising the event.

Do your executives really want Android?

Android has a keen following in enterprise IT circles because of its openness and customisability. But before you embark on an Android deployment ask yourself, is Android usable enough to build engagement amongst your workforce?

Many IT departments prefer Android over iOS because if its openness and customisability. Although this makes IT’s job of managing and supporting devices easier it is actually not something that the end user generally cares about. There is a genuine risk that if IT doesn’t take the end users needs into consideration, they may end up implementing a safe, secure system that people struggle to use effectively.

I find that most executive teams ultimately care about usefulness and usability. They want a suite of apps that helps them do their job more effectively and that are easy to learn and use. Although these tools should also be safe and secure, this is not their primary concern.

It should be pointed out that this isn’t so much about the Android platform as it is about the apps. Although there are plenty of Android apps in the Google Play store there is still only a limited range of tablet optimised apps and many of these are either buggy or have limited features compared to their iOS alternatives.

Although this will close over time I don’t see it happening soon. I have contacted a couple of app developers to see if they were planning to release or update their Android apps and both said they were focusing on the iOS platform at the moment and didn’t see the value in dedicating resources to Android development at the moment. Their reasoning for this was that the Android user base was less willing to pay for apps and the cost of development was higher due to the variety of hardware and screen sizes.

So if you are looking to implement a mobile technology program my advice to organisations is not to rush towards Android without taking into account end user needs. Although it may cost less in terms of hardware and support than an iOS or, even better, a cross platform solution, you may ultimately pay for this in lower levels of engagement and use.

Remember, the value of a system is not what it costs you. Cost is how much you pay for it, value is what it returns to the organisation in terms of greater productivity and effectiveness. And value is only created once the platform is both used and useful.