Category Archives: Soft is hard

Wi’ heart an’ heid – the fire at the Glasgow School of Art

Glasgow School Art ‏@GSofA Photo: The Mackintosh Museum, Winged Victory surveys the intact gallery. pic.twitter.com/KsKTVdATeW

Glasgow School Art ‏@GSofA Photo: The Mackintosh Museum, Winged Victory surveys the intact gallery. pic.twitter.com/KsKTVdATeW

I’ve tried to articulate the difference between Edinburgh and Glasgow for some time now, and the fire in the Glasgow School of Art has brought me closer.

Edinburgh knocks me out with its beauty. When I look at Edinburgh, I see one of those cities like Venice or Florence which is uniquely itself, whereas Glasgow keeps reminding me of other late Victorian Imperial cities like Manchester, Leeds and even parts of Sydney and North Oxford.

Glasgow’s uniqueness is in its people. I lived there for six brief months in 1999 and I miss them and their city in a way that I miss no other city I’ve lived in.

Edinburgh is the wellspring of the Scottish Enlightenment. For all its beauty and architectural follies it was always a city of austere logic. Family legend has it that a forebear was hanged in Edinburgh for stealing a sheep on a Sunday: the capital crime wasn’t the theft, it was breaking the Sabbath. These days Edinburgh isn’t ruled by the kirk, but it is still beautiful and still cerebral attracting some of the world’s brightest and best to an international, intellectual nexus.

However, Glasgow it seems to me mixes passion with its intelligence. Where else, would a fire brigade use the word “cherished” of artworks?

We are of course very conscious the Macintosh is a world renowned building that is a key feature of this great city, and that the artworks it stores are not only valuable but also cherished.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service

Cherished? That is not a word used by a Press Officer, or if it is, it’s a Press Officer who has not had their soul sucked out of them.

Then there is this from the GSA itself:

Audacity…? Another word to conjure with.

And here is their audacity:

… the fire services… succeeded in protecting the vast majority of the building, apparently by forming a human wall of fire-fighters up the west end of the main staircase and containing the fire.
Muriel Gray

It’s that eloquent passion I miss, living here on the East coast and working in cool, clever, cerebral Edinburgh.

Case Study: Creating a SharePoint service

This post was written in 2010 or 2011, but sat in my drafts folder for a couple of years. Enough water’s passed under enough bridges for me to dust it off and publish it now.

I was reminded the other day how important it is to get the questions right when I caught up with a pal at the Contractors Reunion Ball1.

He told me how the right answer to the wrong question had produced internal tension within a service delivery team for over a year so that the service they delivered scored ‘6/10 – could do better’ but no-one could work out why.

This is a story about SharePoint. All you really need to know about SharePoint is that anyone who runs a blog can understand how to set up a SharePoint site. Rocket science it ain’t unless they make rockets out of widgets these days. However there is a huge difference between doing it and doing it well and hereby hangs the tale.

The service team’s job was to help the people who used SharePoint in the organisation to get the most out of it.  They provided the skills to bridge the gap between having an empty SharePoint site (a site address, a welcome page, a place to store documents and another to store pictures) and a fully configured SharePoint site which is more or less whatever you want it to be.

Two levels of service were clearly needed and during the year this story covers, the team discussed what these two levels of service were.  Were they

  • templated sites vs custom-build sites
  • off-the-shelf vs bespoke
  • off-the-shelf vs configuration
  • standard sites vs project work
  • simple vs complex

The service went live with two services based on a couple of customer scenarios or use cases.

  • collaboration and
  • gateway

A collaboration site would be a place for a team to work together, co-ordinate holidays and manage their workloads.  A gateway was much more one-off, it would be a mixture of shop-front, shopping basket and check-out.  The team expected to be able to deliver a collaboration site and walk away from it, but they knew that gateways would require weeks of consultation, configuration and user-testing.

However more and more people asked the collaboration team for advice because – guess what – they wanted to do do other stuff with SharePoint like publish process documents or whatever. So the team ended up with three de facto services

  • delivering templates
  • one off consultancy
  • gateway projects

This meant that the team were delivering a stellar service but failing to meet their yearly objectives and their work wasn’t recognised because they couldn’t report it to the service owner.  It also messed up who reported to whom within the team.  Meanwhile, the customers of the service were confused because there was no formal way to ask for the advice they needed.

The team muddled through, as teams do.  There was an intermediate service design built around the way the sites were actually used, which was more or less like this:

  • collaboration templates
  • document repositories
  • gateway projects

But the tension was still there because highly skilled customers were building their own gateways and customers with cash but no staff wanted fully-finished templates.

Despite that, the team played for a while with an even fuller offering based around more customer scenarios (use cases) but still it didn’t work.

Eventually, it dawned on my pal that the distinction wasn’t what the customer wanted SharePoint to do, it was what they wanted the Team to do, and there really were just three services:

  • Empty template with some rules, standards and help files
  • Occasional advice and QA
  • Full delivery

The problem, he said, was that the wrong questions were asked. He jotted them down for me:

  1. What does the organisation want SharePoint to do?
  2. What templates can we create?
  3. What skills do we have in the team?
  4. How complex are the customer requirements?
  5. What does the customer want SharePoint to do?
  6. What does the customer want us to do?

He said that it wasn’t until they had got to question #6 that they could finally create a service that was fit for purpose.  As I rather cruelly said to him, ‘ask a silly question you’ll get a silly answer’ and as he replied, nursing his hangover the next day, ‘hindsight’s a wonderful thing’.


1 – Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Mr and Mrs Net-Developer and their daughter Dot…. Net-Developer.

I guess you had to be there.

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Finding a workplace that’s good for you

Whether you are happy in your work doesn’t just depend on the job that you do, it also depends on whether you like the culture of the place you are working.  There are ways to route round the corporate bull**** to find indicators ahead of time that show what a place might be like to work in.

Many recruiters will ask you to take a psychometric test to check your aptitude for the job, but if you are looking for work, you should remember you can turn the tables to some extend and avoid a lot of unhappiness by knowing what sort of organisation and culture will suit you best.

The tool we are probably most aware of is good old Myers Briggs but I’m not a fan. I think it’s too complicated and too ambiguous: I think AND I feel, thank you very much. The four scales are:

  • Extraversion vs Introversion
  • Sensing vs iNtuition
  • Thinking vs Feeling
  • Judgment vs Perception

I can never remember where I sit on this, and it’s hard to map on to a work environment though it’s useful when thinking about your suitability for a specific role. It’s popular with HR departments and tests of varying quality are widely available, but I think there are better models out there.

My favourite model is Goffee and Jones’ double S-Cube because it is simple and powerful. Goffee and Jones consider that groups of people are held together by two different kinds of glue: sociability and solidarity.

Goffee and Jones' Double S Cube

Goffee and Jones’ Double S Cube

Organisations with high sociability scores are characterised by long-term friendships, so Monday morning meeetings start with a catch-up about the weekend and a lot of what’s done is done out of goodwill and comradeliness. Organisations and people with high solidarity scores are characterised by a complete focus on the task in hand, social chit-chat is kept to a minimum, people are highly motivated by professional success and when they go the extra mile it’s not for friendship.

Clearly, if you know where you sit in the front 2×2, you know what sort of organisation you will be happy in.  It’s fairly easy to uncover where the organisation sits on the 2×2. In an interview you can ask questions like “it’s clearly a busy department, how do people pull together when the heat is on?” or you can just describe the model and ask where the organisation sits on it. Recruitment websites are clear about their values:

Working at Goldman Sachs is a fast-paced, high-energy experience that can help you find the best place for your talents

Googlers range from former neurosurgeons, CEOs, and U.S. puzzle champions to alligator wrestlers and Marines. No matter what their backgrounds, Googlers make for interesting cube mates.

Another model which I prefer to Myers Briggs is Denison’s Research-based Model.  His two axes are Flexibility vs Stability in one direction and Internal vs External focus in another. When you use this  model to sanity check your workplace just work out which quarter you and they fit in: work out where you and they fit on the two axes Flexible vs Stable and Internal focus vs External focus, and you’ll be fine.

Denison's Leadership Development Model

Denison’s Leadership Development Model

If by temperament you have an external focus and are flexible, then you pay close attention to what is going on ‘out there’ and think the best way forward is to supply what the market wants. Working in an environment where the decision-making style is consensual, where you “have to get buy-in” and you “socialise” an idea will suck your soul. Denison’s view, by the way, is that all traits are equally necessary in an organisation. No-one said it was easy. However, a sales department would probably sit top left, while HR in the same company would probably be bottom right.

No discussion of organisational culture would be complete without mentioning the work of Geert Hofstede whose research compared international cultures.  The image below shows Hofstede’s five dimensions and how strongly each one is present in the UK

Geert Hofstede™ Cultural Dimensions - UK

Geert Hofstede™ Cultural Dimensions – UK

I found Hofstede’s work fascinating while I was travelling, but it’s of limited use when working out how you’d fit into a specific workplace. The dimensions are:

  • Power Distance Index (PDI)
  • Individualism (IDV) on the one side versus its opposite, collectivism
  • Masculinity (MAS) versus its opposite, femininity
  • Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)
  • Long-Term Orientation (LTO) versus short-term orientation

Other models are available.

While I was researching this post, I came across the Kiersey Model which looks as if it would map neatly on to Denison’s though it’s even more complex than Myers Briggs. Hermann’s Whole Brain model looks at thinking styles, whether you are emotional, analytical, strategic or structural.

However if you want to work out whether you’ll be happy in a workplace, then I have yet to find models that are more effective than Goffee and Jones’s Double S-Cube, and their book is a quick and illuminating read, and Dension’s Research-Based Model whose the website is informative, but designed to sell consultancy.

Two ways of anticipating events

Different people respond to change in different ways, and here is a pair of responses which I’ve not seen discussed in any of the Change literature I have come across.

Fore-warned is fore-armed

Or

Don’t trouble trouble, till trouble troubles you

I like contingency plans: for me the big benefit of thinking ahead of major change events is that action is not driven by emotion.  Instead, it has been thoroughly thought through ahead of time.  If things are uncertain, then one may need several well thought-through plans: if there’s any good cheese in the Farmer’s Market we’ll have a cheese-board, otherwise I’ll make crème brûlée.

However there are many people who want to have all the facts laid out fair and square before making decisions about what to do and what not to do. They find thinking about hypotheticals too, well, hypothetical.  The big advantage of this approach is that by being open to happenstance, they can take advantage of the fresh raspberries and make Pavlova.

To take a more realistic example, I was discussing this with a professional breaker of bad news, a hospital doctor, and she said that her patients had one of two responses when she ordered tests:

What’s the worst it could be, Doctor?  I need to think this through before my wife visits.

And

Don’t tell me what it is until you know. I’ll deal with it when we know what it is.

What’s the practical application of this?

Firstly, add it to the lenses that you use with other people, so that you don’t consider it to be a sign of a character flaw or unprofessionalism if someone deals uncertainty in a different way from you.

Secondly, take it a step further and play to the person’s strengths.  I’d bet folding money that the first group work best with formal methodologies, governance, planning and delivery and that the second group prefer agile development, incident management, service and support.

Thirdly, accept that you cannot get the timing right with Transformation and Change communications.  If you withhold the big picture until the details are all worked out then you’ll annoy the first group, but if you signal things early and you’ll unsettle the second.

Who said it was easy?

Interactive Mapping – too cool a tool?

Some years ago, my friend Justin showed me a copy of Visual Thesaurus. I squealed with delight, which is always embarrassing at work. Click on the image below to see why.  (All the images in this post link to the examples, by the way).

Visual Thesaurus

Visual Thesaurus

Recently I came across an open source version of the technology underlying Visual Thesaurus at spicynodes.org.

What am I talking about?  Well, this is a way to present information so that people can explore it in a naturalistic way by clicking from concept to concept in an interactive ‘map’.  But seductive though it is, it’s  not always the best way to present information.

The Good

This approach is helpful when you want to hide the options you reject.  This can be with a rich and complex subject (the Visual Thesaurus) or a simple tree structure, as with the catalogue below.   It may not be the best choice for a catalogue but in this case I think it works.

A good example of the tool, used as a catalogue

This catalogue works well

It helps if the subject matter is well understood: this example covers the solar system and seems to have been abandoned, which is a shame.  If you click Sun > Mars > Phobos you realise what a neat explanation of the solar system this could be.

Solar System

Providing information on a familiar subject

The technology also lends itself to certain forms of artistic endeavour, I like this one in particular:

Poetry Site

A poetic journey

It’s also been used with reasonable success to  deliver Haiku

I think the technology lends itself to this sort of artistically guided happenstance, and I can certainly imagine an artistic installation along these lines.

The Bad

I looked at well over a hundred of these maps, and those the best. The worst are dreadful.

Do not use this technique if your users are likely to want to step backwards and forwards through the navigation.  This is how people navigate when they want to be sure they”ve not missed anything.  SpicyNodes own home page shows how exasperating this approach can be.

Spicy Nodes Home Page

Spicy Nodes own home page

Don’t use it when a simpler tool would do.  Whoever created the example below was on top of their data, but their information would be much better presented in the form of bulleted slides. Using the interactive map just makes it unnecessarily fussy:

Migrating Sales Online

A bulleted list would be better

Here we see how important it is to get the hierarchical structure right. The map below is an A-Z of the world’s nations. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have them organised by geographical region? If you want an A-Z list, then I think a simple A-Z list would be better and would take up less space.

A-Z of Nations

A-Z But is this the best use of the space?

And this is the worst scenario of all: a navigation tool for a web-site.  It actually subtracts value, because it takes up the whole page and makes it hard to view the content of the site in a logical sequence. It’s a relief to know the organisation concerned has a traditional side and top navigation structure.

Site Navigation

Site Navigation - high on gimmick and short on benefit

Finally, I wasn’t sure how to categorise this map (which I found fascinating, by the way).  It would make a good teaching aid but it’s not particularly good for conveying information.

Study Notes

Teaching Aid

So where does that leave us?

Firstly it’s clever but not necessarily helpful. In fact mapping something this way is only useful when people know what they want to find out and want to ignore everything else: if they need an even view of the whole subject matter then this is not the tool to use.

Secondly it’s good for a certain type of artistic expression; it wouldn’t surprise me to see something like this in a gallery.

And finally, creating this sort of map is time-consuming and you really have to understand your data well, and so do your users.

I struggled to think of a situation where this would be the best tool for presenting data so I decided to go the artistic route, and see if it added anything to the experience of the sort of poem with repeated lines.

Vilanelle - Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas's Villanelle - Do not go gentle into that good night

I have to conclude that it doesn’t, but it was fun trying.


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The Business Analyst: Facilitator or Designer?

Craig challenged me on the role of the BA recently.  I said that Web 2.0 is something you can only understand in practice and he posted:

Having said that what do you say to the role of the professional Business analyst; the person who doesn’t use the system but makes many of the key decisions about what goes into it?

It’s a good question and one I’ve been mulling over since he asked it. For the sake of brevity I’m going to park the generic question ‘what is the role of the Business Analyst’ and the vexed issue of whether or not the user should be the primary arbiter of what goes into a system.

Users do know about user experience.  One of the things I like about Lean Interventions is that you go to the people enmeshed in using the process and get them to re-design it.  If a BA has a role in this, it’s as an educator about Lean principles and as a facilitator. The BA does not design the process, the people using the process do that.  I should probably also mention focus groups as a way of involving users in the design phase, but I can’t really comment since I’ve never worked in that way.

But users are rarely available. In my career to date the actual end user has rarely had a seat at the table because with web stuff the user is quite often outside the organisation.   The Business is frequently the proxy for the user, and the Business is sometimes the team sponsoring the system, but it can also be a programme team whose expertise is in change not the system they are changing.  Either way they are representing the user, which brings us back to the underlying question:

‘is it possible for the user to be represented by anyone else?’

After thinking about it for some days and toying with this post for several hours, I think the short answer to that one is: Not always, but that is what use cases 1 are for.’

So what to do about it?

I’ve mentioned focus groups, though I’ve not run any myself.  But let’s hear a shout out for prototypes and pilot studies here. Oh, the difference when you prototype a user journey! It’s like having a mystery shopper before the shop has opened. The great joy of a prototype is that the thing comes to life and suddenly everyone involved can have a go at being a user, and pilot implementations tell you where the weak spots are. This is closely linked to O’Reilly’s perpetual beta of course, and is also why Anything 2.0 is better than Anything 1.0.

Craig didn’t ask whether the BA could represent the user, he actually asked:

What do you say to the role of the professional Business Analyst?

I think my answer is that the BA should be a facilitator not a designer.  The facilitator enables the Business to produce a design that IT can use whereas a designer does that for them.  (Other operating models are available). It’s the BA’s job to use tools like use cases and prototypes to help the Business represent the user. That doesn’t mean the Business will do a good job of representing the user, but it’s a step closer than if the BA tries to do it. And even so, it’s a tad idealistic. At times the Business Analyst who’s a facilitator has to make calls that affect the design, but I think that’s something that we shouldn’t do by default.

As  you can see, Craig’s question gave me pause for a considerable amount of thought, a lot of it typed directly into this post and most of it cut straight  out again.  To pull it all together:

  • Organisations deliver user-aggressive or ineffective systems for a myriad of reasons which include
    • organisational culture during the design stage resulting in a lack of user representation
    • pressures of time and cost
      which frequently result in
    • methodologies which lack rigour, in particular sloppy requirements definition and sign-off
  • Good design requires holistic systems thinking (that’s one for the buzzword bingo) which incorporates the user’s point of view
  • Only users are users, but tools like use cases, user journeys, prototyping and testing get you closer
  • Ideally, the BA’s role is as a facilitator rather than a designer
  • The local challenge is whether you
    • go directly to the user (eg a Lean Intervention)
    • allow the Business to act as a proxy (so much of my life to date)
    • use a prototype, or focus group or pilot study (love those)

I’m quite surprised Web 2.0 evangelists aren’t yet hypothesising Open Source Organisation Design which would be well wiki’d.

(Boom boom).

O’Reilly says ‘Users must be treated as co-developers’ which takes open source software build on into open source software design. If he or anyone else has taken this idea into the realms of open source organisation design and I’ve missed it, please drop a link in the comments.


1 – a Use Case is – for want of a better term – a scenario: ‘A white horse walks into a bar’; ‘A funny thing happened on the way to the theatre’; ‘Writing a blog, (what’s that all about)’. A use case can be large: ‘Government bails out banks’ or small ‘Customer buys a bottle of milk’.  If you want a less flippant definition, here’s the one from Wikipedia. But much better to go back to post


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Selling collaboration services within an organisation

Selling collaboration services and development services within an organization? – Art Gelwicks recently posted this as a question in the SharePoint Users Group on LinkedIn, and I found myself writing more than would fit in a discussion forum. So here it is.

Are you selling ‘bottom up’ by putting SharePoint out there and letting people use it spontaneously, or are you selling ‘top down’ by finding a sponsor with a requirement and using SharePoint to fulfil it?

There are pros and cons to both. The keys to working out these pros and cons for your organisation are

  • culture
  • use cases and
  • champions

Culture

How your organisation takes to SharePoint depends in part on the culture. Some cultures are enthusiastic about collaboration tools like Instant Messaging, Live Meeting and SharePoint, and others see these sorts of tools as time-wasters. Here’s how to work out which one yours is.

Goffee and Jones do a great 2×2 for the culture of an organisation. They say that the glue that enables a team (department, company) to work together is either sociability or solidarity; organisations with high sociability scores are ‘networked’ and organisations with high solidarity scores are ‘mercenary’. There’s more to it than that, their book is very readable and includes diagnostic tools.

I have seen people in departments where the glue has been sociability take well to the collaborative features of SharePoint like discussion forums, alerts, review workflows and MySites. I’ve not tested this, but if your organisation is networked (and read Goffee and Jones to decide if it is) then a bottom up approach would probably work well. Look out to see whether the people are already comfortable with tools like Instant Messaging and LiveMeeting, whether they are active on Twitter, LinkedIn and FaceBook, and whether Monday mornings start with a chat about the weekend. This isn’t about people who are early adopters of technology, it’s about people who like technology because it is a social and work enabler.

By contrast I have seen people in ‘mercenary’ organisations who are so busily focussed on deliver-deliver-deliver that they don’t have time to ‘waste’ learning how to use a new tool like SharePoint. In an organisation that’s mercenary (again read Goffee and Jones – they mean it in a particular way) you need a sponsor and a project. Work out what your sponsor’s driver is and fulfil it. They may want to cut down storage costs, or improve a specific set of working practices, or control the published versions of training material.

Find a sponsor with a specific need and fulfil that need.

Rinse and repeat.

This brings us on to:

Use Cases

One of the problems with SharePoint is that it’s a swiss army knife of a tool – useful for such a large number of things that it’s hard to stay focused on just one or two. In a ‘mercenary’ organisation the problem is handled for you – your sponsor has a specific task and you focus on that. The challenge is in the ‘networked’ organisations where everyone who comes across SharePoint wants to play with it all, now, as soon as possible, shiny, shiny, new, cool.

Rolling out the whole of SharePoint across the whole of the organisation is a distraction for them and a management nightmare for you. You need to identify a single use-case, but it is much harder because there isn’t a single obvious business requirement and there may not be a single sponsor. Worse, you may have a sponsor who has a vague vision like ‘collaboration’ or an unrealistic one like ‘getting everyone to use their My Site like an internal FaceBook profile’.

If you are going bottom-up you need to roll out solutions to one or a maximum of two use-cases at a time. To find out which one, put together a survey and ask what stops people collaborating well right now. Word it terms of how they work, not in terms of the SharePoint features so:

  • full mail-boxes – not – emailing urls
  • ‘shared’ drives you can’t share – not –local control of permissions
  • documents you don’t know are out of date – not – control over the full document life-cycle
  • keeping track of document sign-offs – not – workflows

Pick one of the popular ones, create a simple solution, and run with it.

Let’s read that again.

Pick one. Not a couple because they’re similar. Not three or four because Internal Communications want them (that’s your sponsor-and-project scenario and a very nice place it is to be too). Not two or three variants to cover all the bases. Just one.

Create a simple solution. Yes, there are half a dozen different ways to build and display a discussion forum in SharePoint. If you can’t tell which one works best, then put together one that works well and stick to it.

Then run with it. Get it out there. Get it used. Get comments and feedback. Improve it.

Only then move on to the next one. Bite size chunks. Could be as close to a month apart, but bite size chunks for you and your users.

The subtext here is simplicity. Turn off the ability to make subsites, remove most of the templates, switch off the themes. Lock it down. Shut it down. SharePoint is a casket of magical delights. You can always open a lid you’ve kept shut, but it is much harder to shut down a lid on something you’ve left open. SharePoint baffles new users and new organisations with choice. Lead them step by step through those choices.

And finally:

Champions

People like SharePoint. They really like SharePoint. Not everyone, but enough.

These people who like SharePoint are your friends. They are natural evangelists, experimenters and testers. They’ll pester you for the features that you’ve turned off, and they’ll come up with workarounds that’ll have you blessing and cursing them by turns. But they’ll promote it and provide free consultancy to their co-workers and come up with solutions to problems you didn’t know existed.

Really work your champions. Create a user forum and refuse to answer questions unless they are posted there. You’ll feel very prissy, but your Champions will gravitate there and get to know each other and do half your support work for you. Invite them to do in-house webinars on cool things in SharePoint, (20 minutes demo, 10 minutes Q&A). Create a SharePoint community of pratice with these people at its core. Take their advice on how to move your service forward.

So, how to sell collaboration services?

They key is asking the right question; in this case not ‘how do you roll-out SharePoint’ but ‘what does your organisation want to use SharePoint for?’

Oh, and bite size chunks.

Always bite size chunks.


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