Week notes #199

This week I did some stuff…

Online mentoring

I’ve been working how we can use Microsoft Teams to facilitate online mentoring. Fundamentally, Teams is built as an enterprise collaboration platform with certain assumptions built-in, things such as everyone in the organisation knowing who each other is, which don’t always meet the needs of mentoring where safeguarding and privacy is really important. Our challenge is that Teams is the tool we have, and we won’t let not having the right tool stop us from enabling mentors to support young people, so we have to find ways to make it work. 

One of the things I like about my role is that I get to do a lot of zooming-in and zooming-out, so I move my thinking from almost philosophical ponderings about the value young people get from one-to-one mentoring to the technical details of how Teams handles permissions for certain types of users, and the organisational stance on safeguarding and the volunteers experience of using Teams in between. I think finding the best solution to a problem comes from being able to hold all those different and sometimes conflicting perspectives and figuring out which parts trade-off against which other parts. 

Teachers using Teams

Microsoft wants to get Teams into 27,000 schools across the UK. Lots of people don’t like MS Teams, and it certainly has its product peculiarities, especially if you are used to ‘one-product-one-function’ approach like using Slack for messaging, but Teams is a far more complex product, and I wonder if the hate comes from not taking the time to learn how it works and how to use it. I’m sure this is something all those teachers will go through as more schools introduce Teams.

If the schools had good IT people to teach the teachers, or if Microsoft provided really good onboarding, then Teams would make a huge impact on digitising schools, but I worry that it’ll come up against the same old problem of expecting the tech to solve/change everything and not do enough for the people using the tech. When Teams is used as part of an ecosystem with other MS products it could take a huge chunk of what schools do onto the internet. Teams and Sharepoint could be a far more effective intranet than lots of companies have. Timetables could be managed in Shifts. All school work could be done within documents in Teams, allowing teachers to provide fast feedback and students to iterate on their work. Lessons delivered via video could be recorded so that students can watch them again later if they missed anything or was absent. Chat between students and teachers would be secure and monitored for safeguarding issues. There are so many benefits schools could get from Teams and I can see a future of education where location is irrelevant and rather than attending a school because they live near it, students will attend ‘the school’ because it will be the one and only online education platform.

Anyway, back to real life. We’re using Sharepoint to build a content repository for teachers working with young people outside of mainstream education. Sharepoint can be used to produce some quite interesting public facing websites, but the question of whether Teams is the right frontend is an interesting one. On one hand, if teachers are using Teams in their school then they will be familiar with how it works and can switch accounts to access our content easily. One the other hand, it doesn’t look like a marketable product and something that will encourage adoption, especially if teachers have had a bad experience with their Teams. So, as with so many product decisions, deciding what to make trade-offs between is part of the challenge.

Cookies

I’ve become a bit obsessed with cookies (the website tracking files, not the confectionery) and how websites handle them. GDPR and the ICO say users should be given the choice about whether to accept non-essential cookies (those used for analytics, advertising, etc.) but the vast majority of websites don’t do this. I think it’s an interesting moral choice; should you respect your visitors enough to not track them without their permission, or as you own the website should you be able to implement things that work for your business objectives? 

It makes me think back to my old ‘hierarchy of compliance’ that says comply with laws first, e.g. GDPR, then industry specific regulations e.g. PCI-DSS, then your organisation’s policies, e.g. security, then your organisation’s procedures and practices. Should morals be first and above laws, or does it belong alongside every layer?

Browsers don’t differentiate between essential and non-essential cookies. If you block them all, some stuff on the site won’t work, and then you have to allow all cookies again. Browser controls are too blunt a tool. When Chrome shows that cookies are blocked on a page it uses a red square with an X in it, the universal sign for something bad or wrong. Interesting, but not surprising that Chrome tries to signal to us that blocking cookies is bad given Google advertising business model. 

But the Cookiepocalypse is coming. Before too long cookies won’t be a means of tracking users on a website. Some browsers block third-party cookies by default already. And Google looks like it’ll follow suit in time, but probably not before they’ve introduced a means to track users without cookies and so lock-in websites to using Google Analytics.

There’s so much to those little cookies, if I get time I’d like to write up all the stuff I’ve learned.

User Guides

I wrote some more for my Whiteboard product user guide, and tested how formatting in Google Docs renders as an ePub file. I’m keen to make my little shop of user guides the next project I put my time into after I’ve finished this term for my masters.

I’ve also started thinking about how this might evolve into online courses for using products more effectively, and how a course could be delivered by email, perhaps with a button in the email that triggers the next part of the course so that learners can control their own pace.

And studied some stuff…

Reinforcing business design decisions

An effective business model is made up of “business design choices that reinforce one another” (Osterwalder, 2005). This week’s lecture was about business models. Something that lots of people talk about and very few can explain. I like Osterwalder’s definition. It helps us understand that a business model isn’t a finished, discrete thing that exists ‘over there’, but actually is made up of lots of choices that in order to be successful need to reinforce each other. Lots of organisations, that probably don’t do enough business model thinking, seem to make choices that have them competing internally or one department requiring a level of support from another department that they don’t have the skills or people to do. A business with a good business model makes choices that makes the parts work together.

There are no rational agents

I listened to the recording of last week’s lecture about the nature of digital goods. It was about the nature of different types of goods and how defining them along the lines of excludability and rivalrousness leads to four types of goods: Private, which are things that a person can own and so prevent another from using and can only be used by one person at a time, e.g. a car, Public, such as street lighting which anyone can use and using it doesn’t stop anyone else from using it, Common-pool resources, which anyone can use but if they are that prevents anyone else from using them, and Club goods, like television which requires particular access and you watching a show doesn’t prevent anyone else from also watching it. It’s a bit of a revelation to me to think about the model for providing a product or service being driven at the micro level from the nature of the goods themselves and not from the marco level of whether the government or the commercial sector should provide it. Internet access (see Cassie’s tweet below) is an interesting example of this. Currently my access to the internet is somewhere between a private good and a club good, because I can prevent anyone else from using it, and has some technical limitations on how many people can all use it at the same time. To shift internet access to being a public good would require tackling the technical limitations that then mean everyone could access the internet and no one accessing it prevents anyone else from accessing.

As lectures this term have been digital, starting as video meetings with the lecturer presenting the slides and moving to recorded lectures for pre-watching and then group exercises and discussions over video calls, it has made me consider the format of lectures as a means of providing information. I got a lot more out of listening to the recording of the lecture and listening live, perhaps because the lecturer was more focused. Lectures often seem to have tensions between providing information because it’s part of the curriculum, providing some context and real-life examples to aid with learning, but not biasing the content. I have to sometimes remind myself not to get lost in exploring ideas.

The economics says that Public Goods shouldn’t work because a rational agent should free ride as they get all the benefits without any of the costs, but people aren’t rational agents they are social creatures which is why we have Public Goods paid for indirectly through taxes.

Bigger and better

Worked on my analysis of Shopify’s business model, digital product offering and pricing strategy. Shopify announced its partnership with Facebook and their stock price jumped up. I saw a tweet that said investing in Shopify after their IPO would have given you better returns than investing when they were at Series A funding, which is usually not the way those things work, and perhaps shows . Anyway, it’s been interesting to work on something that feels so ‘now’ but still uses economic thinking from the seventies.

And thought about a few things…

The business of charity 

Over the years there have been a few occurrences of business people thinking they can apply business thinking and techniques to make charities work more efficiently. It never works because charities are obviously different to businesses in lots of ways. Having been thinking about the nature of economic goods I wondered whether part of the reason for this misunderstanding is that the nature of the services charities provide are excludable and rival, like many commercial services. Being excludable means the services provided by a charity aren’t available equally to everyone, and being rivalrous means that if the service is already being used by someone it can’t be used by anyone else.

In contrast, a service that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous (the classic examples are lighthouses and streetlights) can be used openly by anyone regardless of whether anyone else is also using it. So I started thinking about how charity services could be public goods. The closest example I could think of was Citizens Advice, whose services are available to anyone via their website. They came from, and still have a rivalrous & excludable aspect in the face-to-face advice sessions that they provide, and I’m not suggesting that any charity should get rid of the face-to-face work they do if its meeting a need, but most service delivery charities haven’t figured how to make the shift, and arguably because most charities tackle issues that affect a small segment of society, but it’s interesting to think about the thinking of how they would scale services as public goods if they need to.

New news

I’ve got into email newsletters lately. Email, and so email newsletters seem to be making a come back. The idea that web messaging was going to kill email didn’t happen, instead email evolved, and I think for the better. I’ve mentioned before the trend of emails becoming more like an editable document that passes between people, so that’s one trend of improvement. The other trend is in improving how people use email, something hey.com is working on solving. And then the third trend is in the quality of content that utilises email’s unique features. Emails aren’t limited in size like a tweet, and can either contain all the content for the reader or links to more content. They can be read at a time that suits you and are easier to find later if you want to go back to something interesting.

Email newsletters are also a great means of building an audience as even if you took a no-tracking approach you’d still know how many people are sign-up to receive your newsletter. If email could solve the problem of being able to select which content you want to read before you get it (usually informational products problem) then I would definitely rather have the ‘our content/thoughts/opinions sent to me’ approach rather than ‘we put our content on our website and expect you to find it if you search hard enough. Also, an idea for a product, imagine getting search results by email rather than websites. Describe in greater detail what you are actually looking for and get a high-quality curated list of links emailed to you for you to read at any time. That’s pretty much how I search for things, it’s just that I do the work of copy-and-pasting into my notes.

And some people tweeted…

Internet for everyone 

Cassie Robinson tweeted, “Digital infrastructure should be considered a vital 21st century public good “We need to build a digital landscape that provides world-class connection to all, is sustainable, privacy-enhancing, rights-preserving, innovative & democratic by design.” Having studied public, private & club goods, and common-pool resources, it makes sense to me that access to the internet should be a public good (in the economic sense) that is available to everyone. If Raymond Coase was right when he wrote The Lighthouse Economics then existing purely for the good of society is enough of a justification for making a good public, and it would be hard to argue that internet access isn’t good for everyone. 

Limiting meetings in progress 

Woody Zull tweeted “Heuristic: If you spend “too much time in meetings”, it is likely that you have too much work in process. Limit WIP for a week and see how it affects your meeting time. Adjust accordingly.” ~@duarte_vasco

One of the replies to the tweet was about how many problems vanish when work in progress is reduced. I think this is because it reduces complexity across the whole system of work rather than just allowing individuals to focus more.

Fluid office 

The Verge tweetedMicrosoft’s new Fluid Office document is Google Docs on steroids”. Microsoft is getting into blocks in a similar way to tools like Notion, where a document (if there will even be such a discrete object in the future of work tools) is made up of lots of blocks from different sources that pull content and functionality into the ‘document’ you are working on. 

I think it’s another step in the journey of information moving from being centralied to be decentralised and distributed in an internet-y way, and the next step will be in how content is made discoverable to pull into a document, so the author doesn’t have to write original content that becomes locked into the document if someone else has already written it or the data is already available. Rather than having to go and find last year’s sales data and create a chart to then create an image to be embedded in the document, you would import the live data into the document and the chart would be up-to-date in real time.

Some thoughts on Microsoft Teams

Microsoft Teams is a digital workspace. It tries to provide the functionality to replace what goes on in physical offices; people talking to each other, having meetings, working and sharing documents. It is useful for the shift towards remote working and matrix teams, but also important for enabling organisations to reconsider how they management knowledge as a competitive advantage.

Apart from the difficulty of the product being called ‘Teams’, and the headings that channels are grouped under are called ‘Teams’, and groups of people who work together are called teams, Microsoft Teams is actually a good product for moving an organisation towards using a digital workspace.

How teams use it depends very much on how IT configures the settings, but here are a few thoughts on using the usual functionality in Teams.

Channels

Channels consist of a stream of chronological posts, a file repository, and the ability to add other tabs for things like Planner.

The dominant thinking is that it’s better to set up fewer Teams with more Channels than having more Teams with fewer Channels. I think this should be considered in light of how an organisation structures itself as this advice includes the implicit understanding about how actual teams of people work together.

If established teams always work together on the same things, then fewer Teams (actually one Team per team) with more members and more channels, each about a particular project or work stream, makes sense as all members of the team have visibility of everything even if it isn’t directly related to them.

However, if lots of different people are involved in lots of different things, then more Teams (with however many channels is appropriate) seems to make sense as only those members involved in the work will be on that Team and so see what goes on in that Team.

Private Channels

Private channels are a way to achieve having fewer Teams with lots of Channels as the Team can include lots of members but those members will only see the Channels they are members of. However, as yet Private Channels don’t have the full functionality of open Channels.

Guest access

Teams can be set to only allow logins from within the organisation’s domain (via Active Directory) or set to allow guest access. Clearly, allowing people who aren’t under contract or NDA access to potentially sensitive information is an organisational decision that requires careful consideration, but if well managed can provide teams with a single platform to work with internal colleagues and external partners, rather than using Teams internally and something else for external communication.

Posts

Posts in Channels are a key functionality in Teams (that’s why the Posts tab is first). But Posts are also the most confusing thing. It isn’t clear how they should be used, whether they should be used instead of Chat, etc. A couple of things to consider is that Posts have replies, Chats don’t, which helps to focus a Post on a topic and provides a suggestion of how to use Posts. Posts have persistence as they hold the contents over time, can be saved to person’s Saved list, have images and files attached, and mention people to trigger a notification, all of which makes them useful for holding discussions on particular topics.

Immersive reader and voice

Posts can be read in the immersive reader and the voice functionality speaks the text in a post out loud. Unfortunately, single posts have to be read separately rather than as a stream, which seems like it might be more useful, but its still good to see Microsoft thinking about accessibility and how to include voice in Teams in the future.

Chat

Chat offers persistent web messaging, which means that the history of your chats with someone is not lost as it is with Skype. As anyone in the organisation can chat with anyone else, Chat isn’t limited in the same way Teams and Channels are.

Chats have the same file repository capabilities as channels, so files that are added to the chat and so hosted in Teams are available to both (or all) participants.

Group chats

Group chats are a quick and easy way to get people from different teams together to either discuss an immediate issue or to have ongoing contact with each other. It doesn’t rely on everyone being in the same Team, and is easier than creating a new Team for what is often

Group chat or posting in channels? This is an immediacy vs. persistence question. If being able to get people’s attention quickly is important then a Group Chat is probably the better solution. If making the information available over a longer period of time is more important then posting in the channel (and @-ing someone to get their attention) offers greater persistence.

If Group Chats could be added to a tab in a channel this either/or choice could be avoided, but this isn’t possible at the moment.

Meetings

Calendar

Meetings can be created in Teams, assigned to a channel, and added to your Outlook calendar. The meeting is available to join by anyone in the organisation, they don’t have to be invited. Notes can be taken during the meeting which become a tab in the channel, and can be used to record decisions from the meeting. The video and audio from a meeting can recorded.

Calls

Teams has VOIP calls to individuals and groups within the organisation (which replaces Skype). I expect Microsoft to add AI to calls in the future to transcribe the contents of the calls to add to the organisational knowledge that Microsoft will be able to surface.

Files

Files added to Teams are stored on SharePoint and surfaced on the Teams interface. Similarly, if you also use OneDrive, but files added to OneDrive are usually in personal storage. Adding files into the Teams file repository removes any issues of availability if the owner leaves the organisation.

Apps

Other Microsoft Apps can be added to tabs in channels

Planner

Planner is one of the Microsoft apps that works well as a Tab in a Channel. If the team does work that changes status, has assignees, has deadlines, etc., then Planner is good tool that can include the information held in the Planner board within Teams rather than a separate external tool. Planner has lots of advantages over Trello for enterprise organisations, including licensing and security considerations, but more importantly for holding all of the organisations information within a single platform,

Adoption

Organisations providing Teams as a product to use is one thing, people across the organisation adopting Teams and getting the best use out of it is something else. The difficulty around adoption will have multiple causes for any organisation but I think an important one is the education around the benefits, both in the short term for users and longer term for the organisation. The short term benefits for users are in the efficiencies that come from working in more collaborative ways, such as on single a document rather than multiple versions, and reliability of files stored in the cloud rather than on a device. The longer term benefits for the organisation are around making knowledge and information available to the whole organisation rather than being trapped in people’s laptops.

It’s not difficult to see the direction Microsoft is heading with their suite of products. They seem to be betting on the future of knowledge-organisations realising that how they manage information, knowledge and intellectual assets is an essential part of the organisation’s competitive advantage, and needing a platform that can enable and empower that. Having all of an organisations information and knowledge on a single platform, that can be surfaced in multiple ways, shared and worked on collaboratively, and analysed by the artificial intelligence of the future, will be vital for large enterprise organisations

Three tricks with Microsoft Planner

Search

There is no search. But you can filter by keywords to get what are effectively search results. Filtering is a better approach than searching as it also enables you to filter by when a card is due, who it’s assigned to, and which bucket it’s in.

Outlook

Planner provides an iCal feed which can be pulled into an Outlook calendar to show as Meeting items. So, if you like using Outlook to manage your time and tasks, you can use this feed to show cards based on their start and due dates. And if the items in Outlook could be coloured (perhaps by bucket or label), then the Outlook calendar would start to be a bit roadmap-y.

Checklist items into cards

Items in a checklist can be promoted to cards by clicking on the up arrow that shows when you hover over the checklist item. The card is created in the same bucket as the card with the checklist but has no associated attributes such as due date, status or assignee.  An improvement on this might be being able to choose to copy and/or set the attributes from the parent card when promoting the checklist item rather than having to go into the card after it has been created.

Microsoft Planner vs. Trello

I love Trello. I’ve been using it for years and have written about how we use it to manage projects. I like how easy it easy to create cards with an email and how well IFTTT works with Trello. I like Butler Bot and all the automation I can use to accomplish system housekeeping. Trello isn’t perfect, and falls down a bit in reporting, but this has never been a big problem, so in many ways it’s as close to perfect as a system could get for my way of working.

I work for an organisation that considers itself a ‘Microsoft house’, which means all of our core infrastructure and software is Microsoft, and that we are encouraged to use the approved software provided by our It department. My digital mindset says use the best tool for the job, but I also understand that using a single enterprise-level ecosystem provides better security (which is essential) and that using whatever third party software you feel like can have legal implications if that company’s terms and conditions don’t allow the software to be used for business purposes for free.

So you see my problem. Using a system that works for me versus using a system that works for the organisation. So, I started playing with Planner, Microsoft’s Trello-like product to see if it could give us the same level of flexibility in managing projects that Trello has but is compliant with organisational policy. Can I turn that ‘versus’ into an ‘and’?

After an hour of playing with Planner, this is what I think:

  • Both are accessible in a browser and both have an android app. This is important to me as I use four different devices and need to be able to use whichever system whenever and however I want.
  • Cards can’t be created in Planner by sending an email like with Trello, but there is a workaround by using Microsoft Flow (Microsoft’s IFTTT) so I have a flow set up that creates a card in Planner for every card created in Trello, which means I can use the good bits from Trello such as creating a card by email and butler bot automation in Planner.
  • Planner has a status for each card of Not started, In progress and Completed. At first I didn’t get why it would have this as there is also a start and due date for each card, but the status drives some of reporting and the Progress view.
  • Both can show cards on a calendar view but do it differently. Trello treats each card as only being able to be on a single day. The card can be moved to tomorrow if you didn’t finish it today but then it won’t still be on what is now yesterday. This means you can’t see how long a card has been worked on for. Planner has a start date and due date for each card which means that when you look at the calendar view the card is shown over the length of time between the start and due date. Both have a week and more view but neither have a year or selectable dates view.
  • Planner has a number of ways of displaying lists of cards whereas Trello only has one way. Trello lists can be titled by the name of the project, with cards being tasks within the project and having due dates, or the lists can be titled To do, Doing, Done with cards being tasks on the lists but with Labels used to group cards on the same project. Planner can switch between views which means lists can be set up for each project (called buckets in Planner) and providing those cards have been given a status of either Not started, In progress or Completed, switching views shows the cards in those three status lists.
  • Both allow a user and multiple users to be assigned to the card, both can have attachments and comments on a card, and both allow cards to be dragged and dropped between lists.
  • Trello doesn’t do any kind of reporting. Planners reporting is limited but it shows how many cards each person has in each state, how many cards are in each state for each bucket, and how many cards over the whole board are in each state.

It’s a close run thing. I’m not aware of anyone else in the organisation using Planner although I’m sure it would be really useful for them, especially as most of them don’t require the same level of flexibility as I do. If Planner had automation and adding cards by email it would win outright. Planners approach to switching between views of lists is really good (even if there is an overhead if selecting the right status, start and end date for each card). I think that Planner is good enough for us to consider moving to using it rather than Trello. And I never thought I’d say that.