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What if McLuhan was wrong?

One of the standing tenets of communication is McLuhan’s statement in 1964 that “the medium is the message.” This is incontrovertibly true for marketing.  Television, as a medium for marketing communication, has become an iconic representation of McLuhan’s message.  Television reinvents itself regularly and shapes the message in ways that have shifted with a rapidly shifting marketplace.  Television marketeers are beginning to learn the concept of “hang-time” so that, as their target market fast-forwards their DVR, the image of their product sticks around long enough in the frame jumps to be seen clearly.

The same can be said for the Web, as we watch pop-up ads come and then go, and now they’re back with countdown hang-times.  The ability of the technology, such as the DVR, to fast-forward or the ability on the Internet to click through the message is also being countered by the other arms of the technology. The media in itself IS the message, as McLuhan stated, and way the communication streams through the media determines the likelihood of the message being seen.  But television, like most marketing media, is a one-way communication.  The fact that I’m yelling at the TV that I hate commercials is not heard by the marketeers or the brand.  The return message is delayed, at best, as I either go buy the product they’re advertising, or I don’t.  The ability to diagnose the return on investment is delayed as well, and available only by analyzing whether a specific ad drives sales up or does not.  Clicking through an ad on the Internet, or clicking past it, on the other hand, is a two-way communication.

When you swivel the panopticon around to look at social media as internal organizational communication, the media as message falters a bit.  I would suggest that, in this instance, we have to move beyond the definition of the technology as the medium, because, for the first time in technological history, the medium is actually the human beings that adopt the programming.  Or, in some cases don’t.

To expand on that–when you’re developing an enterprise social media networking platform, you cannot ignore the fact that human beings are not just part of the equation, but the reason for it.  Advertising has the built-in delay factor for the return communication.  But internal organizational SMNPs are not yet able to withstand the delay.  The three basics of communication are sender-channel-receiver, and both ends of that formula are humans (unlike marketing which is organization-channel-human).

Organizational social networking systems have a tendency to falter at the receiver end.  They define the channel, and attempt to get the sender invested, but the receiver is often defined as the nebulous “them,” or “they.”  If you post something in the community, then the community will read it, right?  But a concerted effort is not taking place to tie individuals to the receiver end.

With the information overload going on, there’s active resistance on the individual’s part to becoming invested in the community, and the only reason that organizations have come up with to invest “them” in the system is access to information.  Businesses can encourage adoption of the community, but the individuals that are needed for any community to exist will simply ignore the SMNP as a venue unless the perceived value of the information becomes important to them as individuals in an information-overloaded environment.

What Facebook did right, and what has turned out to be a huge part of its overall success, was to make the sender define “them.”  People must identify other people as their friends, or they don’t see any communication and they cannot be seen. The perceived value to the individual on an emotional and connective level is is huge.  There’s the status of having umpty-thousand friends, in and of itself.  There’s the anti-status (the iconoclast’s status) for those of us who don’t happen to believe that the person that dies with the most Facebook friends wins.

Businesses that are instituting their own social networking platforms are often pre-defining “them” as communities, or sectional areas within the organization, human resources, marketing, sales, etc., and thereby defining the receiver as a group, rather than an individual.  So they are creating the very silos that they were trying to break down by instituting social media.  There is no cachet in belonging to communities, and in fact, reason to avoid them, as most of  an individual’s daily work isn’t something they want everyone in the community to see.  So only finished pieces get displayed in the community, and it becomes a lot more like your child’s bulletin board in the kindergarten classroom, and just about as effective from an organizational communication standpoint.

What businesses are having a hard time doing is allowing the system to grow organically and make its own connections and communities, much like Facebook did.  Facebook did not happen in five minutes, it took almost five years to truly explode.  But organizations want employees to drop into the segmented universe that they’ve developed for them RIGHT NOW and treat it just like Facebook, but keep it professional, you know, no pictures of you doing that kegstand in college.

First and foremost, businesses who are jumping into the world of social media networking platforms need to slow down and diagnose a return on investment before they do it.  What’s in it for the organization?  There are definable ROIs to be had; they’re not nonexistent, but they do need to be parsed out, and laid out in terms of a roadmap.  Certain lessons can be learned from Facebook–file sharing, much like image sharing in Facebook, needs to be robustly available within the new SMNP, and it needs to be developed in a way that it can be accessed easily, and directly from the communication stream.

There needs to be a certain amount of patience and a lot of the encouragement of the adoption process before the business begins shutting other communication avenues down.  Social media networking is touted as pushing e-mail out of the equation, but I believe that’s a kneejerk response to the sense of e-mail as a pressure-filled stressor.  In its infancy, social media networking platforms NEED e-mail in order to propagate the message that there is value in the SNMP at the individual level.

And most of all, organizations need to realize that the people are the media–people are the sender, the channel and the receiver.  They are the media, in ways that McLuhan could not have foreseen.  So his diagnosis that the medium is the message is not wrong, but in order to take advantage of the social media networking wave of internal communication, you have to redefine the medium as the people, instead of the technology.  People are the message.

555: organizational social networking in the cloud

We’ve come full circle with computing You may have to be at least as old as I am to comprehend how quickly we actually accomplished it.  When I began working with computers last century, in larger businesses (British Telecom was actually my first experience with it), monitors and keyboards were hung off a mainframe central computer.  You're Already Using the CloudNow, as processes move to the “cloud,” the computer terminals have morphed into our laptops and our PCs, but they’re hanging more and more off the processes and services that exist on the meta-mainframe that is the cloud.  Indeed, there’s some contention that the mainframe in many cases IS the cloud.  You no longer have to own the software or even the storage, you simply access it as a service.  What does this have to do with social networking as communication?

As the image shows, you’re already using the cloud if you use Gmail, Hotmail, YouTube, Twitter, YahooMail, Linked In, Facebook or Skype among many others.  If you’re reading this, chances are you’re using one of them.  If you use a photo storage site, you’re using the cloud.  At work, if you’re using a document sharing program such as Documentum or one of the other enterprise document management or knowledge management systems, such as Sharepoint, you’re using the cloud.  That particular cloud may be internally based, on your company’s own servers, or externally hosted.

The everyday user of cloud-based computing is much like the owner of a car.  Do you know what makes your car work?  OK, maybe you do, but I certainly don’t.  I know if it goes down the road or it doesn’t.  That’s the position the vast majority of individual users find themselves in–they simply know if their connection to the network works or it doesn’t.  And when either my car or my network doesn’t work, my frustration knows no bounds. I rely on my company to provide the necessaries to be able to access the cloud-based services I utilize pretty much every moment of every day.

However, companies that don’t have the internal resources to host their own cloud are beginning more and more to rely on external services.  The issues for companies that are using external hosting are enormous. Some of the possible implications are access problems, security problems, the hosting company’s longevity–in other words, if the hosting company fails, what just happened to all your cloud-based file storage?  Software licensing lends itself to some wholly nightmarish scenarios on the web, and that’s been acknowledged almost since the infancy of cloud computing.

Companies that use cloud-based external services for social media, in particular, are exposed to all these issues in ways that are just beginning to be understood.  If a company doesn’t have the internal resources to enable cloud-based computing, they also don’t have the resources to implement a disaster recovery program that is internally hosted, thereby leaving them at the mercy of their choice of provider.  The converse of course is that, if something happens to the physical location of the business, cloud computing may save the day, because the servers will be elsewhere.  Lots to think about.

5 Links, 5 Minutes

New Occupation for Mainframes:  Do the approval processes for mainframe usage disable the on-demand capabilities that are inherent in cloud-based computing?

Combining Big Iron and Cloud Computing:  Maybe the answer is “do both.”

Software Licensing and the Cloud: As DevCentral showed almost two years ago, “the old models of software licensing are wholly incompatible with cloud computing and on-demand environments.”

Disaster Recovery and the Cloud:  Maybe externally hosted clouds are the answer to disaster recovery.  If your information is safely stored elsewhere, your company may be able to ride out a calamity without data loss.

Solving the Cloud Management Puzzle:  Just a few of the things that need to be considered.

powerpointing 2g

PowerPoint is ubiquitous, and much like the rest of Microsoft Office is, in one format or another, inescapable in the business world.  However, I have bruises on my forehead from banging my head against the wall because yet another person is reading their slide verbatim during a meeting.  There are probably dozens of things wrong with that scenario, but the two most important:

  1. I can read.
  2. If I’m reading, I’m not listening to you.

In other words, you just lost WAY more than half your audience.  Even more so if you have shoehorned every possible piece of text and visual information that you can into that single slide.  As Stephanie Krieger puts it in this very nice but too long piece on Microsoft’s site, it’s “not about fitting as much as you can on the screen.”

Part of that particular puzzle is that everyone thinks they multitask, but nobody actually does.  It’s a myth.  And it’s particularly a myth if we are using two different senses.  As soon as we begin to read, we stop listening.  Two sensory inputs means that one must be moved to the back burner.  And if you’re reading out loud the same words that I’m seeing, I’m way ahead of you, and if it’s a virtual meeting, have probably started checking my e-mail by the time you get to your second bullet point.

A lot of this is old news.  We all know it, but we can’t resist putting that next piece of information in.  The second generation of the way that PowerPoint slide decks are used is now in full swing.  These are no longer just presentations, built only to be put in front an audience.  They have morphed into something that actually has much more power (bad pun) to influence, persuade and share information. 

There are three categories to slide decks now, and while each one actually requires that you not simply read the dang slides out loud, there are some violations of the “fit as much as you can” rule into a single slide that you may now violate as necessary.

There is also, necessarily, an element of inform and persuade in the two slightly newer uses of PowerPoint – to train and to report.

We’ll start, though, with the most familiar usage:

Presentations:  If you are presenting, whether virtually, over a webcast form, on video, or in person in front of a roomful of people, and your intent is to influence or persuade, then the basic rules apply.  Your slide should contain short, bulleted points that are visually interesting which pick out the meaty bits of information.

These slides should not be read out loud, but simply an anchor point for your spoken words that allows you to give the heart of the presentation verbally, with a simple influencing or persuasive statement at the end.

Sparing use of media that drives the listener/viewer away from your voice is appropriate, but people cannot seem to stop using it once they start.  Don’t put more than one video piece in a presentation unless the presentation is about pieces of video.  Seriously.

Training on Programs/Systems: When using PowerPoint for training, particularly on programs or systems, you need to tell the whole story on one slide for one instruction set, if humanly possible.  If you’re constructing a video, the slide should be subsidiary to watching the action, as you move through screenshots of the selections you’re making in the program you’re training. Your voice should guide the viewer/trainee through these screenshots.

The slide itself should capture selected snips to show exactly which button you’re pushing in the program, or which box you’re filling in, and the instruction text should point the trainee geographically to what they are selecting and why.

After the training is over, the deck should become a clear reference set of how to use the program.  During the training, if possible, the trainees should be following and repeating your actions.  If not possible, the slide set should be able to assist them, post-training, in walking through the exact steps they need to accomplish, including any “gotchas.”

Statistics/ Reporting:  Statistics are overwhelming at the best of times, and complex datasets require complex slides.  However, your verbal exposition of the slide should, at a very minimum, give the “so what” of the data.  The analysis of the answer to the “so what” should be added to the visual set of the slide.  Every slide should, again, tell a single story:

  • Beginning – the “so what,” why the data that you’re reporting on matters to your audience (note:  your audience, not you).
  • Middle – the assumptions the data rests on, not in clinical detail, but the high points.
  • End – the bottom line–what the data actually tells you that actually answers the “so what” question.

Do not, under pain of attention loss, read the numbers themselves to your audience.  Make sure, like the training slides, that the entire deck is available to your audience after the presentation, so that they can look at the separate data pieces at their leisure.

file sharing is the linchpin for org comm’s second generation

Businesses have been a little slow on the uptake on file sharing, but with Web 2.0 in full swing, and the shift it’s bringing into business communication, file sharing must now move into its rightful place–as Inc. so rightly called it, it’s the mack daddy of collaboration.  It’s also the linchpin of social media as business communication.

This differentiates organizational communication sharply from the Facebook-style social media, while utilizing the same tools.  In online social media, including Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc., the links people share, and the “likes” they add to their profiles, lead to other sites, other pages on the web.  In organizational communication, the links lead to files, or to metaposts that aggregate files.

Most businesses are still struggling to get people not to send the monster 10mb, 20mb files through e-mail, and indeed most limit the size of the file you can send.  If you haven’t already figured it out, even Excel files that are used over and over and never cleaned up get bigger and bigger. You end up with a two- or three-tab file that’s taking five to ten minutes to upload because every time someone copies and pastes, all the styles that Excel uses in the background simply aggregate without ever going away.  We’ll leave the discussion of Bill Gates’ buggy programming for another discussion–it simply has to be dealt with.  As files get bigger, the restrictions on sending files (and the implicit restriction in the fact that it takes too long and bogs down your system) are beginning to impact communication.

While server space is also getting larger, and you can get home computers with terabytes of storage now, the programs that are sending the files cannot cope with the load, and attaching the files to e-mail (especially when you send it to 45 separate people–“reply all” is a very mixed blessing) is hogging bandwidth like mad.  When multiplied by thousands of employees, an entire company system sloooowwwws down due to the load. Thus the restrictions that IT departments have hedged around attaching large files to e-mail.  Those restrictions are beginning to interfere with companies’ ability to share documents, especially when working in the virtual world, where you cannot print the document and walk it down the hall.  This is where hyperlinked file sharing steps in to save the day.

If you as a business leader haven’t already taken steps to make file sharing easy through linking directly to documents, then you are behind the curve.  Unfortunately, back to dissing Mr. Gates, hyperlinking directly to a server file has never been easy.  We have to acknowledge that Windows is inescapable, and as they get even further down the road to intuitive crumbtrails (that series of names for the folders at the top of your window that gets longer as you descend down the folder structure), it gets even harder to link to folders directly on the server.  It’s geek-friendly, but the rest of the world is left out in the cold.

So, to save the day, the cloud comes along… web-server-based storage, served up in a way that makes it easy-peasy to link to a specific document or a folder as necessary.  Electronic document management (EDM) has been around for a long time, companies like Documentum have been around for more than 20 years.  Not advertising Documentum, in particular, it just happens to be the one I’ve used most recently.  Businesses on a well-developed EDM background are now able to interface with it in ways that make it easy for the less-geeky to share a 5-byte email link over e-mail, instead of a 10mb PowerPoint file.  This frees up bandwidth, diminishes printing costs, and will end up paying for itself in the long run.

Time to step on this bandwagon if you haven’t already.  And step on it now, before you implement a social media interaction at your organization.  Social media without file sharing isn’t a work network, it’s just a time-wasting ghost of Facebook with your business frame around it.  Social media with file sharing, and people who have a modicum of training in how to use it, can break down the silos within your business and stop recreating the wheel in every department because they don’t talk to each other.  This frees up the creative souls who are building yet another PowerPoint deck to actually get creative and push your business into the boom that’s coming.