What is a Digital Workplace and Why Should You Care?

telework, digital workplace, virtual work, telecommute Digital Workplaces aren’t yet taking the world by storm but they are emerging as a very powerful enabling  technology for the future.  Moreover, they will probably be seen as a critical need as the world becomes more mobile and businesses begin to rely more heavily on social networking.

Before considering the potential value of using a digital workplace it’s important to understand what one really is. Even though the term was first used almost 15 years ago there is still disagreement as to what it  means.  Or perhaps it would be better to say that the term is used in several different ways.

 

What is a Digital Workplace

In Paul Miller‘s excellent book, The Digital Workplace, he defines the digital workplace as, “the technology-enabled space where work happens.”  He further states that, “it involves all the tools we use to do our jobs:  email, phone, text, intranet, micro-blogging, Internet, office documents, shared documents, teleconferences, video, software packages, smart phones, tablets, and the cloud.”

The Digital Workplace is about an overall philosophy and approach for managing a very flexible and free organization.  He is referring to the digital workplace as the entire underlying technical infrastructure that allows such an organization to exist.  It is a very broad usage that includes all of the technical capabilities that power a modern business organization and really focuses on a management philosophy rather than on how to use a specific system to implement that philosophy.

Mark Morrell, a noted internet blogger, defines the digital workplace even more generally as, “Work is what you do, not where you go to.”  Again, this definition focuses on an overall philosophy for how we approach work.

For the purposes of this blog series I’m going to focus much more specifically on a digital workplace as a collection of tools and capabilities that allow team members to work much more effectively together, especially in an environment where the participants may be physically separated from their offices, and from each other, by hundreds or thousands of miles.

For the purposes of this blog entry, a digital workplace is an integrated collection of tools and capabilities that allow team members to connect, communicate, collaborate, and conduct all of their required work activities wherever and whenever they may be working.

 

Elements of a Digital Workplace

Specifically, a digital workplace should include five basic elements:

1.  Connectivity and Communication:

Information sharing -

  • Intranet – the backbone of connectivity and information sharing
  • Individualized employee homepages and rich profile data
  • Organization charts and employee directories
  • Expert locator

Messaging -

  • E-mail
  • Instant Messaging
  • Micro Blogging

2.  Business Applications and Online Productivity Tools:

  • Word processors
  • Spreadsheet software
  • Presentation software
  • Domain-specific applications
  • Design tools
  • Expense forms
  • CRM systems
  • ERM systems
  • Etc.

3.  Collaboration and Business Social Networking:

  • Online communities
  • Employee blogs
  • Team meeting rooms
  • Wikis
  • Web conferencing tools
  • Team forums

4. Employee and Customer “Crowdsourcing”: 

  • Employee polling
  • Employee surveys
  • Idea generation sites

5.  Remote Working and Mobility:

  • Laptops
  • Tablets
  • Mobile/smart phones
  • Home office support
  • Satellite office support
  • Hotspot locator
  • Cellular data communication devices

Why You Should Pay Attention to Digital Workplaces

Digital workplaces have been around for more than a decade and haven’t seen rapid growth during that time.  Moreover, many analysts believe that they are still far from a tipping point.  While growth has not been spectacular there are a number of forces that are likely to drive much more rapid adoption in the future.

In my recent book, Four Dead Kings at Work, I described the basic forces that are driving the world toward virtual and mobile work.  These forces include the explosion of mobile internet access and social networking along with the ubiquitous availability of data and applications by way of the cloud.

Ultimately, digital workplaces are designed to provide a work environment that allows businesses to be most effective in responding to those forces by combining aspects of social, mobile, and cloud.

Why should you care about digital workplaces?

Because the world is going mobile, like it or not.

Historically the story of telework has been about a limited number of workers who decided to work outside the normal office, most of whom choose to telecommute meaning that “outside the office” meant working from home.  Today the concept of telework has evolved to “mobile work” and it involves the vast majority of workers rather than a select few.  Today’s employees are working on a blended stream of business and personal activity that extends from morning until night.  Some of that activity occurs in a traditional office environment but most does not.

The businesses that learn to work most effectively in this mobile environment will have competitive advantage over those who do will be left behind.  Digital workplaces will play in key role in gaining that advantage.

 

 

 

The Digital Workplace Series is Coming

telework, digital workplace, virtual work, telecommuteI’m not writing to claim that Digital Workplaces are taking the world by storm.  They aren’t.

But I am writing to claim that they will be at some point in the future.

One of the debates regarding digital workplaces is about what the term actually means.  For the purposes of this discussion I define a digital workplace as a collection of tools and capabilities that allow team members to work together wherever and whenever they may be working.

This implies the need to enable effective communication and collaboration and to do so without regard to location;  moreover, it also implies the need to support such communication not only between coworkers but in some cases also between workers and customers and partners.

The term has been in use for at least ten years but during most of that time the digital workplace community did not see much growth.  In today’s world digital workplaces are still in a formative stage but there are many reasons to believe that  they will be taking off in the not too distant future.

The growth of digital workplaces will be driven by the same basic forces that are driving virtual work in general – the explosion of mobile and social media and the ubiquitous availability of the cloud [http://goo.gl/P2GBn, http://goo.gl/bdBv4].

Over the next ten weeks I will be posting thoughts on the power and potential impact of digital workplaces, the challenges they face, and the possibility of combining digital workplaces with other technical advancements to form even more powerful environments.

Specifically, I will be posting a ten-part series that will cover the following topics:

1.  What is a digital workplace?

2.  Is a digital workplace simply a reskinning of an “intranet?”

3.  The power of digital workplaces.

4.  The limitations of digital workplaces.

5.  The forces driving the adoption of digital workplaces.

6.  Why some middle managers HATE digital workplaces.

7.  The Achilles Heal of digital workplaces.

8.  The value of digital workplaces for global virtual teams.

9.  Combining a digital workplace with other advanced technologies.

10.  What are the three best digital workplaces available today?

 

I hope you have a chance to read the posts and I look forward to your comments.

 

 

Photo is by Canned Tuna and represents the Curtin University Digital Workplace Vision Jam

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Best Buy “Cancellation of Telework” Articles are ALL Wrong

 

telework, telecommute, ROWE, Best Buy, Virtual WorkBy now we’ve all heard that Best Buy cancelled their telework program.

Google “Best Buy Cancels Telework” and you’ll get about 40,000 hits.  The first several pages are filled with dozens of articles, all of which are titled, “Best Buy Cancels Telework” or some close variant (for example, [http://goo.gl/eBQol]).

I heard this revelation from several news sources and several dozen people sent me links noting that this is the second big company to cancel a telework program.

The only catch with all these articles is that they are ALL WRONG.

It would be fair to note that both Yahoo (a big company that made a recent telework announcement ) and Best Buy are going through major corporate restructurings and that as a result they don’t represent the norm.  It would also be fair to note that recent statistics show that telework is, in fact, growing, not shrinking.

But these generalities are not what I had in mind when I claimed that they were all wrong.

There are wrong because Best Buy did NOT, in fact, cancel a telework program.  What Best Buy cancelled was a ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) program.

 

ROWE Does Not Equal Telework

Matt Furman, Best Buy’s Chief Communications officer said, “We’re a company that still believes strongly in employee flexibility, but the ROWE program itself has been canceled” [http://goo.gl/9ayL7].

As that quote specifically states, Best Buy canceled a ROWE program, not a telwork program.

Is this a just a minor distinction?  Perhaps splitting hairs by reaching for a small technicality?

Not hardly.  ROWE does not equal telework by any stretch of the imagination.  There are huge distinctions.

To understand those distinctions it is important to understand what a ROWE really is.

 

What is a ROWE?

Just as the name implies, a Results-Only Work Environment is a work structure where the only thing that counts is results.  ROWE is a specific program that was pioneered at Best Buy and is now offered by an organization called CultureRx.  It is described on their website, www.gorowe.com, and in a book titled, “Work Sucks, and How To Fix It.”

ROWE is an interesting program that stresses complete employee freedom.  The authors stress the distinction between a ROWE and telework in the first sentence of their description of a ROWE:  “Results-Only Work Environment goes beyond telework.”  In fact, ROWE goes WAY beyond telework, to the point that telework is a very small subset of ROWE.

ROWE isn’t just about working remotely.  In a ROWE employees are free to work anywhere, anytime, and anyhow as long as they get the desired results.  The authors stress that providing this level of freedom attracts the best employees and allows them to achieve maximum results.

CultureRx has presented the program to a large number of Fortune 500 programs and it is being used in a wide variety of organizations with interesting results.

 

Challenges with ROWE

I believe that ROWE has some very valuable points and as I indicated in my review of Work Sucks, I think it’s a good book that’s well worth reading.  As I describe in my book, Four Dead Kings at Work, managers will ultimately be forced to learn to manage by results whether they like it or not.  As the world becomes flatter, and as work and personal lives begin to blend together, and as the explosion of mobile forces the decentralization of work, the managers of the future will not be able to continue patterns that were set in the early 20th century.  They will have to established desired results and manage employees to meet them.

Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that ROWE has a great deal to offer, I believe there are three major challenges with the program as it is currently established:

1.  Too extreme -

ROWE stresses that the “O” in ROWE stands for “Only” – not “Oriented;”  that is, they insist on a “results-only” work environment, not a “results-oriented” work environment.  The importance of using only results to manage employees is held almost as a religious tenet.  As a result the rules of the program are very extreme.  For example, all meetings are optional.  There is no concept of a set vacation.  Employees go wherever they want and work whenever they want, so part of that might be what would otherwise be called a vacation.  The authors stress that employees should not be forced to inform others when they will be unavailable during “office hours.”  The basic premise is that employees have complete freedom to define work on their own terms.

The catch with this viewpoint is that flies in the face of reality.  There are meetings that are important and certain employees need to attend (whether in person or virtually).  Moreover, they will need to attend those meetings at the time the meetings are being held.  If employees are unavailable that fact might matter a lot to other employees.

2.  Work is a team sport -

The biggest issue with ROWE is that it fails to acknowldge how important it is that many people have to work as a part of a team.  The ROWE approach is probably very good for environments in which employees act independently.  Writers, for example, may very well be able to work whenever, wherever, and however they want (until they have to meet with the editor).  For most other people they will have to work as a part of a team, at least occasionally.  Those team efforts require them to coordinate schedules, attend meetings, notify others of their availability, etc.  Failure to do so can being the entire team effort to a halt.  How well would a sports teams operate if it was acceptable for the players to consider all games as completely optional?

3.  Virtual work meets the Occupy Movement -

Work Sucks is said to be about the “results-only” work environment.  The reality is that it is more about the “total employee freedom” work environment.  It is one of several books that posit a work structure in which employees have complete freedom – not only in terms of when, where, and how they work but also in regard to what they work on.

Another book, “Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive In The New World Of Work,” follows much the same theme as ROWE.  (It is also well worth reading.)  But both books, and others from the same space, tend to be based on an unstated assumption that The Man is out to make employees lives miserable.  Their unstated assumption is that companies are led by power-hungry “probably male” leaders who care about little but “big houses and yachts” and  keeping their innocent, hapless workers under their thumbs for their own person aggrandizement.

Work Sucks claims that in an ROWE:

Everyday feels like Saturday.

Every meeting is optional.

Nobody feels guilty, over-worked, or stressed out.

There aren’t any last-minute fire drills.

These claims are based, at least to some extent, on the assumption that stress and fire drills and feeling overworked come from managers who are overly controlling.  Once employees have freedom they will experience work nirvana.

Sadly, the reality is that even if only results matter there can still be an enormous amount of work, and stress, and firedrills, and Saturday-working required to achieve those results.

Most of the stress involved in meeting work goals does not come from the pointless meddlings of The Man.  They are imposed by elements of the outside environment such as customers, partners, world events, etc.  No amount of “work freedom” will make those influences go away.

 

Would Best Buy Have Cancelled a Simple Telework Program?

Would Best Buy have cancelled a simple telework program?

That’s hard to say.  They might have.  But they didn’t.  Telework was a very small part of the program they cancelled.

They cancelled a program that was about complete employee freedom, where “all meetings are optional” and there is no need for an employee to inform teammates of their work schedules and  ”there is never a last-minute fire drill.”

That’s a long, long way from “telework.”

So why do all the articles insist on saying, “Best Buy Cancels Telework?”

 

Those are my thoughts.  I’d love to hear your comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virtual Work: New Book on How Work Will Develop in the Future. Four Dead Kings at Work

 

virtual work, telework, telehealth, elearning, future of workWhat will the world of work look like in the future?

 

Four Dead Kings at Work is a new book where I share my thoughts on how the future will develop.

 

The key observation is that many of the “truths” that we hold to be self-evident will soon cease to be truths at all.

There are several fundamental forces that are working together to drive these changes.  These forces include the continuing globalization and virtualization of the world along with the explosion of mobile devices.

Taken together these forces have driven very rapid social change that impact both our personal and professional lives.  One of the most important impacts is the tendency to force those lives to merge which in turn drives decentralization in all aspects of the work environment.

These forces will eventually kill off the “kings” of the current workplace; that is, those basic “truths” that have existed for many years.  The future workplace will change dramatically in terms of place, time, decision-making, and the tendency of employees to be associated with a single organization.

As these kings fall new forms of virtual work along with new structures and mechanisms will emerge to take advantage of the new decentralized environment.

Pick up a copy of Four Dead Kings at Work and read a short discussion of how this may all develop (http://goo.gl/w8cjx).

I would love to hear your comments about where you feel it is correct and where it is way off base!

Telework Futures as Seen From 1964

telework , virtual work , future, virtual teamsWhat is the future of telework? Or, more precisely, how did the people of 1964 imagine telework in the infamous “year 2000?”

Check out the following video:  http://officeinsight.org/?p=2095 .

It’s a “must see” for anyone interested in the future of telework.  It’s also one of the things that got me interested in telework in the late 1960s.

Arthur C. Clarke, scientist and author, appeared on BBC’s Horizon program in 1964 to share his vision for how work, and cities, would exist in the future.

It is an amazing video, when viewed from 2013.  It’s notable both for how well he envisioned the future and for how the full realization of that future is really still in the future.

The basic concepts he described have come to pass.  What hasn’t been realized is the scope.  Telework has yet to drive the fundamental change in human society that he envisioned.

The really interesting question is “why not?”  There are three big answers to that question:

Telework Transitions to Virtual Work

Telework is an important aspect of the virtualization of work.  But telework, as it is usually envisioned, involves an individual who is working from a location outside the traditional office.  That is clearly an important aspect of virtual work but it isn’t the whole picture.

Virtual work is the more general concept of people working in a virtual environment, where the defining characteristic is the fact that the parties involved don’t work together face-to-face.

That includes those who telecommute and telework, but it also includes members of global virtual teams that may be working from offices but have little or no opportunity to interact directly with their teammates.  They are working virtually, at least relative to many of their key teammates.

The current hot spot of virtual work is the growth of mobile work.  With the explosion in mobile devices people around the world are engaging in virtual work for at least part of the day. In that sense almost everyone is a virtual worker at one time or another.

The broader sense of virtual work also includes those aspects that are based on some specific form of work.  Telemedicine is simply virtual work where the work involves healthcare and the “parties involved” are doctor and patient instead of coworkers.  The same concept applies to various forms of eLearning and virtual training.

Clarke’s future is much closer to realization now that “everyone is virtual.”

 

Moving Beyond Virtual Meetings

For many years much of the focus of virtual work has been on the idea of improving virtual meetings.

For those same years the concept of telework assumed that a teleworker was located in some remote office, occasionally connecting with the broader world by way of some telecommunication or virtual meeting.  Members of distributed virtual teams have used those some virtual meetings as a way of interconnecting as well.

Today’s virtual environments go far beyond virtual meetings to provide full-time virtual work environments.  For example, Flipside Workspace (http://goo.gl/UyjhO) is a 3D virtual workspace that provides full-time virtual offices for their users.  Rather than simply providing virtual meeting spaces this approach provides virtual spaces where users will spend the bulk of their work time.  This approach allows workers to “drop by” and interact with other workers much as they would in a physical environment.

 

Virtual work technology needs to capture the essence of humanity

There is one major issue that stands between us and the future that Clarke envisioned in 1964.

Before we can realize that future we need to have virtual work technology that provides virtual interaction that is much closer to the experience of face-to-face interaction.   Moreover, that capability needs to be available in a high-quality form on mobile devices available to everyone all the time.

In my experience, any discussion of virtual work will soon lead to someone saying some version of, “but we still need the human interaction that comes only from face-to-face interaction.”

WHY is that face-to-face interaction so important?  The key answer is that most human communication is non-verbal, with some studies claiming that up to 93% of communication occurs beyond language.  Most virtual systems do no transmit most of that non-verbal communication.  Audio meetings provide no non-verbal communication, video conferencing provides some but doesn’t provide the sense of a joint meeting, especially on mobile devices, and 3D workspaces rely on avatars that do not include non-verbal expressions.

Given that situation it isn’t surprising that people feel that it is important to interact in person.

The good news is that we are likely to see a dramatic change in that situation in the next few years.

Developers are taking several different approaches to tackle this problem:

Computer Vision Supports Effective Virtual Work

Existing computer vision technology can be used to track facial expressions in real-time and replicate those expressions on a personalized avatar.  Using this approach the participants in a meeting would look into their webcams, much as someone would do on skype, and their facial expressions would appear on their avatars in a 3D virtual workspace.  This approach would transmit most of the non-verbal communication associated with facial expressions and would produce an experience that would feel very much like a face-to-face discussion.

Computer vision can also be used to track and reproduce gestures on those same avatars.  These gestures, especially in conjunction with facial expressions, account for a large majority of all non-verbal communication.

 

Gesture Recognition and Virtual Work

There are other technical approaches to reproducing gestures.  MYO, an armband device that released just days ago, does an amazing job of tracking hand movements and gestures.  It is being introduced as a computer control mechanism but the same approach could be used to capture and replicate gestures on avatars in a virtual space.

 

Holograms Make Real Progress

I remember when I saw one of the first moving holographic pictures at the MIT Media Lab in the late 1980s.  It was small, blurry, jerky, and amazing.  Holograms have come a long way since then.

One of the hottest pop stars in Japan is Miku Hatsune.  She routinely fills stadiums with tens of thousands of worshipers.  That isn’t unusual for pop stars.  What is unusual is that Miku is completely virtual.  She appears as a hologram on stage.  There are other notable examples, including the use of a hologram to bring Tupac, the late rapper, back to life.

Beyond the use in entertainment there is a lot of interest in using holograms to provide rich communication in virtual meetings.  In the  near-term this technology would likely be applied only for high-end meetings but the costs will probably move down from the stratosphere fairly quickly.

The use of holograms, and other visual technologies, is supported by advancements in display technology.  ”3D without glasses” and ultraclear 4K displays were everywhere at the Consumer Electronics Show this year.  They are moving forward rapidly.

 

All of these advancements point to the fact that we are on the cusp of realizing the vision as Clarke laid it out in 1964.

 

Lastly, there is one tiny nit in his forecast that is off base, and thankfully so. Note that he describes how men will be working in the future.  Fortunately, in the world of 2013 the world of work isn’t available only to men.

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future as seen from 1964.

 

Photo by Ell Brown

 

Yahoo, Marrisa Mayer and the Telework Ban. Much Ado About Nothing?

yahoo, marrisa mayer, teleworkMarrisa Mayer’s recent edict banning telework and ordering Yahoo employees back to the office has garnered an incredible amount of attention.    Comments have gone all the way from informal blogs posts and tweets to articles from major newspapers.

One major newscast in Silicon Valley ran a segment about “things that were supposed to be good ideas but failed.”  They listed three items, one of which was telework.  [Another was solar energy!  :) ]  The inclusion of telework on the list was explicitly tied to the Yahoo announcement.

When I hear all this I really want to say, “Good grief people.  Get a grip.”

After some thought I’ve decided instead to say, “Overall I think that the response is excessive, and, most of all, is missing the point.”

Think about the following:

What’s the real significance of the Yahoo announcement to the telework community or to companies in general?  Nothing.

What should our reaction be?  Ignore it.

Why is that?

 

Is  This About Telework? More to This Than Meets the Eye

The first thing to understand is that there is likely a lot more going on here than meets the eye.

To understand what’s really going on you have to think like a CEO.

In spite of the wording of the announcement, all of this may actually have very little to do with telework per se.

I have enormous respect for Marrisa Mayer.  She has taken on a tough assignment and has to deal with a huge set of problems.

What can she herself personally DO to resolve the problems?  Little or nothing.

A CEO can’t do much of anything directly.  A CEO has to accomplish her goals through indirect action.  She can send messages, influence thinking, shake up some people while encouraging others, indicate direction, etc.

In short, most of being a CEO is about optics.  It’s about doing all you can to encourage and influence people indirectly to move in a desired direction.

Many observers note that part of the problem at Yahoo is that some workers have become complacent and have lost their edge.

If you’re Mayer one of the main things you need to do is shake them up.  Send a clear message that you’re serious and that the old days are over.  To this last point, one of the main things you need to do is simply ensure that change is in the air.   At some level you don’t even care what the change is.  You’re just trying to get the organization off of top dead center and get it moving.  If are trying to encourage movement the sending “shake up” messages is one of the ways to do it.

That one point may very well explain the announcement.

By the way, a conventional wisdom has already formed in the Valley.  The Valley has concluded  that the real intent behind the action is to perform a soft layoff.  She knows very well that if you tell a bunch of telework people to “get in the office or get out” some percentage will get out.  And it won’t break her heart of some of them do.  It’s a lot easier and cheaper to shed people that way than it is to do a formal layoff.

Was this just a shot over the bow to make a point and shake things up?  Was this just a “soft layoff?”  Was it simply an action to start some form of change?  It’s tough to really know the answer to those questions.  But one thing is for sure, it is very likely that there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye.  It is likely that this isn’t really just about telework and all the articles posting statistics supporting telework are missing the real issue.

 

Don’t Generalize – Yahoo is a Special Case

The real risk in this situation is overgeneralization.

No matter what the reality behind the announcement, the fact is that Yahoo is a special case.   Yahoo is a great company that has made awesome contributions to society.  Unfortunately, they’ve fallen on hard times and some pretty drastic steps have to be taken.

The key point to understand is that they are hardly typical of the state of play in Silicon Valley.  After a few decades here I can tell you that telework is an accepted element of life in the Valley.  Life here is largely about management by results, whether the managers like it or not.  People in the valley tend to be pretty free in terms of work style;  basically, they work however they want as long as things are getting done.  Now, it shouldn’t be lost that in this process the 60 hour work week is standard and a high percentage of people will be working much more than that.  But, still, they tend to work those oppressive hours however they choose.

In short, the general situation is that if one were to make that kind of edict for the Valley overall it would generally simply be ignored.  Most people would just keep doing what they are doing.  My guess is that most of the people at Yahoo will have exactly the same reaction.  In general they will ignore the edict.

The point here is that one company, especially one outlier, does not a trend make.  It’s a little early to announce that telework is a failed concept based on one announcement from one company.

 

Get Real.  The Order is Impossible.

The order said basically, “we need to collaborate so all you people who are working from home need to find an office and get in here and work.”

Is that even possible?

The first point is that most large companies in the Valley do not have anywhere close to as many cubes as they have employees.  And half the cubes that exist are empty much of the time.

The simple reality is that world has gone mobile.  People are working outside the office – whether at home or at Starbucks – whether Yahoo (or anyone else) likes it or not.

Companies are well aware of this and are trimming office expenses as a result.  Most companies only have cubes for perhaps 75% of the employees and the trend is downward.  I’m working with one large Valley enterprise that is in the process of reconfiguring all their large office buildings.  Their standard is to assume that 40% of their employees will be “mobile workers.”  This is not unusual.  In a few days I’ll be meeting with a large architectural firm to discuss putting in place new major capabilities to be able to help large companies in their efforts to “rightsize” their spaces in light of current reality.

Note that Yahoo is telling workers to “find an office.”  The wording implies that it will be a struggle.  Good luck on that.  The days of assuming that everyone would work from an office are over, and they aren’t coming back.

And second is that part about collaboration.  It is entirely true that one of the big issues for any company like Yahoo is the need for teams to collaborate.  Those of us who encourage “management by results” tend to ignore the fact that getting those results often involves people working with other people.

This is a valid issue for telecommuters.  Unfortunately, it is a valid issue for their office-bound teammates as well.

The fact is that the “large-team collaboration” problem isn’t solved by getting everyone in a room together.  First of all, it’s hard to get 10,000 people in a room together.  At best only a small subset of people will really be interacting directly together.

I used to manage a large division of a company that was similar to Yahoo.  We were in a large multi-story building in Silicon Valley.  I tried very hard to get the people there to interact directly  and collaborate more.  It was a hopeless task.  The reality is that people would almost never walk even to the other end of their own floor.  And over time I worked out an informal algorithm for the “acceptable horizontal distance to acceptable vertical distance” ratio.  It’s about 10 to 1.  The simple version is that people simply refuse to go up a floor or down a floor.  Many people would never directly interact with their teammates who were located ten feet above them on the next floor.

All of this is now exacerbated by two factors:

1.  Companies are increasingly formed as collections of people from all over the world.  Yahoo, like most other companies, operates large virtual global teams.  Most of those team members will never interact directly no matter what order the CEO issues.  What real difference does it make if I work from home when I spend 70% of my time in conference calls with people in another country?

2.  A huge percentage of collaboration is now virtual, even for people who share the same office building.  The Yahoo folk may be successful in “finding an office” but even if they do the majority of their interaction with other employees will be virtual.  Employees today often use electronic communication to interact  – whether it’s email, Yammer, Skype, Lync, blogs, forums, Sharepoint, Webex or any other application.  Most importantly, they often use electronic communications to interact with people in the same room, much less the same building.

 

So, overall of course I disagree with the order but all-in-all I’d say that it has very little significance to the telework world.  Virtual work is moving forward and Yahoo can do little to stop that (even if they really do want to).

 

Mostly, again, I think that using the Yahoo announcement as a lever to declare telework  a “good idea that failed” is over the top.

 

Those are my views, I’d love to hear yours.

 

Photo by TechCrunch50-2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Work/Life Tangles are Unraveled by Tracky

 
tracky, collaboration, telework, task managementThe changes occurring in the workplace today result in lives that I’ve labeled as beige;  where beige describes the fact that in today’s highly mobile world work life and home life tend to blend into one tangled mass that continues non-stop from morning until night.

I recently discovered Tracky, a product that can really help to unravel and sort out that beige life.

Tracky was developed by a Las Vegas-based startup that is hosted at Switch, the world’s largest data center.  It introduced the application as a public beta launch in March, 2012 at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, TX.

Tracky has been described as, “an application for planning, collaborating and getting tasks done.”

At its heart Tracky is a collaborative task management tool, with all the pieces that are required for a group of people to work together on a complex project.

 

All-in-One Platform

Tracky is an all-in-one platform that is available on PCs as well as on mobile devices.  It brings together a collection of functions that are required for groups of people to work on projects together.  These capabilities include functions such as email, chat, task collaboration, file sharing, and social publishing.

Given that there are dozens of tools and applications that are addressing this space in one way or another, many of the things a user sees in Tracky will be very familiar.   It looks a lot like Yammer in some ways and more like Dropbox or Basecamp in other ways.

Given this similarity, and the fact that the space is already somewhat crowded, it’s fair to ask what Tracky is really adding that is new or unique.  One way to look at the answer to that question is to recognize that it isn’t so much what Tracky is adding to the world; it’s more about what it is taking away.

All of the things that are available in Tracky can already be done in other tools and in most cases multiple tools.  In fact, the key insight is that most users do, in fact, have to use multiple tools to match what Tracky will do.  More importantly, most users will have to use multiple instances of multiple tools to perform these functions in the different aspects of their beige lives.

A typical member of Tracky’s target cohort is probably currently using Outlook at work to do email, create calendars, and manage simple tasks.  They might also use Basecamp for more complex task management, Dropbox for file management, and Yammer for collaborative interaction.

As they produce results from these projects they may then turn to social tools such as Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ to share the results with the world.

One challenge with that approach is that they are going back and forth between tools; opening and closing constantly, having to remember multiple interfaces, working from different devices, and entering duplicate information across those various tools.

This is where Tracky can be viewed as something that takes away from the existing environment rather than adding to it.  The truth is that using the existing collection of tools requires a great deal of wasted overhead to accomplish any kind of complex task.  Users slog their way through a swamp of inboxes, task list, friends lists, app interfaces, and notifications just to make their way to the work they really want to do.  It’s hard to really get anything done when so much effort is required just to remember all the logons and passwords.

Tracky cuts through that entire muddle.  It provides a complete collection of tools that all operate under a consistent, easy-to-use interface.

It isn’t too surprising to find that the functionality of Tracky is all built around the idea of a track - as in,“keeping track of something.”  A track is short blurb of information that describes something that needs to be done.  It can be a single action or one of a series of actions that are required to complete some larger action.  The Tracky team describes these as, “tweets for do-ers.”

Any kind of information can be stored in a track.  One common example is a file that is associated with the action.  For example, if the task were, “pick up groceries for tonight’s dinner” then the file stored with the track might be the shopping list.  The files are stored in the cloud and can be viewed by anyone who has access to the track.

Users can see a livestream of their tracks which shows the tracks themselves along with information on due dates, priorities, etc.  They can also access a complete calendar and chat with other members from the same interface.

 

Social Sharing

Beyond being an all-in-one tool for task management,  Tracky is really a social collaboration system.

Tracky supports social interaction within the Tracky environment and also supports connecting to the outside world through existing social networks.

Internal to the Tracky environment, users can establish Groups of people who will work together on some program.  Tracks can be marked as secret to just the people assigned to it or private to some particular group.  They can also be marked as public and the information is then available to and discoverable by the online community in general.

A variety of collaborative tools are provided to support the group members who are working together on various tracks.  The availability of public tracks makes it possible for the general population to explore interesting tasks and topics and to engage with the content creators.  Security is protected by way of private tracks that are invisible to the public.

This provision supports powerful internal collaboration but it also takes advantage of the current trend toward crowdsourcing.  The owner of a track can engage in a bit of crowdsourcing by encouraging the public to explore open tracks and contribute wherever they can.

Lastly, Tracky connects tracks to external social networks such as TwitterFacebook, and Buffer to share information and results.  This capability can be hugely important for many users.  For example, someone working social marketing tasks might be using tracks to manage the basic activity and connecting to external social networks to share actual marketing postings (the results of completing the tracks).

 

Unraveling a Beige Life

In spite of the power of the capabilities described above, the most interesting, unique, and powerful aspect of Tracky is its ability to help unravel the complications that result from the beiging of life.

It is certainly true that the average person consumes a lot of valuable time dealing with all the clutter that is associated with using multiple tools.  The real killer is the fact that the average user is struggling to try to keep up with multiple lives; or, more accurately, with the beiging of life.

Almost all of the existing tools assume that the user is working within one specific activity context.

For example, assume Ravi Sundapali is an operations manager working for some company named Advanced Offices Services.  AOS provides maintenance and operational services for large high-rise office buildings that are located in dense urban areas.  Ravi spends much of his day working tirelessly for AOS.  But he also has a large family and they engage in many family activities, some of them in the US and some internationally.  Beyond those family activities Ravi also contracts his services to one outside firm, does volunteer work at his kids’ school, works for a one local charity and one international charity, belongs to an online photography club, and  belongs to the local unit of Office Services Professional Association.  Of course Ravi also like to spend some time on Facebook and Twitter and likes to try his hand at Gardens of Time and online mahjong with his friends from China.

Ravi uses a typical set of tools to accomplish his work at AOS.  He keeps his basic tasks and calendar in Outlook and uses it for email as well.  He is quite tech savvy so he uses Basecamp to manage complex projects and Dropbox to share files. He would likely agree with the statement that these tools “help him connect and collaborate with all the people who are required to accomplish the work that he has to do.”

That statement is true, as long as the discussion is confined to Ravi within the ACS activity context; that is, the tools help Ravi connect and collaborate with his AOS community.  Over lunch Ravi plans to do some work for the local school.  That will be a different activity context, and so will involve a different set of people, a different set of projects, and a different set of tasks.  Moreover, the people who know Ravi within the school context will see him as being in a different role than he is with ACS.

Ravi has a dozen or so different activity contexts within his beige life.  That may seem to be a lot, but actually it  isn’t at all unusual in today’s beige world.  Where should Ravi store the tasks that he needs to complete for the school projects?  He could just put them in Outlook along with his ACS tasks except that ACS rules strictly forbid the use of ACS system for personal data.  Besides, he may not want his admin to see his school activities appearing on a company calendar.

Ravi’s real problem is that he has to consider this issue not only for work vs. school, he has to consider it for a dozen different parallel contexts.

Tracky was built to deal with this problem.  It is uniquely positioned to help unravel the enormous clutter that occurs due to the beiging of life.

It has been noted that Tracky “has the ability to help both individuals and companies.”  That statement is true but a key insight is that Tracky should be viewed as a tool that helps an individual, the Tracky user.  It will help that individual manage his or her various lives, including those that involve personal activities and those that involve one or more companies.

Tracky provides a very simple interface to accomplish this apparently complex task.  The user can simply establish multiple contexts using the Group capability.

Ravi might set up one group that includes only people from ACS.  All of his activity within that context will be visible only to people from ACS.  They don’t even need to be aware that any of this other contexts even exist.  Similarly, he can set up a group for school and one for family.  Each of these will constitute independent parallel contexts and are the key mechanism for unraveling his complex beige life.  Meanwhile, he can easily combine all of these contexts, and include the whole world, when he wants a broad distribution of a request for charity funding when he chooses to do so.

 

A Case Study 

The following is an example of the use of Tracky in a real-world activity:

South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) is one of the largest tech conferences in the world. It happens every March in Austin, Texas. It’s the event-of-the-year for startups seeking media attention and users, but it’s nearly impossible for their lean budgets to contend with the likes of Twitter and Foursquare. To make a splash, smaller players have to combine forces.
Las Vegas,NV is home to 250+ startups.   In the fall of 2012 the local Las Vegas tech scene decided to join together to create a disruptive SXSW experience (using the hashtag #VegasTech to bring it together).  In the end, #VegasTech successfully secured the largest pavilion at the trade show and organized and marketed two of the biggest parties at the 2013 conference. The community’s collaboration planning made such an impact that it garnered support from top SXSW officials and financial support from established Las Vegas businesses as well as local and state government and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

How did such a small, lean tribe manage to pull off such a large result?

 

Open Social Collaboration
In the beginning, there was enthusiasm. Gabe Shepherd (@gabeshep) instigated the idea and brought it to the community. After all, #VegasTech is a growing entity and the more attention it gets, the better chance the community has for longevity. Forbes has dubbed Vegas as the sixth best “new tech hot spot” due to its growth, collaborative vibe and dedicated leaders (such as Tony Hseih of Zappos and Rob Roy of Switch).

Promoting the tech community at SXSW had potential far-reaching implications for startups in need of media exposure and funding, drawing in specialized talent, and diversifying the local gaming-driven economy.

Gabe knew that passion and community alone weren’t enough to bring the idea to fruition. There were hundreds of tasks to coordinate. Since this was a community project, volunteer help was essential.  All sorts of people would need to pitch in – with disparate jobs and technology comfort zones. Email would be easy but it would be a management nightmare. Facebook groups could rope in people but couldn’t handle tasking workflows. Typical project management software could organize but it couldn’t provide the social engagement and public sharing that the project needed.

#VegasTech’s productivity solution needed to be disruptive: private and public, open and shared, individually accountable yet community-building. And everyone needed to jump in for free.

The Solution Was Tracky.


When passion, community and open collaboration come together, very big things can happen. Starting in the fall of 2012, #VegasTech focused efforts around a couple dozen high-level tracks which solicited community engagement on items like sponsorship, swag ideas, mobile app development, music talent acquisition, housing and travel logistics, volunteer needs and social sharing strategies. Many tracks were made public to encourage crowdsourcing beyond the 60+ group members.

Tracky allowed event organizers to share parts of the project via social networks, like Twitter and Facebook and still work privately on things that weren’t for public consumption. Public track sharing is a search strategy too. Because public “tracks” are crawled by search engines, anyone who searches the term “SXSW” or “Vegas Tech” will potentially see, in addition to the website, a link to the Tracky group and the actual public tracks themselves.  This gives the public opportunities to get involved and immediately jump into the conversation and share with others.

Those, along with the #Vegastech hashtag and personal relationships, were the catalysts for growing this successful event.

 

MOOCs: For Whom The Educational Bell Tolls

MOOC, telemedicine

 

 

A great debate is raging regarding MOOCs.  Some experts love them.  Some hate them.  And those that love them REALLY love them and those that hate them REALLY hate them.

Is it possible that a major point is being missed in the discussion?

The MOOC Debate

Consider the situation relative to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).

MOOCs are online courses that are generally free and open to anyone, with enrollment that is effectively unlimited.

MOOCs started around 2008 and have exploded since then.   Coursera , a major MOOC player, logged a million users within four months of its launch.  Many have noted that the rate of  MOOC growth is faster than Facebook [http://goo.gl/zDJRN].

MOOCs are typically presented in a lecture style, with little or no interaction between individual students and the teacher.   In many cases the students create peer assistance groups and other forms of self-help.  Some classes offer some form of credit but traditionally most do not offer credit that is recognized by existing institutions.

One of the most notable aspects of MOOCs is the size of the classes.  Enrollment can include 150,000 students.  Unfortunately, very few of those students typically complete the class.  It is rare for 20% of the students to finish a class with numbers under 10% being much more typical [http://goo.gl/DbNPl].

The supporters of MOOCs include some of the most elite universities, including top flight schools such as Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley as well as premier non-profits such as the Bill Gates Foundation.

The advantages the MOOC model have been summarized by Educause as the following [http://goo.gl/xJCSd]:

  • Its research-based methodology produces learning-optimized course architectures.
  • It is maximally effective because it individualizes learning.
  • It is efficient because it is competency based.
  • It is scalable.
  • It is cost-effective.

Some also note that MOOCs allow students to form social networks that, like those formed at elite universities, are often more important to professional success than the actual training they receive in the classes.

That “cost effective” point is one that is held most strongly by proponents.  Many view MOOCs as the way to “save” higher education.

Critics stress many concerns.  Some of the criticism involves the specific characteristics of MOOCs while much of the criticism is the natural reaction of traditional educators to something they feel is being “shoved down their throats” [http://goo.gl/IkbdF].

The view of the critics is summed up by the following statement:

MOOCs cost a lot of money, do not in any way simulate a classroom experience, and constitute—at best—the efficient yet static delivery of course content. The delivery of course content is not the same as education. And training students to perform technical tasks, such as doing basic equations in calculus, is not the same as education.

 

The Stakes

The intensity of the debate results from the fact that traditional institutions see MOOCs as an existential treat.  In particular, the large established institutions see them as a real threat.

Many institutions are facing funding issues and are engaging in campaigns that are designed to stress the importance of increasing funding levels to universities.  Along come MOOCs that undermine that campaign by claiming that they can teach students at a much lower cost.   Moreover, there are other forces in play that encourage young people to question the value of a traditional education.  The current trend in Silicon Valley is to lionize those who were accepted by top schools but then dropped out before completing.  Peter Thiel, a well-known investor, famously offered 24 sharp young people $100,000 each to skip college and move directly to start building their entrepreneurial dreams [http://goo.gl/E5Lwe].

The traditional institutions are not being petty or paranoid.  The MOOCs represent a real threat.  The penultimate bulwark for traditional schools is  the availability of course credit.  As long as MOOCs do not provide traditional course credit they will not make major inroads against traditional education.  That bulwark is cracking as the  American Council on Education has recently approved credit for five MOOC classes [http://goo.gl/M8G7E].

Those on each side of the debate are making valid points and counter-points.  Over time the discussion becomes very complex and very technical.  For example, MOOCs tend to be much more effective for informational and knowledge-based instruction and  less effective for “philosophical” programs.

Ultimately the trend toward MOOCs can be seen as part of the overall trend toward decentralization and disruption of traditional institutions.  If MOOCs do, in fact, disrupt existing institutions it will simply be one of many disruptions of massive modern institutions.

 

The Essential Question

Pushing aside much of the complexity, the essence of the question, in a very simplified form, boils down to following:  Which approach provides the best education for students?

Are students better served by traditional approaches that stress strong teacher involvement with a limited number of students or by online mechanisms that stress precanned presentations and “crowdsourcing” a deeper understanding of the material?

Just below this question is a corollary question :  How important are teachers in education?

In considering that question I recall the many teachers in my own life that made such a huge difference in my own educational process.  I remember an algebra teacher who helped me discover the excitement and adventure in algebra and a geometry teacher who showed me the elegance in the concept of a two-column proof.  Yet another teacher helped me recognize the beauty in music and in other art forms that can’t be realized in a two-column proof.

After being a student I enjoyed being a teacher.  There are few things as rewarding as helping a student develop their own thinking and understanding of the world.

As a part of this teaching experience I tutored algebra and calculus for many years.  After only a year of tutoring I realized that there were two kinds of students and two kinds of teaching.  There were some students that were really interested in algebra and some that were not.  Most of the “type two” students were simply there to pass the test and get a grade.  They had little or no interest in math.

Because there are two forms of students there are two forms of tutoring.  Type one is  all about helping students understand the underlying principles of mathematics and to discover the excitement of really internalizing those principles.  Type two is about teaching the naked mechanics of algebra.  Basically, the type two student needs to learn to “get the variable on one side of the equals sign and the numbers on the other” along with the various rules that allow that to happen.

In the end the traditional institutions are claiming that they do type one teaching and the “mass-production” MOOCs do type two teaching.

 

For Whom the Educational Bell Tolls

Although there are lively discussions on both sides of this issue they often miss one major point:  the answer to the question of which system provides the best education depends on how one defines the word student.  It might well be the case that one approach serves one class of students very well whereas the other approach serves another class of students more effectively.

Traditional schools, with solid teachers and well-established educational approaches provide amazing educations to the students that fall within their “target cohort.”  Traditional schools are designed to serve capable young people who have relatively few life attachments and have the time and money to devote years of their lives to highly concentrated study.  They are very effective in teaching students from that cohort.

Their value is far less clear for students outside that cohort.  Suppose the potential student is older and has family and job responsibilities.  Suppose the potential student is mid-career and is looking to gain the education required to make a fundamental job change.  There are many other life circumstances that disqualify the vast majority of potential students.

Meanwhile, it is very expensive to attend a traditional university, especially a top university.  Most potential American students will not even come close to being able to afford that cost.  A poor person living in the Bronx may well have the same capability, dreams, and aspirations as someone with more financial means.  But she  isn’t likely to end up in Harvard.  That is to say nothing of a person who lives in Togo, Africa.  He almost certainly doesn’t even know there is a Harvard, if he even knows there is a United States; and odds are his children won’t know either.

Referring to the top universities as “elite universities” has become a meme in American culture.    In general this is viewed as a mark of excellence but it can also have a pejorative reading.   They are, in fact, elite and they serve the elite and preserve the elite.

MOOCs demonstrate, if nothing else, that there is a huge pent-up demand for education.  They demonstrate that far more people want to learn than the current system can support.  Note that even if only 10% of a 100,000 class completes the process that still represents 10,000 people.   Many of those 10,000 people could never have received an equivalent education from a traditional institution.

In the end, the question of effectiveness of competing educational models depends heavily on which students are being considered.

The pressure coming from MOOCs will force the traditional institutions to consider ways in which they might be able to broaden the cohort that they serve without diluting the quality of the education they provide.

It will be interesting to see how this debate evolves.

 

Photo by Cikgu Brian

 

 

Flipside Workspace – Should You Use 3D Virtual Workspaces for Meetings?

3D virtual workspace, flipside, telework, virtual workI used to be CEO of a company that built 3D virtual workspaces for use in virtual meetings, training, rehearsal  and other business applications.  As a result of that role I’ve reviewed a host of virtual meeting environments and spent hundreds of hours in meetings held in 3D virtual workspaces.

Recently I discovered Flipside Workspace, a new 3D virtual work environment.

After spending some time in the environment I asked myself if I would choose Flipside if I were a company looking for a virtual meeting environment.  After some consideration I realized I was asking the wrong question, or at least was missing much of the point of Flipside.

Having said that, I think that 3D virtual workspaces are very valuable meeting environments, particularly as compared to other options:

3D Virtual Workspaces vs. Other Virtual Meeting Options

The most widely used option for virtual meetings is still audio conferencing.  They clearly work, since there are roughly 11 million audio conferences per day just in the US, but they also leave a lot to be desired.  How many hours have you spent in teleconferences, staring at a small speaker in the middle of a table while scratchy disembodied voices drifted up from it?  It’s often hard to tell who is speaking, voices are often not clear, and it is impossible to include visual information.

There are excellent web conferencing tools available and they provide powerful capabilities beyond simple audio conferencing.  The ability to have a shared view of slides, images, and videos provides a much stronger meeting environment.

Video conferencing adds the huge dimension of being able to actually see the participants in the meeting, however, most high-end video conferencing systems only operate in fixed locations and can’t be used in a mobile environment.

Meetings held in 3D virtual workspaces have huge benefits as compared to audio conferences and web conferences.  They provide almost all the capabilities of audio or web conferences but they also create a strong sense of presence.  (This “sense of presence” may not be immediately obvious but with extended usage it becomes very apparent.)  This strong visual environment improves engagement and interaction and helps provide participants with a strong visual memory of the meeting.

Unlike many video conferencing users, virtual meeting participants feel like they are in one room together in much the same way that they would in a physical conference room.   The use of avatars leads to much engagement and more human interactions among the participants. This visual participation can reduce unwanted “hidden multitasking.”

3D virtual workspaces also have great potential for adding capabilities that make them much more powerful than face-to-face meetings or video conferences.  Some of these can be very simple.  For example, given the graphical nature of the environment it’s possible to add labels to participants that display personal profile information when clicked.  On the more sophisticated end, importing 3D graphical objects  improves communication and collaboration regarding physical products.

In the near future we are likely to see language translation inserted into a virtual meeting environment and real-time translation can’t be too far off.  Automated virtual assistants will be attending the virtual meetings of the future and automated transcription services will provide records of all the conversations.

3D virtual workspace, telework, flipside

There are other benefits that may be less obvious.  One of the things that I observed  by attending many virtual meetings is that people who were naturally recessive came out much more strongly in meetings held in 3D virtual workspaces.  They are much more assertive than they ever were in any other form of meeting, including face-to-face meetings.  It seems that they were much more willing to step forward when acting behind the “security” of an avatar.  3D virtual workspaces are very valuable for the billions of business people who live in cultures that discourage contact between men and women.   They also hold great promise for bringing more disabled people into the workforce as well as for supporting continued employment for retiring baby boomers.

 

 

Addressing the Fundamental Issues in Virtual Work

Flipside can definitely support strong meetings.  They have resolved some of the primary technical issues that plagued 3D virtual workspaces in the past.  For example, most systems of the past required high-end graphics systems to execute properly and required large downloads and installs to begin operation.  They were also limited to desktop environments.   Flipside operates in a browser, does not require heavy downloads, is easy to use, and is mobile.

But back to my statement that I was wrong to think of Flipside as a meeting environment.

What I missed in my first analysis is that Flipside is much, much more than a meeting system.

 

Rather, it begins to address the most fundamental issues that have plagued virtual work forever.  Companies today are moving toward environments where much more of their workforce is virtual – whether from telework or mobile work.  Studies have shown that even though knowledge workers still have cubes those cubes often don’t have knowledge workers.  The majority of such cubes are vacant most of the time [http://goo.gl/PtWVj].

Companies around the globe are racing to reconfigure their physical spaces to emphasize shared common areas and hoteling cubes.  More and more employees are doing at least a significant part of their work at home or on the go.

This evolution creates a number of well-known problems.  Those who are working from home feel disconnected from their colleagues at work and they lose a sense of the office social environment.  Studies have shown that even those who remain full time in offices still feel  a loss of social interaction because so many of their companions are working outside the office [ http://goo.gl/EzlCQ]

Creating “common work areas” and dropping individual cubes may make for efficient building utilization but it creates huge problems for individual workers.  I recently participated in just such a transition for an enterprise company.  I spent several hours talking to an employee who was distraught about the transition.  I pointed out that he was rarely in his cube since he spends most of his time in a  hardware lab so I wasn’t sure why losing the cube was SUCH a big issue.  His answer was pretty simple:  ”Now I won’t have anywhere to hang my daughter’s picture.”

Issues associated with a loss of a sense of personal space and community participation are huge issues that companies must face as they seek to reconfigure both their work areas and their operational environments.

Those issues are the real reason there’s a Flipside Workspace.

 

Passive Perpetual Presence

Email and telephone are still the most widely used telework tools, which is telling in regard to what  is lacking with most online communication tools.  Why are email and telephone so popular? Of course, the obvious answer is they are familiar and easy to use.  But the less obvious answer is they are perpetual and personal.  “This is MY phone number and MY email address”.  It’s a way to be found, a way to be contacted, and a way to be connected at all times with minimal effort or invasiveness.  It’s passive presence.  And it is perpetual presence.   Those connections are always out there.  And they are yours, and yours alone.

Flipside is a virtual office environment, not a virtual meeting room.  Each person in flipside can have their own permanent office which they occupy for the entire workday.  There are conference rooms for large meetings, but any given worker will spend much of their day in their virtual office.

3D virtual workspace, telework, flipsideGiven this approach, Flipside Workspace provides the passive perpetual presence that is lacking with other forms of online meeting choices.  It is the place where mobile workers can “hang their hats” and be found without having to continuously set up meetings, or hangouts, or calls.   It is  the home base where workers can direct their colleagues and clients – “I’m in MY Flipside Workspace office 8-5”.  As a result, it is common to see workers who are simply sitting and chatting together in an office, much as they would a physical office.

This passive perpetual presence is rich in passive communications and visual cues that just aren’t present in email, telephone, web conferences, or even video conferences.  In Flipside, employees can visually see if the person they are trying to reach is available.   They can see if the worker is  busy conversing with someone else.  Their presence is observable, so a visitor can easily be included (or not) in an already ongoing conversation.  All of this provides an environment that is much more like a normal physical office environment.

 

Improved Online Experiences

Now back to that discussion about meetings.

Much of the problem that exists with online meetings isn’t about the technology that power the meetings, it’s about the lack of a surrounding environment and about the behavior of the meeting organizers and participants.   In Flipside, the goal is to mimic the experience of working in an office.  A meeting in an office doesn’t  start when the moderator takes the microphone, it starts before that…choosing your seat, saying “hi” to other participants, engaging with participants before the meeting starts and strengthening those professional relationships.

During the meeting, the experience includes seeing who is speaking and speaking up to clarify  ideas or words.  All of these behaviors are extremely difficult to mimic with existing virtual meeting technology, both because of the limitations of the technology itself and because they are designed to simply conduct meetings and don’t provide for a larger office environment.

 

Professionally Oriented Community

3D virtual workspaces, telework, virtual work,

Isolation is a commonly cited problem for those working from home.  In a physical office there are people around that you can bump into and ask quick questions.   Flipside Workspace provides a combination of passive perpetual presence and community

This combination recreates the experience of working in an office and eliminates those feelings of isolation while still maintaining the flexibility that

virtual work affords.

A company based in Flipside could have a receptionist who greets visitors during “office hours”, individual offices for workers, and the use of public spaces to invite casual interactions.   All of this contributes to making the Flipside users feel like they belong and that they have a  presence among their virtual peers.

All of this also allows companies to maintain a key corporate culture even as they transition to a hybrid of physical and virtual operation.

 

Here Come the Millennials

Whether you call them Millennials or GenY’s they are coming on strong and they have a natural affinity for virtual environments.  One of the things that I found most striking about watching users in 3D virtual workspaces is how strongly their reactions were associated with their demographic age group.    Older workers, who did not grow up with video games and Massively Multiplayer Online Games, sometimes struggled with the whole idea of avatars and resisted the idea of having to move them around.  Younger workers would pick up the interface in a matter of a few minutes simply because it was similar to what they had always known.

As those workers move up to dominate the workplace they will insist on the ability to work virtually and they will be expecting a Flipside-like environment to support it.

 

Flipside Workspace is pretty cool.  I recommend giving it a try.

 

[Thanks to Flipside Workspace for the photos.  Just for the record, I have no association with the company.]

 

 

ehealth – Buddy, Could You Spare Me A Kidney? 3D Printing A Miracle

kidney, 3D printing, ehealth, organ regeneration3D printing has come a long way since its inception in the late 1970s.

3D printing is a process that uses a printer to create a 3D object from a graphical model.  It is conceptually the opposite of creating objects through machining – a process that generally removes material from some base stock until the desired object appears.  3D printing is an additive process that lays down material layer by layer until the desired object emerges.

For many years 3D printing was largely a hobby interest, with sites like Shapeways  allowing users to create objects from models online while other companies providing home-devices that were designed for consumer use.

Over the last few years 3D printing has leaped forward and it has now reached the point where it is being broadly applied to create all kinds of objects including bicycles, guitars, bikinis, and every kind of shoe.  On the more controversial side, it is currently possible to use a 3D printer to create a gun and on the more wild side there are some who claim that we could use a giant 3D printer to make a house .  Perhaps pointing our way to the future, very sophisticated robotic 3D printers can create complex machines, including copies of themselves.

While all these applications are interesting, the real “miracle” applications for 3D printers are in the area of healthcare.

The interest in most 3D print applications is based on the fact that it is cheaper, faster, more precise, or simply that they  new and fascinating.  The interest in 3D printing for medical applications results from the fact that biological 3D printers might be used to create objects that are both life-saving and impossible to create in any other way.

The initial use of 3D printers for healthcare revolved around doing traditional 3D printing of physical objects that had medical applications – for example, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, and dentures.  Using 3D printers in this way reached a real milestone when a 3D printer was used to create a full jawbone for an 89 year old woman.  The artificial bone was created by printing  layers of heated titanium powder that were then finished with a bioceramic coating.

As useful as those applications may be, the really amazing application is  bioprinting – the use of 3D printers to form actual human tissue.   These 3D printers use a “bioink” which is made of living cell mixtures to build up human tissue. Using this  bioink the 3D printer builds up structures of cells, layer by layer, to form human tissue.

Although this approach clearly has a certain frankensteinian flavor, the potential applications are incredible.  In a must-see TED talk , Dr. Anthony Atala  not only discusses the possibility of using a 3D printer to create a human kidney, he actually demonstrates the creation of a prototype kidney during his talk.

I found this talk to be of particular interest because I remember vividly when my doctor told me that he needed to remove one of my kidneys.  In fact, he discussed the possibility of removing two.  Suddenly I could see myself wandering around the street with my hand out saying, “Buddy, could you spare me a kidney.”   It turned out that he didn’t actually go forward with the operation, but the prospect was sobering.  In fact, the need for kidney transplants is a very serious matter.  As Dr. Atala points out in his superb talk, 90% of the people on transplant waiting lists are waiting for a kidney.  Many of them will die while on the list.

What if we could simply print actual, functioning kidneys using a 3D printer and cellular material?  Dr. Atala points the way to the future of organ creation and the potential use of 3D printing in a variety of other medical areas.  It may well be many years before this vision become reality, but the prospect of this being the future is very, very real.

On the very cutting edge of the use of bio-printing, in February, 2013 it was announced that scientists used a 3D printer to create human embryonic stem cells for the first time.  This incredible process creates droplets of living cells that maintain their ability to develop into different types of cells.   It may even be possible to print such cells directly inside a body in the future.

This may well be the basis for actually growing new organs in the future and for realizing a variety of other medical goals that would have been considered complete science fiction not too many years ago.

It will be very interesting to see how the amazing technology develops in the coming years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Hey Paul Studios