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    We interrupt our regularly scheduled blogging

    I was planning my next post to be on the simplest conference call scheduling tool out there, Rondee, that small companies can utilize to set up quick, free conference calls.  But since I foolishly left the files with all my Rondee screen prints on my work PC and did not upload them to Box, I have to switch gears.

    Tonight I attended my first class session in Facilitation Skills, and the single thing that stood out to me the most, was the challenges and difficulties for some of the foreign students, and for the hearing-impaired students.  Much of this class centers around effective faciliation of meetings and group activities, and I can't even begin to imagine the extra burden these students have to overcome.  In addition to mastering the content, they still may have to struggle with the basic elements of spoken English communication.

    And I am reminded of an activity I ran in my last class session of the HR Technology class that I teach.  I had all the students register in Second Life, and we had sort of a 'company' meeting in the virtual RIT Island.  It went fairly well, one or two students never did get fully 'alive' in SL, but most did and I think we had a good learning experience.

    But what struck me about the Second Life meeting the most, was that one of my students who was hearing impaired absolutely came to life in the Second Life meeting.  She was the most active, positive and generally the best participant. I have to think that was at least in part due to the normal obstacles or barriers she has to face every day were eliminated in Second Life.  In our meeting, all communcation was text chat, it did not matter that she was hearing impaired.  The technology levelled the field for her and suddenly she really showcased her talent .

    I got into this HR Technology stuff never realizing the power and capability of new technologies to really make a difference to people, but more than ever I believe that the right technologies can be truly transformative.


    Simple group chat

    Looking for a really simple and inexpensive group chat solution to allow your employees, contractors, consultants, and even customers to share information and interact in real time?  Then check out a product from 37signals called Campfire.

    Campfire is a web-based group chat tool that allows multiple people to chat, like in a normal IM session.  But the real strength of Campfire is that chat participants can upload and share files, images, and all users can access the uploaded content in real-time.  Transcripts for the chat sessions are saved and can be reviewed later.

    Campfire is ridiculously easy to use, and the pricing plans start at $12/month to support up to 12 simultaneous chatters.  There is even a free plan that allows 4 people to use Campfire at the same time, (with a smaller file size upload limitation).

    I have used Campfire to quickly organize group brainstorming sessions, especially ones in which the contents of a document needed to be discussed.  It is a great tool, and you should check it out if trying to get teams working together more efficiently.


    Corporate IM in 5 minutes

    For a time there was quite a bit of debate about the merits of instant messaging in the workplace. Many managers and executives viewed IM as a distraction and a tool that needed to be kept off the desktops and browsers of their staffs.  But over time, and as more workers already familiar with IM began entering the workforce, the IM walls began to come down.

    For many job roles, the ability to ask quick questions and get immediate replies proved so beneficial, that even the most stodgy, traditional environments relented to the employee's desire for IM tools.  Many employees simply started using their personal IM accounts (usually AOL Instant Messenger) and started making connections via IM with their most utilized contacts. 

    Of course AOL is not the only popular IM service, competing offerings from Microsoft and Yahoo also have their share of users. Bringing all these disparate IM accounts together under one application proved to be important (particularly for the corporate user) so services like Trillian were developed.  The Trillian application lets users log in to multiple IM services through one interface, and simplifies contact and buddy list management.

    But there could still be a barrier to the use of corporate IM, that is IT departments.  Initially, these IM services all required a small application to be downloaded and installed on each individual PC.  Many organizations restrict the end user's ability to install any programs on their computers, thus requiring IT involvement and sometimes permission. So many potential corporate users of IM were essentially shut out. In time, Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL did roll out web-based versions of their IM clients, but for many, the initial struggle with downloading clients ended their IM initiatives.

    Enter web-based IM services.  There are many competitors in this area, but my favorite and the best one is Meebo. Meebo lets you sign in to multiple IM services (AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Google), all from one unified Meebo account.  It is entirely web-based so it requires no IT involvement, and works from any place you can connect to the Internet.  Meebo even has the ability to create group chat rooms, and chat windows that you can embed on your corporate website, intranet, or wiki.

    Best of all is the price - free!  If you are in a small to medium size organization looking to take a very small step into collaborative technology, then have your employees create Meebo accounts, create a few chat rooms and try some Im-ing. The benefits your staff will realize from the 'instant' nature of the communucation and feedback will impress you.

    In the next post I will take a look at a more robust platform for corporate chat, Campfire from 37signals.


    Consistently mediocre

    My alma mater, my beloved South Carolina Gamecocks are starting their football season tonight, and like every year I am full of hope, but realistic, fully expecting the team's eventual, inevitable return to mediocrity.  It just seems like no matter what happens, the team will always be a middle of the pack, average team.  They will occasionally have a fantastic victory or two, but then suffer a humiliating defeat to an opponent that, at least on paper, they should easily conquer.  They always seem to 'find their level' of averageness (is that a word)?

    Why can't they make the leap to consistent success?  What is the barrier to make the breakthrough?

    Perhaps your organization is in a similar situation.  You are good, not great, at what you do.  Your employees are reasonably happy, (but how many of them would leave if a better opportunity came along?).  You are a solid, if uninteresting place to work.

    The key question for an organization like that, as well as the Gamecock team, is what can we do to make the jump from good to outstanding?

    I think it has to start with the employees.  Give them the right tools, access to information, and freedom to explore, innovate, collaborate, and sometimes, even fail.  My next few posts will focus on specific technologies and tools to help do just that.


    Put a real user on the team

    Many vendors like to tout their system's 'Ease of Use', but ease of use is much more than a cool interface and some neat Web 2.0 embeds.  Too much flash may actually detract from 'real' users ability to perform their jobs.

    Most software evaluation projects I have seen have forgotten one critical factor: the inclusion of a 'real' user on the evaluation team.  The Director of HR or the Assistant Director of Recruiting are not usually 'real' users.  If you are reveiwing a core HRMS, get one of your HR services staff on the team.  If you are testing out a new Applicant Tracking system, get a front-line recruiter AND one of your important hiring managers involved early.

    When I see some of the cool new systems and user interfaces I always remind myself that the easiest to use system for a real user that I ever have seen was old school Oracle R10.4. It was black and white, character based, and all commands were keystrokes, not mouse clicks. Once a power user got the hang of it, an employee record or a AP Invoice could be entered without the user ever looking at the screen.  Try doing that with any of today's modern use interfaces.

    I am not saying that those old character based systems were better than what we have today, but I am cognizant that most every new feature and capability has the potential to make the system more difficult and complex to use, and the best way to understand that before it is too late is to include 'real' users on the evaluation team.