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    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.


    The Weakest Link

    When an enterprise adopts an ERP system to support most or all administrative functions certain efficiencies are certain to be gained with the inherent integration of data. The list of employees entered in the HR module is automatically that same list available for Accounting and Procurement processes. The organization structures and physical location information is shared throughout the system, so fundamental changes need only be made once, in one place. From a technical perspective, there are often efficiencies and cost savings for be gained from the standardization of operating systems and core database technology. It becomes somewhat easier to find technical talent, as you can focus on candidates with very specific skills.

    But the advantages of central ERP are starting to hamper many HR departments’ ambitions to deploy more strategic Talent Management applications. ERP vendors have only recently begun to improve or augment their Talent Management functionality in order to provide a better solution set in this area, (which is the fastest growing sector in HR Technology). Many of these new features will require entire ERP system upgrades for HR departments to try and take advantage of. Remember, ERP upgrades require all components of the system go through the upgrade. So, if an HR department wants to deploy some new Talent functionality, they will have to rally support of Finance, Procurement, and possibly other areas to agree to submit to a major upgrade.

    Typically, (especially with Finance groups), those conversations do not go very well. The vast majority of finance departments prefer the reliable status quo. Can you even think of any great innovations in accounting software that would encourage a finance department to want to upgrade?

    Quite naturally, either for reasons of functionality, or inability to justify an ERP upgrade, many HR departments will gravitate to third-party best of breed solutions for Talent Management solutions. But then a new challenge faces HR, namely having to convince the IT department that the introduction of a new technology won’t lead to excessive integration work, potential security issues (many of best Talent solutions are SaaS offerings), and an increase in the overall support responsibility.

    So no matter which option HR chooses, some kind of internal conflict in likely to arise. For me, I am a staunch proponent of HR departments taking a strong position and advocating for the best overall solution, which more and more is a best-of-breed package. For many HR departments, the right move is to get off the ERP treadmill.

    That also could be the latest ERP upgrade I have been involved in has been an unabashed disaster, but that is a post for another day.


    Is Higher Ed that much different?

    A few weeks ago I discovered something that at the same time is both interesting and disappointing.  Simple searches for our 'brand' name on Flickr,  YouTube, and Facebook yield respectively an offensive (but amusing) photo, a video of a low point in the school's athletics past, and a whole bunch of unrelated garbage.

    I have brought this to the attention of a few colleagues and have more or less been met with questions, (What is Flickr?), amusement, and indifference.

    I have to think if we were Coca-Cola, or Walmart, or Wegmans, this would be very important to us. 

    But does this kind of presence (or lack therof) in the Web 2.0 world matter to higher education?

    I am thinking that it should.