Getting stuff done

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Getting stuff done.
Over the years that’s become one of my tag-lines. I enjoy making small incremental changes in an organization that add a big punch to results. That means overcoming organizational friction. That means doing things that are common sense. That means showing determination. That means seeing the end. That means not being afraid to fail.

My experience is that people and groups that get stuff done regularly are those that put results and innovation above rules and regulations. I’m not saying that we should abandon processes, rules, regulations, etc. But when the rules and regulations inhibit employees from thinking, acting, and producing work then the rules are no longer benefiting the organization because they become barriers to progress.

Seth Godin encourages people to “Start Something” in his book Poke the Box.  Godin describes his seventh imperative “have the guts and the heart and the passion to ship.” He encourages people to poke, prod, try, and start initiatives. It’s the way true innovation is discovered.  

Steven Pressfield calls resistance the enemy in his book “Do the Work”. Pressfield promotes beginning over planning. His point it to overcome resistance by getting started. Then measure, adjust, rework along the way to make your output satisfying.

Why I like it.
I have a colleague that works as a usability analyst/engineer for our eCommerce sites. She combines her knowledge of usability with analytics data as a basis for making what would seemingly be small changes to an internet experience. She might suggest things like moving the locations of input fields, adding a cross-sell prompt, or changing the placement of a banner. Time and time again, her changes have proved effective at driving incremental sales in an eCommerce environment where the customer came with the intention to just reorder a depleted supply of single product.

I like this style of work because it shows that empowering those closest to the end-customer to make decisions drives good results. The analysis and decisioning is made close to the customer, not by an executive committee.  The people closest to the work are those who are most likely to battle resistance to get stuff done.

What it means.
This doesn’t mean that large project teams chartered by executive committees with big budgets can’t and don’t get work done. But these big teams are comprised of individuals and it is the individuals who overcome the resistance that get work done. Committees are easy targets for inefficiency and stagnation unless the group members find a way to just get started.

So get started. Do the work. Get stuff done. Find way that you can help to drive change.

Flipping the classroom

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I have often thought that I would have enjoyed a career in academia.
I loved being a student. For some classes it was the thrill of the material and learning. For other classes, where I wasn’t as connected to the material, I was drawn to the game of education and making the best possible grade. At Georgia Tech, some of the early core classes were graded on a curve, so the game was definitely “on” for top grades.

But as I reflect on it now, I enjoyed more than the subjects, topics, and grades of being a student. It was the whole system of life. In college I had some flexibility in designing a schedule (afternoon classes vs morning) and then chose how to break-up my day. I was pretty disciplined in college so I never had an issue of neglecting course load for social activities. But yet I had time for social activities with a fraternity and other organizations. I could change my study schedule around a little if needed to accommodate whatever I wanted to do on any particular day.

Good students don’t necessarily make good teachers. But I think I could have been a good one. I volunteered as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher for eight years and found the classroom environment and student interaction to be energizing. I don’t pretend that teaching once a week for an hour is the same as rigors and challenges for teaching full time. But my teaching experience did fit within my overall enjoyment of the world of academia.

Getting technology into the classroom.
But I chose a different path. I’m a technology guy that keeps learning through reading, discussing, and experimenting. This past weekend I read an interesting article about a school that is flipping the classroom by using video in the out-of-school environment. The idea is to tape the base teaching lesson so that students view the lesson outside the classroom. Then during class time students go through what traditionally be homework exercises alongside the instructor(s).

The problem this solves is removing the frustration at home when the student needs help from the parents, but the material is too complex for the parents to help. In this model the student has direct access to the teacher for help while completing the exercises.

For the teacher, this type of system provides new ways to relay and teach information. They can use different techniques such as labs, lectures, or travel to record the course material. Taping the material ahead of time could allow them flexibility to capture additional items might not be able to in a classroom setting.

Whether or not you agree with this approach is not the point.
This type of frame work still requires discipline on the students part to watch the videos. I found myself asking would a student be more likely to watch a video or work problems at home? But then I realized the bigger picture. This group of teachers is searching for ways to improve education through technology. They are experimenting, as a marketer would do, to measure the success of new teaching techniques. What works for one class (small group of students), may not work as well for the next class. Much of the success and failure of a particular technique will be based on the personality of the class and the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals within it.

As a parent, I totally get the problem this solves. I’ve been in the situation with a high-school student asking me for help on homework. While I was confident I could research and find the answer, I wasn’t able to do it immediately. It’s frustrating for everyone involved. So I applaud the efforts of this teaching team to look for solutions. I like their use of technology and fitting it into a model the students will relate to.

Windows 8. I get it now.

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Do you understand Windows 8?
I upgraded a machine with Windows 8 Preview to Windows 8 Pro over the weekend. The preview copies from Microsoft have a January 2013 expiration date, so I had to do this at some point or abandon my preview. I did enjoy playing with Windows 8 and captured my initial thoughts back in August with a post entitled Microsoft’s bold new move.

It’s not surprising that the Metro style interfaceof Windows 8 has created a buzz with tech media and bloggers. It is a dramatically new look for the Windows desktop that everyone is comfortable using. Change creates opinions.

The start page of Windows 8. Tiled application blocks.

But it’s not a dramatically new look if you think about the devices that most of us are using more and more of these days. As I was setting up applications on the Metro style start page a light went off in my head. I already recognized the new design was made with tablets and mobile devices in mind because the design is much easier to navigate with a touch screen.  But before today, I was focused on the difference in the user interface as departure of the traditional PC interface. Now I see that Windows 8 is Microsoft’s way to begin to transition the PC experience to be identical to the mobile and tablet experience. The idea is that regardless of which device you use, you can still maintain the same experience. With the heavy reliance and interactivity on a Microsoft online account, it’s possible to keep much of the same content inside the experience as well (“To the cloud!”).

There’s an app for that.
In a world known for multi-taksing we have become comfortable with a mobile interface that encourages uni-tasking. Our phones and tablets can support multiple running programs. But think about how we typically use these devices. That would be one application at a time. Find your app tile, click it, and go. Even though that’s mostly driven by space considerations (you can’t have multiple windows showing on your phone), the Metro start page for Windows 8 follows the same design principles.

What does it mean for the business customer?
I still believe Microsoft’s biggest challenge with the new interface will be in business adoption. Productivity and efficiency are key considerations for business usage of computing devices. Creating change is like creating disruption and business leaders don’t like disruption to their environment.

Think about the multi-tasking model of the traditional Windows environments. You can have multiple Windows open and bounce back and forth between them. That’s not really the model of the application tile interface. So it’s good that Microsoft left a way to get the traditional desktop in Windows 8. This will help make adoption and transition within the business environment smoother.

Navigation with a keyboard and mouse will be a challenge.
Try as a I might, I have found it awkward to push the mouse to the corners of the screen for menus. So I printed out a list of the Windows 8 keyboard shortcuts to help get the menus to appear faster. Others may not be as patient as I am and I’m already a keyboard junkie from early days in Unix.

Do I get it?
So when you think Windows 8 think about your phone.  Think about apps and tiles. That’s what it’s really about.

BTW – In case you were wondering, I haven’t given up my beloved Ubuntu Linux device. My Windows machine is a secondary device used mostly by other family members.

Distance education continues to expand

The need for business innovation is constant.
I was talking to a friend this week about changes in the banking industry sparked by advancements in technology. The conversation topics included the importance of physical bank branches today and the future of branches for banks in the future. During our discussion I said that all industries must continually reinvent themselves through innovative changes.

Now I realize that wasn’t a breaking-news revelation. But within the context of our conversation it was meant to summarize the changes in business over the past several years brought on by the rapid advancement of technology. Who would have thought that brands like Borders Books and Circuit City would have hit the wall? Our banking discussion was about the impact of technology on banking transactions and why people still needed a physical branch. Many banking industry analysts are talking about this in great detail including Jim Marous and Brett King.

What about education?
New models for providing higher education are appearing now and already beginning to challenge the traditional model for education that we all know. What’s not to like about completing high school and then leaving home to grow-up and find yourself all within the safety of an educational environment? But several things are happening to challenge this model. One is the cost of a college education continues to rise and not only are many families seeking alternative ways to obtain a degree, but universities are searching for new models to help manage costs.

Some of my friends have sent their kids to local community colleges to complete the early core classes. Then later they may transfer to a larger school away from home. More and more of my friends are keeping their kids at schools in-state because of the higher priced tuition for out-of-state students.

What about remote education delivered to you on-demand?
I recently read a Google+ post from my alma mater Georgia Tech about a relatively new startup named Coursera that is partnering with universities to provide courses online for free. Why not? We have wide spread availability of high bandwidth. We have tools to capture video and display it for common use both immediately and recorded. It doesn’t require additional physical infrastructure for schools, it’s scalable to more reach more students, and it provides reach beyond local geographic boundaries. The challenge for Coursera, as with many businesses offering the core service for free, is how to make a profit with the business model.

Remote course delivery is now an important piece of the overall education portfolio for colleges and universities and will continue to grow in the coming years. But as with Coursera, the bigger challenge of remote content delivery is not with the technology. The challenge is rooted in the business models and marketing used to attract and retain students while still making a profit.

My first-hand experience.
I was on the leading edge of distance education when I entered and completed an online masters degree from Auburn University. The program had two options to receive content: DVDs for taped class room lectures or online streaming. Exams were mailed by the school to my place of employment where a local human resources manager would proctor the exam (I reserved a conference room). I had the ability to converse with other students through online tools and email.

Watch this trend in the coming years. Look to see how universities reach students through remote delivery. Maybe the discussions about the future of the on-campus college experience are not wide spread right now, but as tuition costs continue to rise above inflation and communication technology continues to advance, competition in the education industry will continue to create alternative models.