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May 26, 2005

Wikipedia, an encyclopedia for open culture

Have you visited the wikipedia lately? If not, I suggest you take a look. Wikipedia is billed as “the free-content encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” The half-million page English version covers a spectrum of information from culture and geography to society and technology. Want to know something about stem cells? Wikipedia will help you understand the differences between embryonic, adult and cord blood stem cells. Looking for something lighter? How about Cirque du Soleil, the circus without animals based in Montreal Canada.

There is a wide variety of information in the wikipedia. How did it get there? Who contributes? In the spirit of freedom, subject matter experts and laypeople volunteer their time and energy to create and edit the content. I can’t even imagine how many man-hours it has taken to generate 500,000+ articles. And wikipedia isn’t limited to the English language. In March there were 92 “active” language editions.

What about the information quality? What is the impact of open editing on the content? Wikipedia’s supporters point to the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have the ability to view, comment, and change the information. In effect, you have thousands of editors. Are there mistakes? Sure. But major errors are corrected quickly.

So visit the wikipedia today. Search on your favorite subject and judge for yourself. If you have time, contribute; if not, enjoy the freedom.

Be sure to check out other parts of the wikipedia universe too.

Posted by admin at 09:06 AM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2005

3 Tools to Improve Communications

Weblogs, or blogs, are the latest tools sweeping the online communication space. First appearing in the late 90s, blogs became mainstream in the 21st century. The simple reverse chronological format makes it easy to present information and archive it too. Most blogs are written by authors and consumed by readers in a one-way information flow. But, the option exists to allow comments on the blog increasing the interaction among participants. Starting a blog is easy; blog hosting sites like Blogger, LiveJournal make it easy to get started. Server side tools exist too: Moveable Type, bBlog, and WordPress. Once you’ve started, keep the content fresh for your reader is the challenge.

Stay tuned for the next evolution in blogging: podcasting.

A wiki is a collaborative form of web-based software that allows users to add content or edit the existing content. Using a simple syntax, wiki systems render pages in the more complicated HyperText Markup Language (HTML). Since anyone can modify a wiki page, wikis use version control to keep track of changes. Some wikis like TWiki allow you to attach files or documents to your wiki pages. These files are also version controlled, in essence giving you a simple web-based repository for your information. Wikis are not as well known as their cousin, the blog, but their ability to be configured into a collaboration site makes them powerful in a different way. The largest wiki in the world is the Wikipedia.

Discussion Forums
While a blog is basically a one-way flow of information and wikis allow free-for-all content management, discussion boards or message boards capture the question/answer paradigm. How many times have you written an email, CCed, a group of people, and tried to capture all the results? Simple email software, even using the threading options, make this difficult to do. Forum software allows you to post a question and read the answers in a threaded list. Usually part of an existing website or online community, message boards have been around for a long time and originated before the Internet as part of dial-up Bulletin Board Systems (BBS).

At Llamawerx, we’ve used each of these tools in different ways. Right now, you are interacting with our blog Llamatrax. Our Intranet is organized around a wiki where our employees can capture information and documentation. Finally our jetsetjr website combines a blog and discussion forum to create an online community for traveling with children. Choose your tools wisely to maximize dialog with your customers. Like a good carpenter will tell you, everything isn’t a nail.

Posted by admin at 10:03 AM | Comments (0)

May 10, 2005

Do you Grok?

You might google, but do you grok? The latest technology sweeping internet search is visualization. Up until now, search engines have produced results in a linear list. Sometimes an overwhelming list! I don’t know about you, but my mind is far from linear. I’m constantly arranging, grouping and sorting things. Grokker, www.grokker.com, does this for search results. By visualizing related search results using concentric circles, you see relationships that may not have been obvious. The online demo is powered by Yahoo Search, but a downloadable, free-trial version searches other services, including Amazon and your hard disk. What about bookmarked results? With gokker, bookmarks are old news. Instead, just save your maps. You can even share them via email.

What are you waiting for? Start grokking!

Posted by admin at 09:32 AM | Comments (0)

May 04, 2005

7 Project Danger Signals

We’ve all been on projects that we knew were in trouble – you may even be on one now. Many times, the words and actions of the team members telegraph the troubles. Be on the lookout for these seven danger signals.

“It’s not in the spec.” How many times have you heard that? While there can’t be a “spec-of-the-day”, success depends on flexibility. Remember, you are developing the project to fulfill a business need. If the needs change or evolve, the project must change with it.

“You want what? A demo?” If your team looks at you in disbelief when you ask for a demo, be worried. If they point to reams of documentation instead, be especially worried. Remember, projects exist to solve business needs and the need probably isn’t documentation. In all likelihood, the goal is a “working” system and what better way to judge that than a demo.

“Oops, I forgot that.” If a task is repetitive, most people will try to optimize it. If the project plan calls for the “big-bang” final integration, that’s what you can expect – a “big-bang”. On the other hand, if you build, integrate and test from day one, delivery can be as smooth as silk. The surest way to streamline a process is to put the optimizing power in the team’s hands.

“Fill out a form.” Don’t even get me started on this one. If you hear this around your team, you probably don’t have a team.

team n. A group organized to work together

Ask yourself, “Do these forms facilitate teamwork or impede it?”

“I don’t have time; I’m always in a meeting.” Groan. Even if this isn’t true, I would wager it’s the perception in 90% of organizations. In many meetings, information flows one-way: top-down. Question whether attendees are actually communicating; explore alternative channels for passive information. Guard against “meeting paralysis.”

“I’m waiting on so-and-so to finish.” Dependencies are a fact of life in complex projects. That’s why a team is involved. But if your team grinds to a halt waiting on someone – beware. Be on the lookout for choke points; encourage teamwork to resolve roadblocks.

“Everything’s fine. No problem.” Two words come to mind: Titanic and iceberg. While a positive attitude goes a long way, realistic communications must be the rule. Tough questions require honest answers; don’t be blindsided by false optimism or misplaced ego.

Are you hearing any of these on your projects? Do you have your own set of signals you listen for? Share them with us at talkback@llamawerx.com.

Posted by admin at 03:00 PM | Comments (0)

The project manager is your friend

If you’re the developer, you are doubting my words. Most developers think the project manager is the enemy. If you’re a project stakeholder, you are doubting my words. Most stakeholders think the project manager is ineffective and can’t bring the project in on time. If you’re the project manager, you are definitely doubting my words. Everyone runs and hides when you come to see them, right?

Maybe I should change the title. Maybe the title should be – “The project manager should be your friend”. Why is this such a difficult position? Why do project managers seem so ineffective? Let’s look at a few ways to make this position less disliked and more effective in your organization.

Don’t put your weakest person in the job. The project manager needs to be strong. He needs to be competent and he needs to understand what the developer is saying. Translating between development and business stakeholders is not a task for the weak or technically challenged.

Don’t put your most abrasive person in the job. This job requires tact. It requires facilitation, mediation and patience. A PM must work with people of varying backgrounds and personalities. To be effective, he needs to get along.

Make your project manager more than a schedule tracker. The project manager needs to have decision making authority. He needs to be able to adjust functionality requirements if warranted. The stakeholder must allow him some autonomy in this regard. If checking on schedule slippages and task completion percentages without regard for the task at hand is your PM’s sole function, he’ll be disliked and ineffective.

Don’t give the PM an impossible task. Successful projects are hard. Completing them on time and on budget is even harder. Setting unrealistic goals gets the team off on the wrong foot and makes the PM a target from the start.

Listen to your PM. That’s why you hired him. That’s why you put him in this position. He’s in the trenches every day. He’s in tune with his project, so listen to him.

Choosing the right person to be your PM can be one of the toughest jobs you’ll ever have. The right balance of technical ability, communication skills and business acumen is a tough combination. Finding the right person with just the right skills can make all the difference in your project’s success and will provide a significant ROI for this and future projects. So – use our hints and your best judgment and take the time to find the right candidate.

Posted by admin at 02:40 PM | Comments (0)

Who says the customer is always right?

Customer service. The bane of every industry, right? The customer is always complaining or wanting more for less money. They don’t know anything, so you put your least qualified people on as your customer service/technical support people, right?

What if we took another approach? Could customer service turn into a way to generate new business prospects? Will the customer referral generated from one top notch service rep cinch the biggest deal in company history? Taking a positive attitude towards the customer and servicing their needs starts with a few basic principles.

Keep an open mind. Maybe Al Whiner is usually prone to calling when it’s a user error, but there is always the possibility that he has a genuine problem. The customer service representative must be open to that possibility.

Really Listen. Customer service representatives often deal with a few recurring problems. Sometimes, when a customer calls up and starts describing the issue, the representative tunes out; having already decided what the issue is and what the resolution should be. Key points may be missed.

Don’t assume. The old adage about assumptions continues to ring true. If the representative has followed through with an open mind and good listening ears, this one should come easy. Reiterate, in your own words, what the customer has stated the problem to be. Have the customer fill in any gaps in your understanding. Don’t fill them in based on assumptions.

Be empathetic. If customers didn’t call in with problems, you might not have a job. Picture yourself in their place. They paid for a working product/service and something isn’t working. Remember how you felt the last time you had a product fail you? What were your expectations from technical support when you called for help? You represent your company; apologize for the inconvenience and be helpful. It’s your job.

Follow up. Make sure the issue is resolved. If further action is needed, ensure it happens. Call the customer back to make sure they are satisfied. If they weren’t before, this follow up will certainly work in your favor.

There are many other obvious tips that could be mentioned; most of them involving common sense. Above all, remember to be courteous and professional. Be apologetic and don’t hesitate to ask for clarification. Let the customer know you value their business and they’ll come back for more. Finally, survey your customers to see just how well you’re doing.

Posted by admin at 02:14 PM | Comments (0)