Tag Archives: remote access

The Future Of Technology

Jean_Dodal_Tarot_trump_01…is the name of the track that I am co-facilitating at NTEN’s Leading Change Summit. I’m a late addition, there to support Tracy Kronzak and Tanya Tarr. Unlike the popular Nonprofit Technology Conference, LCS (not to be confused with LSC, as the company I work for is commonly called, or LSC, my wife’s initials) is a smaller, more focused affair with three tracks: Impact Leadership, Digital Strategy, and The Future of Technology. The expectation is that attendees will pick a track and stick with it.  Nine hours of interactive sessions on each topic will be followed by a day spent at the Idea Accelerator, a workshop designed to jump-start each attendee’s work in their areas. I’m flattered that they asked me to help out, and excited about what we can do to help resource and energize emerging nptech leaders at this event.

The future of technology is also something that I think about often (hey, I’m paid to!) Both in terms of what’s coming, and how we (LSC and the nonprofit sector) are going to adapt to it. Here are some of the ideas that I’m bringing to LCS this fall:

  • At a tactical level, no surprise, the future is in the cloud; it’s mobile; it’s software as a service and apps, not server rooms and applications.
  • The current gap between enterprise and personal software is going to go away, and “bring your own app” is going to be the computing norm.
  • Software evaluation will look more at interoperability, mobile, and user interface than advanced functionality.  In a world where staff are more independent in their software use, with less standardization, usability will trump sophistication.  We’ll expect less of our software, but we’ll expect to use it without any training.
  • We’ll expect the same access to information and ability to work with it from every location and every device. There will still be desktop computers, and they’ll have more sophisticated software, but there will be less people using them.
  • A big step will be coming within a year or two, when mobile manufacturers solve the input problem. Today, it’s difficult to do serious content creation on mobile devices, due primarily to the clumsiness of the keyboards and, also, the small screens. They will come up with something creative to address this.
  • IT staffing requirements will change.  And they’ll change dramatically.  But here’s what won’t happen: the percentage of technology labor won’t be reduced.  The type of work will change, and the distribution of tech responsibility will be spread out, but there will still be a high demand for technology expertise.
  • The lines between individual networks will fade. We’ll do business on shared platforms like Salesforce, Box, and {insert your favorite social media platform here}.  Sharing content with external partners and constituents will be far simpler. One network, pervasive computing, no more firewalls (well, not literally — security is still a huge thing that needs to be managed).

This all sounds good! Less IT controlling what you can and can’t do. Consumerization demystifying technology and making it more usable.  No more need to toss around acronyms like “VPN.”

Of course, long after this future arrives, many nonprofits will still be doing things the old-fashioned ways.  Adapting to and adopting these new technologies will require some changes in our organizational cultures.  If technology is going to become less of a specialty and more of a commodity, then technical competency and comfort using new tools need to be common attributes of every employee. Here are the stereotypes that must go away today:

  1. The technophobic executive. It is no longer allowable to say you are qualified to lead an organization or a department if you aren’t comfortable thinking about how technology supports your work.  It disqualifies you.
  2. The control freak techie.  They will fight the adoption of consumer technology with tooth and claw, and use the potential security risks to justify their approach. Well, yes, security is a real concern.  But the risk of data breaches has to be balanced against the lost business opportunities we face when we restrict all technology innovation. I blogged about that here.
  3. The paper-pushing staffer. All staff should have basic data management skills; enough to use a spreadsheet to analyze information and understand when the spreadsheet won’t work as well as a database would.
  4. Silos, big and small. The key benefit of our tech future is the ability to collaborate, both inside our company walls and out. So data needs to be public by default; secured only when necessary.  Policy and planning has to cross department lines.
  5. The “technology as savior” trope. Technology can’t solve your problems.  You can solve your problems, and technology can facilitate your solution. It needs to be understood that big technology implementations have to be preceded by business process analysis.  Otherwise, you’re simply automating bad or outdated processes.

I’m looking forward to the future, and I can’t wait to dive into these ideas and more about how we use tech to enhance our operations, collaborate with our community and constituents, and change the world for the better.   Does this all sound right to you? What have I got wrong, and what have I missed?

Telecommuting Is About More Than Just The Technology

We’ve hit the golden age of telework, with myriad options to work remotely from a broadband-connected home, a hotel, or a cafe on a mobile device. The explosion of cloud and mobile technologies makes our actual location the least important aspect of connecting with our applications and data. And there are more and more reasons to support working remotely. Per Reuters, the state of commuting is a “virtual horror show”, with the average commute costing the working poor six percent of their income. It’s three percent for more wealthy Americans. And long commutes have negative impacts on health and stress levels. Add to this the potential cost savings if your headquarters doesn’t require an office or cubicle for every employee. For small NPOs, do you even really need an office? Plus, we can now hire people based on their absolute suitability to the job without requiring them to relocate. It’s all good, right?

Well, yes, if it’s done correctly.  And a good remote work culture requires more than seamless technology. Supervisors need to know how to engage with remote employees, management needs to know how to be inclusive, and the workers themselves need to know how to maintain relationships without the day to day exposure to their colleagues.  Moving to a telework culture requires planning and insight.  Here are a few things to consider.

Remote Workers Need To Be Engaged

I do my best to follow the rule of communicating with people in the medium that they prefer. I trade a lot of email with the people who, like me, are always on it; I pick up the phone for the people who aren’t; I text message with the staff that live on their smartphones. But, with a remote employee, I break that rule and communicate, primarily, by voice and video.  Emoticons don’t do much to actually communicate how you feel about what your discussing.  Your voice and mannerisms are much better suited for it.  And having an employee, or teammate, that you don’t see on a regular basis proves the old adage of “out of sight, out of mind”.

 In Person Appearances Are Required

For the remote worker to truly be a part of the organization, they have to have relationships with their co-workers.  Accordingly, just hiring someone who lives far away and getting them started as a remote worker might be the worst thing that you can do for them.  At a minimum, requiring that they work for two to four weeks at the main office as part of their orientation is quite justified.  For staff who have highly interactive roles, you might require a year at the office before the telework can commence.

Once the position is remote, in-person attendance at company events (such as all staff meetings and retreats) should be required. When on-site isn’t possible, include them via video or phone (preferably video). On-site staff need to remember them, and not forget to include them on invites. Staff should make sure that they’re in virtual attendance once the event occurs.

Technical Literacy Requirements Must Be High

It’s great that the remote access tech is now so prevalent, but the remote worker still needs to be comfortable and adept with technology.  If they need a lot of hand-holding, virtual hands won’t be sufficient.  Alternatively, the company might require (and/or assist with) obtaining local tech support.  But, with nonprofit IT staffing a tight resource, remote technophobes can make for very time-consuming customers. Establishing a computer-literacy test and making it a requirement for remote work is well-advised; it will ease a lot of headaches down the road.

Get The Policies In Place First

Here’s what you don’t want: numerous teleworkers with different arrangements.  Some have a company-supplied computer, some don’t.  The company pays for one person’s broadband account, but not another’s. One person has a company-supplied VOIP phone, the other uses their personal lines. I’ve worked at companies where this was all subject to hiring negotiations, and IT wasn’t consulted. What a nightmare! As with the office technology, IT will be much more productive if the remote setups are consistent, and the remote staff will be happier if they don’t feel like others get special treatment.

Go Forth And Telecommute

Don’t let any of this stop you — the workforce of the future is not nearly as geography bound as we’ve been in the past, and the benefits are compelling.  But understand that company culture is a thing that needs to be managed, and managed all the more actively when the company is more virtual.

Tech Tips From The Nonprofit Technology Conference

This article was first published on the Idealware Blog in May of 2010.

Last month, I reported on the first annual Tech Track, a series of sessions presented at the April, 2010 Nonprofit Technology Conference. In that post I listed the topics covered in the five session track. Today I want to discuss some of the answers that the group came up with.

Session 1: Working Without a Wire

This session covered wireless technologies, from cell phones to laptops. Some conclusions:

The state of wireless is still not 100%, but it’s better than it was last year and it’s still improving Major metropolitan areas are well covered; remote areas (like Wyoming) are not. There are alternatives, such as Satellite, but that still requires that your location be in unobstructed satellite range. All in all, we can’t assume that wireless access is a given, and the challenge is more about managing staff expectations than installing all of the wireless by ourselves. It will get there.
Wireless security options are improving. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), remote access solutions (such as Citrix, VNC andTerminal Services) are being provided for more devices and platforms, and the major smartphone companies are supporting enterprise features like remote device wipes.
Policy-wise, more orgs are moving to a module where staff buy their own smartphones and the companies reimburse a portion of the bill to cover business use. Some companies set strict password policies for accessing office content; others don’t.

Session 2: Proper Plumbing

This session was pitched as covering virtualization and other server room technologies, but when we quizzed the participants, virtualization was at the top of their list, so that’s what we focused on.

We established that virtualizing servers is a recommended practice. If you have a consultant recommending it and you don’t trust their recommendation, find another consultant and have them virtualize your systems, because the recommendation is a good one, but it’s a problem that you don’t trust your consultant!
The benefits of virtualization are numerous — reduced budgets, reduced carbon footprints, instant testing environments, 24/7 availability (if you can upgrade a copy of a server and then switch it back live, an advanced virtualization function).
There’s no need to rush it — it’s easier on the budget and the staff, as well as the environment, to replace standalone servers with virtualized ones as the hardware fails.
On the planning side, bigger networks do better by moving all of their data to a Storage Area Network (SAN) before virtualizing. This allows for even more flexibility and reduced costs, as servers are strictly operating systems with software and data is stored on fast, redundant disk arrays that can be accessed by any server, virtual or otherwise.

Session 3: Earth to Cloud

The cloud computing session focused a lot on comparisons. While the general concern is that hosting data with a third party is risky, is it any more risky than hosting it on our own systems? Which approach is more expensive? Which affords the most freedom to work with our data and integrate systems? How do we manage disaster recovery and business continuity in each scenario?

Security – Everyone is hackable, and Google and Salesforce have a lot more expertise in securing data systems than we do. So, from a “is your data safe?” perspective, it’s at least a wash. But if you have sensitive client data that needs to be protected from subpoenas, as well as or more than hackers, than you might be safer hosting your own systems.
Cost – We had no final answers; it will vary from vendor to vendor. But the cost calculation needs to figure in more than dollars spent — staff time managing systems is another big expense of technology.
Integration and Data Management – Systems don’t have to be in the same room to be integrated; they have to have robustAPIs. And internal systems can be just as locked as external if your contract with the vendor doesn’t give you full access and control over your data. This, again, was a wash.
Risk Management – There’s a definite risk involved if your outsourced host goes out of business. But there are advantages to being hosted, as many providers offer multiply-redundant systems. Google, in particular, writes every save on a Google Doc or GMail to two separate server farms on two different continents.
It all boils down to assessing the maturity of the vendors and negotiating contracts carefully, to cover all of the risks. Don’t sign up with the guy who hosts his servers from his basement; and have a detailed continuity plan in place should the vendor close up shop.
 If you’re a small org (15 staff or less), it’s almost a no-brainer that it will be more cost-effective and safer to host your email and data in the cloud, as opposed to running our own complex CRMs and Exchange servers. If you’re a large org, it might be much more complex, as larger enterprise apps sometimes depend on that Exchange server being in place. But, all in all, Cloud computing is a viable option that might be a good fit for you — check it out, thoroughly.

I’ll finish this thread up with one more post on budgeting and change management in the next few weeks.

Flying in Place: Videoconferencing

This was originally posted on the Earthjustice Blog in May of 2009.

As an information technology director whose livelihood depends pretty heavily on the use of electricity, I’m constantly looking for meaningful ways that the technology I’m immersed in can contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases. The saying “If you aren’t part of the solution you’re part of the problem” doesn’t even suffice — technology is part of the problem, period, and it behooves people like me, who trade in it, to use it in ways that offset its debilitating effects on our environment.

This is why I’m very excited about an initiative that we have taken on to deploy videoconferencing systems in each of our nine locations.

Per a May, 2008 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute, aviation activities account for somewhere between 2% and 5% of the total anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas emissions. Our organization, with offices stretching from Honolulu to Anchorage to NYC and down to Tallahassee, has a great opportunity to eliminate much of our substantial air travel. If you’re in a similar circumstance, I thought it might be helpful to offer a rundown of the options ranging from free and easy to expensive but fantastic.

Cheap and easy means desktop video, which is far more suited for person-to-person chats at one’s desk than large meetings. While it’s certainly possible to hook up a PC to a projector and include someone in a conference room meeting this way, it’s a far cry from the experience you would have with actual videoconferencing equipment.

In general, the return on the investment will be in how successfully you can mimic being in the same room with your video attendees.

While only the richest of us can afford the systems that are installed as an actual wall in the conference room (commonly called “Telepresence”), connecting offices as if they were in the same place, a mid-range system with a large TV screen will, at least, make clear important things like body language and facial expressions, and be of a quality that syncs the voices to the images correctly. This makes a big difference in terms of the usefulness of the experience, and should be what justifies the expense over that of a simple conference phone.

Leader of the cheap and easy options is Skype. Once known as a way to do free phone calls over the Internet, Skype now does video as well. Of course, the quality of the call will vary greatly with the robustness of your internet connection, meaning it’s abysmal if a party is on dial-up and it’s great if all callers have very fast DSL/Cable connections or better.

Other free options might already be installed on your computer. the instant messaging applications like Windows Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and iChat are starting to incorporate video, as well.

There are two ways to do Conference Room Video, one of which requires some investment, at least in a large TV display. One option is to do the conference in someone else’s room. Fedex/Kinko’s is one of many businesses that rent space with video equipment and support (note: it’s not supported at all locations). If your needs are occasional, this might prove more affordable than flying.

For a more permanent arrangement in your own digs, then you want to look at purchasing your own video equipment. This is the route that Earthjustice is taking. Vendors in this space include (and aren’t limited to) Polycom, Cisco, Tandberg andLifeSize. Options range from a simple setup, with a basic system in each office, to a more dynamic one using a multi-point bridge (definition below!). The key questions you need to ask before deciding what to buy are:

  • How many locations do I want to have video in?
  • What are is the maximum number of locations (“points”) that I want to connect in one call?
  • Do I want to regularly include parties from outside of my organization?
  • Do I have sufficient bandwidth to support this?
  • Do I want to incorporate presentations and computer access with the face to face meetings?
  • Do I want to support desktop computer connections to my system?
  • Do I want to have the ability to record conferences and optionally broadcast them over the web?

Standard videoconferencing equipment includes:

  • A Codec, which, much like a computer’s Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the brains of the equipment
  • One or two Displays (generally a standard TV set; for HD video an HDTV)
  • A Conference Phone
  • One or more Microphones
  • A Remote Control to control the camera and inputs
  • Cables to connect the network and optional input devices, such as a laptop computer

The Codec might be single point or multi-point, multi-point meaning that it is capable of connecting in multiple parties to the conference. You might want an additional display if you regularly do computer presentations at your meetings, so you can dedicate one screen to the presentation and the other to the remote participants. Most modern systems have a remote control that can not only control your camera, but also the camera in the remote location(s), assuming all systems are made by the same vendor.

Another option is to purchase a Conference Bridge (aka MCU). A bridge is a piece of equipment that provides additional functionality to the Codecs on your network, such as multi-point conferencing, session recording, and, possibly, desktop video.

Key questions that we had when we evaluated systems were: “How many points do your codecs connect to before we need to add a bridge?” and, “If numerous parties are connected, how does your system handle the video quality?” Some systems brought all connections down to the poorest quality connected; others were able to maintain different quality connections in different windows.

We also looked hard at the ease of use, but determined that all of these systems were about as complex as, say, adding a VCR or DVR to a cable TV setup. Some staff training is required.

On the real geeky side, we required that the systems do these protocols: Session Initialization Protocol (SIP) and H.323. These are the most common ways that one video system will connect with another over the Internet. By complying with these standards, we’ve had great success interoperating with other manufacturer’s systems.

Finally, we were able to go with a High Definition system, with great quality. This was largely enabled by the robust network we have here, as no system will work very well for you if you don’t have sufficient internet bandwidth to support this demanding application.

Conclusion: This is a somewhat simple distillation of a fairly complex topic, and the proper solution and impact of using video will vary from organization to organization. In our case, this will pay for itself quickly, and be scored as an easy win in our goal to reduce our carbon footprint. Compelling technology that supports our planet. Who can’t appreciate that?

Random Identity

I took a brief trip to Second Life the other night, yet another web 2.0 trend that, like Facebook, sends my normally open-minded and curious instincts running for shelter. I’ve never been into gaming, and I obviously don’t use the internet in order to do things anonymously – my username is based on my real name just about everywhere. But I’m looking for any means possible to improve communication at my geographically diverse company, and to do it while reducing our carbon footprint. So that’s quite a challenge – how do we improve communication while cutting down on flying, when we have offices in Honolulu, Juneau and D.C., among other places?

So it struck me that Second Life, as a virtual meeting place, has, at the very least, potential that should be vetted. I have yet to do that vetting – I plan to give it a shot tonight by attending a virtual meeting with the Techsoup virtual community. On Wednesday, I created an account and figured out just enough about how Second Life works in order to get to the meeting later. Reactions:

Good:

  • Second Life supports voice, if you have a microphone and stereo speakers, and does it well enough that, if you’re conversing with someone who is, in the Virtual Reality, standing to your left, their voice will come from the left speaker.
  • It was easier than I thought it would be to move around and figure it all out. Your mileage might vary. It is, necessarily, a somewhat busy interface.

Bad:

  • You are not only advised to not use your real name, you can’t. The account creation process lets you create a first name (text input box) ad select a last name from about 25 in a drop down list. After being advised to “pick my name carefuly, it’s permanent, and can’t be changed”, I had little option to actually pick a name that I identified with or took seriously.
  • Big roots in the gaming community, obviously. The account creation process offers you ten avatars to choose from (avatars being the cartoon images that will represent you in the virtual world). Five female, five male – I was not going for the female impersonation thing, so that left me five. Of those, one (“Boy Next Door”) was fairly innocuous, although it looked about as much like me as Fred from “Scooby Doo” does. If I didn’t want to be Fred, my choices ranged from anthropomorphic fox people to what must be villains from the old “He-man, Master of the Universe” Saturday morning cartoon. Mind you, I was able to customize Fred’s appearance, and while I was shooting to make him look like me (I know, completely unclear on the concept here), as close as I could get resembled my punk rock days in the late seventies.

So, I’ll do a follow up post after I get to do what I set out to do, and evaluate Second Life as a virtual meeting place. But, already, I’m trying to imagine how I explain to the eighty or so Earthjustice Attorneys that step one is to pick a name like “John Vigaromney” that you’ll be known as, and step two is to decide whether you want to look like a furry animal or a grim reaper. Then determine whether the avatars will reduce any serious meeting on global warming or mountaintop protection strategies to jokes and hysterical laughter.

I’m really not looking for Second Life, but there’s a huge — and maybe critical — application for Supplemental Life, which lets online collaboration more intuitively replace travel.