Some thoughts on modern communications and the boundary between work and play…

A few months ago, I wrote a post for the Fujitsu CTO Blog about modern communications. In it, I posited the concept of “service level agreements“ for corporate communications:

“[…] regaining productivity has to be about controlling the interruptions. I suggest closing Outlook. Think of it as an email/calendar client – not the place in which to spend one’s day – and the “toast” that pops up each time a message arrives is a distraction. Even having the application open is a distraction. Dip in 3 times a day, 5 times a day, every hour, or however often is appropriate but emails should not require nor expect an immediate response. Then there’s instant messaging: the name “instant” suggests the response time but presence is a valuable indicator – if my presence is “busy”, then I probably am. Try to contact me if you like but don’t be surprised if I ignore it until a better time. Finally, social networking: which is both a great aid to influencing others and to keeping abreast of developments but can also be what my wife would call a “time-Hoover” – so don’t even think that you can read every message – just dip in from time to time and join the conversation, then leave again.”

I started to think about this again last week. I was on holiday but that doesn’t mean I stopped communicating with my colleagues. I’ll admit it let me be selective in my responses (i.e. there are a lot of things happening at work right now and I answered the messages that were important or interesting to me, leaving many items for my return – after all, I had set an out of office message) but there were a few times when my wife asked me if I was working, as she saw me tapping away on my iPhone…

I maintain that work is something I do, not a place where I go and that, in this day and age (and at my level of responsibility), there is a grey area between work and play so I was enraged when I read an idiotic post about how telecommuting does not work (hello, 1980 is calling… and it wants you back…). Indeed, my “home-base” is one of the things that attracts me to my current role. Getting me back into a 5-day commute to an office that’s probably at least an hour (and maybe two) from home will require some serious persuasion…

So where is the line? Should we all leave the office and stop checking our devices at the end of “the working day”? What about social networking – part of my job is to build a reputation (and therefore enhance my employer’s) as a thought leader – should I ignore something on Twitter because it’s not “work time”? Or should I ignore Twitter, Foursquare, etc. because it is “work time”? Should I be writing this blog post at 8.30pm? But then again, it is on my personal blog… even if a version of the post might eventually appear on a company-owned website…

In the end, I suggest that the answer is about outputs, not inputs. If I’m producing results, my management team should (and, in fairness, probably will) be comfortable, regardless of how many hours I put in. On the flip-side, there are times when I need to work some very long days just to make sure that I can produce those results – and I’ll get frustrated with organisational challenges, non-functioning IT, pointless meetings and disruptive colleagues, just as everyone else does in a modern office environment.

The days of the 9-5 job are long gone (for knowledge workers at least), but so are the 8-6s and even the 8-8s. We live in a 24 hour society – and the new challenge is finding a balance between “work” and “play”.  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts…

Some thoughts on modern communications and avoiding the “time-Hoover”

Last week I was reading an article by Shelley Portet looking at how poor productivity and rudeness are influenced by technology interruptions at work. As someone who’s just managed to escape from email jail yet again (actually, I’m on parole – my inbox may finally be at zero but I still have hundreds of items requiring action) I have to say that, despite all the best intentions, experience shows that I’m a repeat offender, an habitual email mis-manager – and email is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Nowadays email is just one of many forms of communication: there’s instant messaging; “web 2.0″ features on intranet sites (blogs, wikis, discussion forums); our internal social networking platform; business and personal use of external social networks (Twitter, LinkedIn, Slideshare, YouTube, Facebook… the list goes on) – so how can we prepare our knowledge workers for dealing with this barrage of interruptions?

There are various schools of thought on email management and I find that Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero principles work well (see this video from Merlin Mann’s Google Tech Talk using these slides on action-based email – or flick through the Michael Reynolds version for the highlights), as long as one always manages to process to zero (that’s the tricky part that lands me back in email jail).

The trouble is that Inbox Zero only deals with the manifestation of the problem, not the root cause: people. Why do we send these messages? And how do we act on them?

A couple of colleagues have suggested recently that the trouble with email is that people confuse sending an email with completing an action as if, somehow, the departure of the message from someone’s outbox on its way to someone else’s inbox implies a transfer of responsibility. Except that it doesn’t – there are many demands on my colleagues’ time and it’s up to me to ensure that we’re all working towards a common goal. I can help by making my expectations clear; I can think carefully before carbon copying or replying to all; I can make sure I’m brief and to the point (but not ambiguous) – but those are all items of email etiquette. They don’t actually help to reduce the volumes of messages sent and received. Incidentally, I’m using email as an example here – many of the issues are common whatever the communications medium (back to handwritten letters and typed memos as well as forwards to social networking) but, ultimately I’m either trying to:

  • Inform someone that something has happened, will soon happen, or otherwise communicate something on a need to know basis.
  • Request that someone takes an action on something.
  • Confirm something that has been agreed via another medium (perhaps a telephone call), often for audit purposes.

I propose two courses of action, both of which involve setting the expectations of others:

  1. The first is to stop thinking of every message as requiring a response. Within my team at work, we have some unwritten rules that: gratefulness is implied within the team (not to fill each others’ inboxes with messages that say “thank you”); carbon copy means “for information”; and single-line e-mails can be dealt with in the subject heading.
  2. The second can be applied far more widely and that’s the concept of “service level agreements” for corporate communications. I don’t mean literally, of course, but regaining productivity has to be about controlling the interruptions. I suggest closing Outlook. Think of it as an email/calendar client – not the place in which to spend one’s day – and the “toast” that pops up each time a message arrives is a distraction. Even having the application open is a distraction. Dip in 3 times a day, 5 times a day, every hour, or however often is appropriate but emails should not require nor expect an immediate response. Then there’s instant messaging: the name “instant” suggests the response time but presence is a valuable indicator – if my presence is “busy”, then I probably am. Try to contact me if you like but don’t be surprised if I ignore it until a better time. Finally, social networking: which is both a great aid to influencing others and to keeping abreast of developments but can also be what my wife would call a “time-Hoover” – so don’t even think that you can read every message – just dip in from time to time and join the conversation, then leave again.

Ultimately, neither of these proposals will be successful without cultural change. This issue is not unique to any one company but the only way I can think of to change the actions and/or thoughts of others is to lead by example… starting today, I think I might give them a try.

[This post originally appeared on the Fujitsu UK and Ireland CTO Blog.]

Adding Windows Live Messenger presence to a web page

For a while at the end of 2007, this blog had a feature where it showed presence information for me (with the ability to send me an IM) based on my status in Windows Live Messenger. I’ve removed that functionality now because: a) I find IM to be a distraction and so am very rarely logged in; b) I use a private IM system using OCS when I’m working; and c) I use a variety of IM systems (and three different Windows Live logins), so my presence on any one Windows Live Messenger account is not really relevant.

Even so, if this is something that might be useful, there is a page on Windows Live to generate the necessary HTML (I found this information from Michael Niehaus’ blog).

Unconditionally contactable – no thanks.

This last week has been manic – hence the lack of blog posts… taking a day’s annual leave on Monday and then spending half of it catching up on my administration didn’t bode well, then there were two nights when I was up until 1am trying to write an infrastructure design document and the usual mix of travel, conflicting meeting requirements and trying to get some “real work” done.

“But Mark”, I hear you ask,”surely you use some of the technologies that I see you write about to improve productivity?”

The answer is that I do – I’m using Microsoft Office Communication Server 2007, the Office Communicator client 2007 and Live Meeting 2007 a fair bit – as well as our corporate conferencing service. Soon I’ll be linking all of that in to my voice mail to make use of Exchange Server 2007’s unified messaging capabilities. It’s a really good solution (especially when Communicator reads my calendar or Live Meeting status and sets my presence accordingly). But the technology is no panacea: sometimes something doesn’t work – I spent quite a bit of time this week waiting on a Live Meeting call as Microsoft struggled to get the audio working (they later postponed that particular meeting as even they couldn’t fix it); and other times there is no substitute for getting together in a room – like my main meeting on Friday which necessitated 4 hours travel (which could have been better spent doing something else) but resulted in the production of a migration strategy for a key customer’s messaging infrastructure – something which we had failed to do several times over the phone (and which I doubt even advances in video conferencing would have helped with).

As someone who struggles at times with information overload, and who was described by a friend and ex-colleague as “[sometimes] exhibiting workaholic tendencies”, I need to help myself to become more productive. As I already have a pile of books by the bedside, it’s probably time for an audiobook or two on Getting Things Done (or at least to check out 43 Folders from time to time).

As for unified communications (UC), Dave Bailey wrote an interesting comment for IT Week on the difficulties of getting away from it all – it was only a few days previously that, as I was busily IMing one contact, another team member started e-mailing me on the same subject and I had Outlook “toast” popping up as fast as I could type. Then I spent half of Friday afternoon this week reducing the size of my mailbox so that I could get below the system limits and send mail again (there is one simple answer – the delete key… but that’s not exactly productive either). As my colleague pointed out, it seems that UC really stands for “unconditionally contactable”. No thanks.

Watch out for OCS filtering file transfers

I’m working on an Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 pilot right now and have started to use Office Communicator 2007. I’m really impressed (and will write something soon about the whole unified communications setup – including voice and e-mail integration); however two things that tripped me up were the addition of a _ prefix on URLs to prevent them from being clickable (just something to bear in mind when sending instructions to someone via IM) and the filtering of attachments during file transfers.

Neither of these are new features but the file transfer filtering caught me out twice when I thought someone had sent me a Windows registry (.reg) file (it had been turned into a text file contain the text “This attachment was removed.”) and then when another colleague sent me a compressed folder (.zip file) containing an ASP.NET website that I needed to deploy, only for me to find that even though the compressed folder had the complete file structure in its index certificates (.cer/.p7b files), .vb and .js files had all been removed and were not available for extraction.

I’m pretty sure that this behaviour can be changed if required (I’m not sure if it’s granular enough to change on a personal/team/company/public basis) but nevertheless it’s something to be aware of.

Video conferencing using iChat AV on a Mac and AIM on a Windows PC

A few weeks ago, my buddy Alex and I got iChat AV working through our firewall routers (with some caveats) but more recently, he mentioned that he’d been videoconferencing with a PC user via Skype but was not entirely happy with the video quality. I was pretty sure it would be possible to get iChat AV videoconferencing with a PC user via AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and I’m pleased to report that it is… sort of.

The information I needed can all be found in MVL Design’s video conference tutorial for iChat and AIM but it may also be useful to know that Ralph Johns has also republished some information from EZ Jim on Mac video chat with PCs and has contributed to an Apple discussions post about video and audio chats with PCs.

Bearing in mind that Alex and I already had the required firewall ports open from our previous iChat AV conversations, I installed Windows XP on a spare PC with a webcam and loaded AIM 5.9.3861 (electing not to install AOL Explorer or the AOL Toolbar for Internet Explorer, choosing United Kingdom GB as my location and electing not to make AOL my homepage). After this, I was able to log in using my ICQ ID as my screenname and once I’d told the Windows XP firewall to unblock AIM (when prompted) and edited my preferences to set up the camera in the live video options, Alex and I could successfully video conference. It’s worth noting that, although the frame rate was fine at the default settings, there was a slight issue with a delay between speaking and the communication being received (similar to satellite delay on an international phone call) and if I cranked up the image quality then the result was a much-reduced frame rate.

iChat AV conversation with AIM user

This image looks slightly better as it has been reduced to 50% of the original image size (note cheesy grins as the image Alex took mid-conversation made us look completely gormless).

So that’s the good news – it works. The bad news is that it won’t work soon.

As we were testing this, I received a pop-up which said:

You are currently running the following out-of-date version of AOL Instant Messenger:


This version will soon be blocked. Please upgrade now to ensure uninterrupted access to AIM.

You will be upgraded to the following version:

Final Release Version

I decided to see if this all worked with AIM version 6 and it seems it doesn’t. The first problem was that AIM 6 would not accept my ICQ number as a screen name:

Invalid Screen Name or Password.

After registering for an AOL screen name I could log in but we couldn’t initiate a video chat as my buddy appeared to be offline (even though I could communicate with him using another PC!)… some more digging required I suspect. If anyone has any ideas as to what the problem might be, please leave a comment on this post.

More on iChat AV

A couple of weeks back I wrote about the issues I was having getting iChat AV working with services other than .Mac. Well, a few days ago, Alex and I finally managed to get it all working as intended.

This is what I learnt:

  • Audio/visual (AV) chat is not supported over Jabber (I thought that it might work on a point-to-point basis as some commercial real-time collaboration products do – e.g. Microsoft Live Communications Server); however it does work using an ICQ account via the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) transport within iChat AV.
  • If your buddy keeps switching out of iChat into other IM programs (e.g. Adium) then it will break your testing… Despite having loads of nice features Adium doesn’t support AV.
  • Some IM client combinations will render the conversation as raw HTML. That’s not very nice.
  • After deleting a contact from my buddy list, I was having problems recreating it (and was receiving a bizarre Feedbag error 14 message). Eventually, I gave up trying to add the contact via iChat (on either the AIM or the Jabber transport) and instead installed the native ICQ client, added my contact, and then switched back to using iChat AV (which could then read the contact from my ICQ buddy list). Following this, the audio/video icons (and menu options), previously greyed out, were enabled and we were able to have an audio/video conversation.

There’s a conversation thread on the Apple Forums that describes some more of the troubleshooting steps that I went through.

Getting iChat AV to work with users on other IM services

I find the PC vs. Mac ads that Apple is running at the moment amusing, but it does strike me as odd that a company with a brand as strong as Apple’s would drop to what is effectively bragging (even p***s envy?). It seems I’m not the only one either – from listening to TWiT episode 76 earlier today, it seems that “virtually everyone who watches it comes away liking the ‘PC guy’ while wanting to push the ‘Mac guy’ under a bus“!

PC guy - Mac guy

But hey… what’s my point exactly? Well, according to Apple’s get a Mac website (at the time of writing), reason number 1 to get a Mac is:

It just works. How much time have you spent troubleshooting your PC? Imagine a computer designed by people who hate to waste time as much as you do. Where all the hardware and software just works, and works well together. Get a Mac and get your life back.”

Wake up and smell the coffee guys. I love my Mac, but it does not “just work”. That’s why I’ve spent hours (literally) using a third party utility to get iChat AV working without forking out for a .Mac account. It’s not the first time either, I’ve blogged before about how getting things to work on a Mac is not always as straightforward as it should be. I love my Mac but it has problems, as does any PC running any operating system (open or closed, proprietary or open-source).

This is what I had to do…

Apple iChat AV (I’m using v3.1.5 on Mac OS X 10.4.8) supports .Mac and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) logins. It also supports Jabber – so I thought I’d prove the concept by getting it working with Google Talk (which is also based on Jabber). That turned out to be pretty straightforward – Google even provide instructions for configuring iChat for Google Talk. That’s all very well, but my contacts all use ICQ or MSN/Windows Live Messenger – wouldn’t it be great to get them all working within iChat? ICQ is another easy one… just add an AIM account to iChat and enter your ICQ number as the AIM screen name, but that still doesn’t help with any of the other services.

Luckily Melvin Rivera at All Forces has written a comprehensive article about iChat to MSN through Jabber. In theory, this should work for any service, since Jabber acts as a gateway for communication with the various IM networks. I followed Melvin’s article to:

  1. Download and install PSI.
  2. Create a Jabber account – I chose a UK provider – – largely because their site gives a lot of information.
  3. Register the Jabber account within PSI.
  4. Select the required services (I chose MSN and ICQ – I’ll probably add more later but an account is required on each connected service).

At this point, my MSN contacts all started to appear in the PSI client… although each one needed to be authorised (and the multiple alerts meant I had to force quit PSI a couple of times). Incidentally, if a load of contacts are stuck on waiting for authorization (this happened to me, and from reading the comments on Melvin’s article it’s not uncommon) right-clicking and selecting rerequest authorization from seemed to fix things (I then needed to open the alert which came back for each contact). I thought at first this meant getting all my contacts to approve me again but as long as the MSN servers know I’m not blocked from these contacts, the authorisation is immediate.

Now, here’s the bit that I didn’t work out immediately… once the contacts have been sucked out of MSN (or elsewhere) and into Jabber, quit PSI… otherwise all the IM conversations occur within PSI, instead of iChat.

Next, I configured iChat to use the Jabber server – the settings were the same as for Google Talk (except for the account name/password and the server). After that iChat was working with MSN and ICQ. For cross-platform instant messaging at least.

The next stage was to get video/audio conferencing working. This is where I roped in a friend, using another Mac, connected via ADSL from his home a few miles away. It took us a while to get things going – in the end it was a MacRiot article about port forwarding to avoid iChat AV no audio/video woes that gave the answer, referring us to Apple’s document about using iChat AV with a firewall or NAT router.

After opening TCP ports 5190, 5220, 5222 and UDP ports 5060, 5190, 5678 and 16384-16403 on my Internet-facing router, my friend was able to successfully invite me to an audio/video conversation (although for some reason I don’t see the icons to invite him). Incidentally, on a local network there will be additional ports required for client firewall configurations (UDP 5297, TCP/UDP 5298 and UDP 5353) and my Internet connection is NATted, so that is handled too. I just need to work out why I can’t see the options to invite contacts to audio or video chats (and to buy a webcam – my Sony CMR-PC1 is unsupported on a Mac and my DV camera turns itself off after a few minutes).

(Whilst I was cursing Apple for not making this easier, my mate Alex pointed out that getting video conferencing working on a Windows PC would probably be just as bad… I replied that Microsoft don’t state that their software “just works” – just as well really – and nor do Apple caveat their marketing rhetoric with “subject to firewall/network configuration”)!

Windows Live Messenger Beta goes public

Windows Live Messenger

I’ve been using the Windows Live Messenger Beta for a few months now and since I originally wrote about my first impressions of the product, it’s changed quite a bit (although doesn’t seem to have overcome any of the issues which Alex criticised it for at the time).

Windows Live Messenger Beta - new interface

I still like the new user interface although I haven’t used any of the telephony or video-chat functions. The Windows Live Messenger beta was recently expanded and is well worth investigating for those who are currently using MSN Messenger. Alternatively for cross-network instant messaging without any telephony frills, switch to GAIM.

Meanwhile, corporate users should move away from using public IM services and switch to something like Live Communications Server 2005 and the Office Communicator client.

MSN Messenger/Windows Live Messenger tips

Windows Live Messenger

My first impressions of the Windows Live Messenger Beta provoked a lively discussion on various issues (some on-topic, and some off-topic) but I’ve spent way too much time on that now (and in any case, I’m meeting up with the author of most of those comments in less than 48 hours so it will be far easier to bore our wives than to spend all afternoon and evening writing comments on this blog…) .

Anyway, here are some tips I found today for MSN Messenger 7.5 and 8.0 beta (Windows Live Messenger).

Removing those annoying tabs
As was the case for MSN Messenger 7.5, there seems to be no option for deleting tabs, just for changing the order in which they are displayed but if you go to Tools, Options, Security and set the checkbox where it says “this is a shared computer so don’t display my tabs” they will go away.

Removing the ads
Matthijs van de Water has some advice for removing ads from MSN Messenger 7.5 but it involves directly editing the Messenger binaries. I’ll leave it for now because the instructions will probably need updating for the new version and it’s in beta – so I expect there will be a few more updates yet!

Mess with MSN Messenger have produced a program called Mess Patch for customising previous versions of MSN Messenger. There are other patches available, but Mess with MSN Messenger is generally considered to be a trustworthy download location.

(Be aware that patching Windows Messenger, MSN Messenger or Windows Live Messenger infringes Microsoft’s Terms of Use. To do so would be your own choice I’m not responsible in any way.)

In any case save your bandwidth by making sure the Video Carousel is not enabled under Tools, Options, General (mine is greyed out).

Product team blog
The Windows Live Messenger product team have a blog. It’s not that useful – mostly “look what we’ve done in the product – isn’t it cool”, but probably a good way to feed back any comments on the beta.