Thursday, June 19, 2008

Collaboration Comes To MindManager

One last post about mind maps and we'll move on, I promise! :-)

It's no secret that I am a big fan of visual mapping techniques. Mind maps allow you to capture, quantify and organize information in ways that mirror how our brains actually work. They allow you to see beyond simple linear lists to understand relationships between ideas. While traditional mind mapping as developed by Tony Buzan utilizes paper and colored markers, pencils, crayons, etc., the sheer amount of information we deal with as information technology professionals and indeed the medium we work in make electronic mind maps much more compelling. While there are many choices of mind mapping software, my tool of choice is the outstanding MindManager Pro 7 from Mindjet.

MindManager puts the power of mind mapping at your fingertips. I've been using MindManager for a few years now, but I think that MM7 is a big leap forward. Mindjet has done a great job of continuing to progress the tool with each release and the move to version 7 has been no different. I love that I can be productive with the software using the keyboard or the mouse, depending on my desired work mode at the time. It has a lot of powerful features that obviously couldn't exist in a paper-based map, such as task tracking, filtering, integration with Microsoft Office (I know...we need to get them to support Lotus Symphony!), the ability to interact with a map in presentation mode, and many more. MindManager allows the user to very quickly generate maps, certainly much faster than most of us could build a paper map. While the default styles aren't highly artistic, they are perfect for use in the business environment where people tend to be more conservative. That doesn't mean that MindManager can't produce stunning maps. Quite the contrary...the formatting features are plentiful and allow the user to produce very attractive maps with minimal effort.

I'm a big believer in getting your hands dirty in order to truly understand something, so rather than hearing me go on and on about features, I encourage you to check out the Mindjet site and download the free trial version of the software. With a little practice, I think you'll find the ideas of mind mapping to be truly compelling. To get an idea of the kinds of maps people use in the everyday world, check out the Map Gallery.

Before you go, there are a couple of major innovations in MindManager that I want to tell you about. The first is the fluid UI or Ribbon, introduced in the new line of Microsoft Office products. The second is the addition of collaborative and web functionality that is sure to see adoption of MindManager increase.

Let's talk about the collaborative stuff first. Actually just introduced yesterday, Mindjet Connect provides users with the ability to create shared workspaces in which they can share their mind maps and work on them collaboratively with a team of people. The collaboration features include real-time team editing, chat functionality and instant meetings. While I would have loved to see these features as integration points into the Lotus suite of products, just the fact that Mindjet has recognized the need to enable better collaboration is a plus. As part of Mindjet Connect, a slimmed down web-based version of MindManager is available, bringing the major functional points of the software to a browser near you. I look forward to playing with these tools more in the future, but for now I have to say congratulation to Mindjet for the new evolution in mind mapping software.

Now...on to the Ribbon fluid user interface. Although I had read a lot about it, I had not had an opportunity to actually use it until I installed MindManager Pro 7. I tried to approach the new UI with an open mind, as I heard cheers and jeers from both camps...those who loved it and those who hated it. For me, I was immediately enamored by the new way of working. The fact that the multiple layers of drop down menus were now gone seemed to immediately improve my productivity.

Basically, I see the Ribbon UI as a hybrid between the menuing system, tabbed dialogs and the toolbar, but one that is far easier to use than all three metaphors combined. I think that the way related commands are logically grouped together helps speed recognition and the fact that the more frequently used features are larger in scale allows me to target them much faster with the mouse. Another benefit of the Ribbon UI over the traditional toolbar or drop down menu is the fact that the full text of each function is readily visible. Thus, I don't have to worry about memorizing which icon is which or spend my time hovering over the toolbar icon waiting for the popup text to confirm that I've selected the correct option. All of these features are immediate productivity enhancements for me.

I find the fact that the Ribbon is contextual to be very powerful. Elements change, become grayed out or become active based on what I'm actually doing at that moment. In addition, I find that I am saving time by using the Ribbon instead of choosing between right-clicking an element, going to the menus or using the toolbar. I'm not sure if the Ribbon in the Microsoft products work the same way, but I really love the fact that many of the options exposed by clicking on an element in the Ribbon bring up a little submenu that uses pictures. For example, it's easier to select boundary shapes now than in past versions of MindManager, since I can click the Boundary Shape element in the Ribbon and I get a visual representation of all the types.

While it appears that the Ribbon takes more screen real estate than standard toolbars, it still seems reasonable. I actually like the slightly bigger size as it makes it easier to click the appropriate option. A bonus is that you can easily hide the Ribbon completely by double-clicking the menu area of the Ribbon. The options are still only a click away and this allows you to free up the area if you're working on a big map. Since MindManager allows you to so easily move from place to place on a map, however, this hasn't been an issue for me, so I just leave the Ribbon visible at all times.

When I opened the program for the first time, there was probably a minute or two of confusion as I couldn't see any File menu. Then I realized that the big "MindManager Button" replaced this menu. It didn't just replace it, pumped it up several levels. It leverages the same mental model as the Start button in Windows and the fact that it is large and in the corner makes it very easy to acquire (a great example of Fitt's Law). I love, love, love the fact that it is divided into two "panes", one showing the traditional options (New, Open, Save, etc.) and the other changing context based on the option I'm hovering over. It's a very intelligent system and just immediately made perfect sense to me. If I'm hovering over the "Open" command, it shows me a list of my most recent documents. If I'm hovering over "Export", it gives me an easy to read and understand list of my export options. This is really nice...thumbs up for this functionality.

Overall, I find the Ribbon UI to be a big leap forward in the user interface of MindManager. It is similar enough to the standard concepts we are used to in most commercial software, but it has improved the user experience in such a way that I feel I am now more proficient with the software and can perform certain tasks faster than I could before. Although sometimes change is hard, I would encourage anyone hesitating about upgrading because of the new UI to give it a try and allow yourself a little time to get used to the Ribbon. It is a great interface concept and I think most people will come to appreciate it.

If you've stayed around this far, then it's either for my highly engaging and witty writing style ;-) or because you are truly interested in the ideas of visual mapping. If it's the latter (which I hope), then please check out MindManager and let me know what you think. I'd love to hear your feedback and I'd be glad to offer any pointers or assistance as you explore this new path.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Collaborate From Anywhere...The Value Proposition of Lotus Quickr

If I had to pick a common Achilles' Heel among the various collaboration systems I've worked with through the years, I would probably point to the fact that each system usually has a single point of entry. That is, you have to (virtually) leave the place you are currently working in order to go to the "place to collaborate". I've found this to be true of Lotus Notes document libraries and Team Rooms, Documentum, Quickplace and other web-based repositories and even Sharepoint (depending on the tools you are using). This creates a barrier of entry for a lot of people. They just don't want to have to open yet another window on their already crowded workspace in order to use collaboration tools. In addition, having to leave the context we are currently working in in order to share with our colleagues interrupts our flow state and makes us less productive. Just as effective collaboration has a cultural component that is vitally important, so too must the tools facilitate easily contributing to and consuming from the collective knowledge pool. Thus, one way to shore up that Achilles' Heel is to provide multiple entry points into the collaboration tool of choice. Lotus Quickr has introduced such mechanisms and by doing so really provides a compelling value proposition for team collaboration.

One of the driving goals for Lotus Quickr (and indeed the entire line of Lotus products) is the concept of collaborating in context. Collaboration in context is all about integrating content, tools and people (all the important components of the collaboration equation) within your business process. A great example of this is the Sametime presence awareness capability. If I'm in a TeamRoom and have a question about a document, I can immediately see if the author is online and can initiate a new chat session with them all from the place where my attention is currently focused. Quickr takes this idea to a new level through the Quickr Connectors.

If you've seen Quickr out in the wild, you've probably seen the web-based UI. While certainly shiny and new, this UI only shows one facet of the product. If you choose to, you can access all of the collaborative features of Quickr by opening your browser and navigating to your Team Place, but the beauty of the Quickr Connectors means you don't have to. Instead, you can access Quickr content and add to Team Places from where you already are. This includes:

  • Lotus Notes

  • Microsoft Office

  • Lotus Symphony (coming soon)

  • Windows Explorer

  • Lotus Sametime

Quite an impressive list! IBM rightly realized that when people collaborate, there is usually some artifact that prompted the collaboration process. For most knowledge workers, this means we are authoring documents, usually in one of the tools listed above. Rather than making users take extra steps to get that content to the "place to collaborate", Quickr was designed to meet people where they are actually doing their work. This is a huge leap forward in my mind, as it removes that big stumbling block that plagues many collaboration initiatives.

Let's look at a couple of simple scenarios so that you see the power of Quickr. I think these will help in articulating the value proposition.

Scenario 1: Jim is an HR employee responsible for updating the company policy manual. This process involves making the changes in MS Word and then getting feedback from his colleagues before the changes are published.

Old Way: Jim has to locate the current, official policy document, copy it to his hard drive and open it in Word. He then makes the necessary modifications and makes sure he saves a new version on his computer. In order to collaborate with his colleagues and get their feedback, Jim then opens the Lotus Notes HR TeamRoom and creates a new document, attaching the Word file to it. This process, while not difficult, is inefficient and requires that Jim do a lot of task switching.

New Way: With Quickr, Jim's life will be a lot easier. If the HR policy exists in a Quickr site, he can open it directly from Word, make his changes, and save a new copy back to Quickr...collaboration in context.

Click to enlarge

Scenario 2: So much collaboration takes place today by people sending attachments back and forth in e-mail. This is extremely inefficient for many reasons. For users, attachments are the single biggest cause of being thrown into "mail jail" (i.e. exceeding quotas). In addition to the requirements from a storage perspective, there can be version find yourself wondering if the version you have is the most current one. With the integrated Quickr shelf in Notes 8, you can solve these problems. The Quickr shelf allows you to see all of your Team Places and access data from them directly from Notes. You can drag and drop attachments from an e-mail message into a Place. You can also drag an attachment out of a Place and into an e-mail message. Quickr is smart enough to add this attachment as a link rather than an actual attachment.

Click to enlarge

To help you remember to use your collaboration tools when you are sending e-mails, Quickr will detect if you have any attachments in your message and will prompt you to save them into Quickr. You can select the Place to move the attachments into and then the attachments will be replaced with links to the newly added Quickr content.

Many of the other integration points work in the same way, utilizing common actions that meld very nicely with the system we are interacting with (drag and drop into Quickr from Windows Explorer, for example).

In my experience as a collaborative technologies consultant, once you get people on board with the idea that collaboration is important and valuable for them, the next hurdle is getting them to actually use the tools. Lotus Quickr with the Quickr Connectors makes a very compelling case for simplifying adoption and helping your users get over that hurdle. I think we'll see this idea of collaboration in context start to embed itself in more and more collaborative tools and I am really looking forward to that experience. I know for me that working with Quickr has been a pretty enjoyable ride so far.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Free Meeting And Web Conferencing Service

Hi, everybody...Hi, Doctor Nick! (Whoops...another out of place Simpsons reference there)

Bruce was looking for a web conferencing service today and although I got to him too late, I wanted to share a cool alternative for those of you looking for a "personal" web meeting space.

The service is called Dimdim and it's billed as "the world's free web meeting where you can share your desktop, show slides, collaborate, chat, talk and broadcast via webcam with absolutely no download required for attendees." Pretty cool stuff.

Of course, I still think Lotus Sametime and Sametime Unyte are THE tools for true business web conferencing and unified communications, but if you are looking for a no-cost service that will work great for your personal needs, go ahead and check out Dimdim.

I mean, come on...they get points in my book just for a cool name! :-)

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Collaboration: And Knowing Is Half The Battle

Yes...I blatantly used a G.I. Joe-ism in the title. Why? Perhaps just to reel you in from Planet Lotus ;-)

In my recent work with customers and all the hubbub around social networking and collaboration, it's quite evident that collaboration is cool again. I'd like to think that Lotus is playing no small part in this, as our offerings in this space are truly exciting. I'm more enthusiastic about Lotus than I have been in years and that's saying something since you know I'm a fanboy! :-)

But one concern I have is an issue that I encountered many times in my career as a consultant, and that is we are spending a lot of time driving home the technology component without a lot of emphasis on what I believe makes up the other half of a successful collaborative ecosystem: the culture.

If you are introducing the idea of collaboration for the first time or are trying to kickstart a stalled initiative, addressing the cultural component of collaboration is critical. It's not enough to have the best technology for supporting collaboration installed in your must have people that will leverage that technology in the context of their business goals.

So what does a successful collaborative culture need to get started? Here are my ideas, but I'd like to hear yours as well.

*Collaboration Champions: Some folks that embrace the concepts right off the bat and serve as the "go to" people when other employees have questions and need assistance. These are usually the employees that "get it" immediately when a new collaborative technology is introduced and quickly become proficient in its use, both from a technical standpoint and from a business focused one.

*Provide Recognition: Many companies overlook the importance of praising a job well done. For many employees, helping others in a collaborative culture is an intrinsic reward unto itself, but they still value when their efforts are recognized. Rewards don't always need to be monetary in nature. In fact, the top providers in a social network or collaborative initiative often find the kudos to be the most rewarding aspect of participation.

*Proper Training: Argh...don't get me started about companies that don't train people on new technology. How often have we heard "Lotus Notes s*cks" because the users were unaware of how to successfully use the software. Yes, we wish all software could be so easy to use that you don't need any training, but with enterprise software we're not there yet. Thus, providing instruction is an important aspect of the collaborative culture.

*How Does This Help Me?: One of the most compelling arguments I've seen in a successful implementation of collaboration technologies is when the company can clearly articulate the vision to employees and answer the question "What's in it for me?". Let's be honest...while the recognition mentioned above certainly is a motivator for some, the majority of employees will just think that this is another one of those things management does to annoy us. ;-) If you can help employees see how this initiative will make their job easier, help them make more commission, not have to work overtime, etc., they'll buy into the movement much more quickly.

There's obviously a lot more to this subject and I've just scratched the surface here. I'll save more for another post, since I think a lot of you are sick of my long essays! :-) However, one point of note. Not many consulting organizations address culture as a significant part of a new customer collaboration engagement. I think there's some good business potential there. Who will tap into it?

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