» Archive for March, 2010

In the briefing room: Outlook 2010

Thursday, March 25th, 2010 by Cody Burke

As perhaps the most widely-deployed e-mail client in the corporate world, Outlook is where many knowledge workers spend a majority of their time.

A new Outlook

E-mail is so central to knowledge work today that the inbox has evolved into the nexus for not only communication, but daily tasks, scheduling, and document and project management.  As a result, it is of paramount importance for knowledge workers to have an e-mail experience that fully supports their work.

The forthcoming version, Outlook 2010, receives multiple enhancements and features that were first introduced in other Microsoft Office applications.  Perhaps the most significant addition is the Fluent UI and Ribbon.  While the Ribbon has had its critics, notably those stalwarts who prefer the old drop down menu system, the fact remains that it is now the primary user interface for Office and adding it to Outlook was a logical step in order to create a unified user experience across the Office suite.

We found QuickSteps to be one of the most intriguing and promising new features.  Quick Steps provides one-click buttons to automate common and recurring tasks such as filing e-mails, sending e-mail messages to predetermined groups of co-workers, or initiating a meeting with all members of an e-mail chain.  To automate more complex or personalized tasks, Quick Steps also allows the user to create custom buttons that control the desired functionality.  The Quick Steps feature increases individual productivity by saving small amounts of time multiple times each day.

Outlook now also features the new Backstage View, which provides access to settings and account information (for more on Backstage, see our previous analysis).

Another enhancement that has been rolled across all the Office applications is integration with OneNote.  From the Outlook tasks list, the user can access notes in OneNote by selecting the new Task Notes function.  From within OneNote, notes can be turned into tasks that are synched with Outlook task and appear on the Outlook calendar.  The integration allows users to use OneNote to create tasks, but subsequently manage them from within Outlook.

To address the misuse of e-mail, such as all-hands reply to alls and the unintended inappropriate e-mailing of confidential information, Outlook now has MailTips, an alert system that notifies the user when he is about to send a message that violates e-mail usage etiquette or formal rules.  Actions that would prompt an alert include sending potentially confidential information to people outside of a workgroup or the organization, large distribution lists, recipients who are out of the office, restricted addresses, recipients who are using automatic replies, and violations of size limitations for e-mail attachments.  The feature requires Exchange 2010, which works with Outlook to determine if an alert is necessary as recipients are added and the message is being composed.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

In the briefing room: Smartsheet for Google Apps

Thursday, March 18th, 2010 by Cody Burke

Last week, Google announced the Google Apps Marketplace, where customers of its Google Apps business software suite can search, download, and manage third party business applications that integrate with core Google Apps such as Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar.

Making Google Smarter

While there are a plethora of applications available in the marketplace, and that number is certain to grow, we wanted to a look at one company’s offerings to see where the integration points were and what the benefits for the knowledge worker might be.

Smartsheet, which we first wrote about in October 2008, has taken its collaborative spreadsheet solution and released Google App offerings including Sales Pipeline Management, Crowdsourcing, and Project Management.  The new applications provide hooks into Gmail, Google Docs including spreadsheets, and contacts.  The applications are installed in a company’s Google Apps domain and are accessed via the “More” drop down menu on the top the screen in Gmail.  The integration enables single-sign on with OpenID, management of Smartsheet from the Google Apps control panel, the ability to import/export Google spreadsheets, attach Google Docs to cells, and import contact information from Gmail.  Future plans include full integration with Google Calendar, to enable project plans to be overlaid with personal calendar data.

All functionality in the Google Apps versions of Smartsheet are the same as in the company’s regular releases; indeed, consumer Gmail users can already export/import spreadsheets and attach Google Docs from the regular Smartsheet offerings in addition to being able to use the OpenID single-sign on.  Given the existing integration capabilities, the main benefit that Smartsheet users will enjoy with the new Google App version is the integration into the Gmail interface.

For end users of Google Apps, the benefits of integration between Smartsheet’s offerings, Gmail, and the rest of the Google Apps are obvious; more users will be exposed to the unique functionality of Smartsheet.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Distractions in the Classroom: One Professor Fights Back

Thursday, March 11th, 2010 by Cody Burke

In a recent video uploaded to YouTube, a college professor produces a styrofoam cooler, a laptop, and a container of liquid nitrogen in front of a lecture hall full of students.

A different kind of upgrade

He proceeds to place the laptop in the cooler, freeze the laptop with the liquid nitrogen and, with dramatic flourish, smash it to bits on the floor, while proclaiming loudly, “Don’t bring laptops and work on them in class!  Have I made my point clear?”

Very clear indeed.

The prevalence of mobile devices such as laptops, netbooks, and smartphones is a uniquely double edged sword for the lecture hall, as well as the corporate boardroom.  On one hand they present educational opportunities through the ability to take notes, do research, and interact with multimedia elements that support a teacher’s lesson plan.  However, they also open a door to nearly limitless distraction.

The education system is struggling with this dynamic as it on one hand increasingly requires students to have laptops, while at the same time, faces a growing number of professors who are banning their use in class.  We wrote about the issues that educators face in regards to technology in our 2008 report, Technologies to Teach the Thumb Generation (http://bsx.stores.yahoo.net/tethge.html) and found that, for the most part, educational institutions were lagging behind both corporate and consumer trends in technology.

What our nitrogen-happy professor was demonstrating was his annoyance with students who use tools that could help their in-class efforts but instead end up negatively impacting their academic performance.  This occurs because it is not simply enough to give a room full of students laptops and expect them to be productive; a deeper understanding of how the technology is being used, and in what situations it may be advantageous to use it, is required.

For instance, taking notes can be accomplished perfectly well by hand, which means a student need not open up a laptop and be tempted by his friends’ Facebook updates.  Polling students or having them conduct research on a topic on the other hand is an appropriate use of the technology.

We are still feeling out the best ways for technology to be applied to classroom settings, and just as in the business world, often the best intentions lead to unintended consequences, such as Information Overload and unnecessary distractions.  Although we do not advocate the destruction of innocent laptops, we do applaud the professor for setting the tone in his lecture hall and recognizing the potential for distraction from technology when used in the wrong context.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Mobile Knowledge Work: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Thursday, March 4th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

Mobility has become a defining characteristic of knowledge work. A recent Basex survey revealed that more than 40% of knowledge workers work in nontraditional, non-Dilbertian environments on a regular (two or more days per week) basis.

On the road again.

Indeed, knowledge workers have become increasingly mobile and find themselves working from whatever location they happen to be in, be it a home office, the dentist’s waiting room, or an airport lounge.  The range of devices they employ has expanded to include not just desktop PCs and laptops, but netbooks and smartphones as well.

Therefore it is becoming increasingly important to enable access to documents, spreadsheet, and presentations without tying the user to one specific computer or location.

In most organizations, there has always been a kind of second class citizenship for the mobile worker when it comes to tools and support.  Among many managers, the prevailing thinking has always been that people will typically work at the office and, as a result, the best tools are to be found there.  Sometimes tools have been limited on the grounds of corporate network security (a home user could inadvertently put an enterprise network at risk).  But given that a clear plurality of workers work remotely today, this kind of segmentation makes little sense.

It is important to note that, even among mobile workers, there exist different groups, namely those who typically work from the same computer, be it a PC in a home office or a laptop that travels with the worker, and those who work from multiple devices such as public or shared PCs, netbooks, and smartphones.  To boot, one must then differentiate the power users from the occasional users.

At the moment, the former group will most likely have standard Windows productivity software such as Microsoft Office installed on the device.  However, the latter group, whose numbers are growing, will still need to be able to access tools that are more than sufficient to support their work, regardless of device or venue.

Such tools need to provide a variety of functionality, including the ability to create and edit documents (for the purposes of this discussion documents can include word processing documents, spreadsheets, and slide shows), and critically, provide links to corporate data stores to allow the knowledge worker to access files that do not reside on the device being used – and keep files behind the firewall.

Those who are working from home office PCs and laptops will almost certainly have a copy of Microsoft Word to use, but the ability to access files that are stored in a document repository is often limited.  The established strategy to deal with lack of access or poor controls on access has been to maintain local copies of documents.  This is for two reasons: ease of access and to preclude the possibility of someone else opening and/or editing the document at the same time.  Unfortunately, this strategy can lead to more problems than it resolves including a proliferation of document versions and the potential loss of critical work if a machine goes down and is not backed up.

One potential solution may be online desktop productivity tools, a market that has been largely dominated by Google and Zoho.  With the forthcoming release of Microsoft Office 2010, the company is also unveiling a line of online tools that are complementary to their desktop counterparts.  We’ll examine the new offerings next week.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.