The IT/business communication gap.

Last week I had the good fortune of attending the Agile Business Conference. There were some excellent presentations most notably from the opening and closing keynote speeches.

Stephen Carver’s talk ‘Agile Lessons from the Battle of Britain’ really sold the purpose of Agile without using any of the associated languages or terminology. It included the audio transcripts from US airways flight 1549 which lost its engines and was forced to land in the Hudson River.  It was a perfect example of how to act in a crisis, stay calm and keep looking for options! The talk also included lots of examples of how the vastly outnumbered and demoralised RAF were able to take on and beat the Luftwaffe under the command of Hugh Dowding, by committing planes only when the chance of victory was greatest. Despite calls within the RAF high command to commit to a larger offensive tactic ‘The Big Wing’.

Dan North’s closing keynote speech  ‘Why Agile Doesn’t Scale’ was a controversially titled talk about the challenges of taking agile from one or two teams to a full enterprise way of working. Dan made the point that for Agile to be successful at scale it needs large numbers of people to understand what the agile manifesto and principles means. It is our responsibility as practitioners to make this happen. This final speech really reinforced an epiphany I had whilst there…

“Both agile and ITIL focus on IT delivering business value. But IT and the business don’t talk the same language. This is a massive barrier to achieving that goal.”

So in a break between presentations I turned to Yammer and posted the following:

Screenshot showing following text: Currently at the agile business conference, and it occurs to me there are no business representatives here. This led me to wonder how aware is the wider organisation of agile principles and methodologies?

The early results reflected my hunch, that people had heard of agile but didn’t necessarily know what it was about. How can we expect agile to be successful if it’s not well understood?

Screenshot showing survey results: I know all there is to know about Agile. 7%; I have heard of it. 64%; What is agile? 27%; I dont care! 4%. 44 total votes

This led me to follow up with a series of posts explaining the basic premises of agile and scrum. Other scrum masters and team members also joined and contributed their experience of working with SCRUM and what some of the key challenges were to them.

The feedback was great loads of people were interested and wanted to learn more. In the next few weeks I intend to follow up with more posts describing other IT terminology to improve awareness of what we do and how we provide that all important business value!

By the way if you don’t have Yammer in your organisation already, get it! Especially if you work in a distributed organisation. It is a fantastic tool for engaging with staff and hearing their points of view.

What can I.T. Learn from the German car industry?

My first job in IT was as a workstation auditor for a company called Tom Walkinshaw Racing. TWR were one of the first companies to carry out the design and manufacturing process of new cars entirely electronically, so it was an exciting place to work in a small but busy IT department. TWR allowed me to grow into an operations support engineer which has been the foundation of my career ever since. Unfortunately in 2002 we went bust. I was far too low down the food chain to fully understand all of the reasons, but one of the contributing factor’s was the collapse of MG Rover as we were working on the new MG’s at the time.

I watched with interest Das Auto: The Germans, Their Cars and Us on BBC2 on Sunday night. It compared the history of the German and British Car industries. What really struck me throughout the program was that many of the reasons for success of the German Car industry paralleled the principles currently being championed in the Devops movement:

Culture. One of the major themes of the program was the differences in management approaches towards the engineers and workers developing the cars. The well-known discord between unions and management throughout the life of many UK car companies, most notably British Leyland came as no surprise. What did was the German relationship to Trade unions. German Labour Laws requires that at least 5 workers are represented at board level and have full voting rights. This promotes a culture of collaboration towards what is right for the company as a whole. Engineers are respected for their skillsets and often the German car companies encouraged further education up to doctorate level.

Automation. The encouragement of developing highly skilled workers meant that automation of production line facilities occurred much earlier in Germany than it did in England, this allowed for quicker and more consistent delivery of vehicles. In Britian, a combination of lack of respect of the skills of the workforce by management teams, and union pressure to maintain manual jobs meant that automation did not take place until much much later.

Measurement. The German philosophy to car design was to listen to customer feedback. The development of the Volkswagen Golf was in response to the soaring price of petrol in the 70’s and the need for families to have reliable but economical family cars. The BMW brand in the 80’s was developed in response to the rise of Yuppies and emulated the importance of status in their advertising. British family cars by comparison were advertised as high status symbols, completely missing their target audience.

Sharing. As with advertising, the German car industry continually improved their models based on feedback and measurement. On first release, the Volkswagen Beetle had a massive amount of defects, but it was continuously improved to become the most manufactured car of a single design. British cars by comparison were notoriously unreliable, and rarely improved, forcing a mass market that were keen to ‘Buy British’ to shop elsewhere.

I found it really fascinating that the success and failures of a completely different industry reflected the success and failures currently playing out in the I.T. industry, and it was reassuring that the best practices being advocated in Devops mirrored the attributes of success of the German car industry.

140 character e-mail challenge, end of week review

Wow where did that week go! I fully intended to do a daily update but failed miserably. Noob blog lesson learned, posting takes time!

What I have also discovered is that analysing email is a long and laborious task. So I read with interest that there are analytics tools for gmail and outlook. From looking at the sample stats, these tools would have been infinitely useful during the challenge and would have saved me a lot of time.

So how did I do?

Day E-mails Received E-mails Sent E-mails >140 characters
Monday 45 21  3
Tuesday 51 11  3
Wednesday 18 14  3
Thursday 24 6  1
Friday 27 14  4

On average 21% of my email replies exceeded the 140 character limit. This was certainly higher than I expected, but generally I seem to have responded to mails by other means. The Received/Sent stats certainly appear to back this up. I did attempt to check Received/Sent emails for earlier weeks, but again extracting information from Outlook was just too much work.

Lets look at the reasons for exceeding the limit.

Mondays reasons I covered in my previous post.

Tuesday

  • Continuation of the conversation with a product manager started on Monday.
  • A question to a wide audience.
  • Support Query to an external supplier in America, not practical to ring them.

Wednesday.

  • Further discussion with the Product Manager!
  • Support Query to an external supplier in the UK (email is primary contact with that supplier).
  • Notification to a large audience about the end of a secondment I had been on.

Thursday.

  • Meeting Agenda.

Friday.

  • List of names of all those involved in a successful project delivery to the guy organising a BBQ to celebrate.
  • Mail to multiple stakeholders describing concerns with a project and requesting a meeting.
  • Mail to Finance Manager explaining the quality issues with a quote based on spaghetti requirements.
  • Congratulatory mail to a colleague who has a new job (mail sent from home)

What have I learnt?

Email is no longer my go to response tool even if the original message arrived that way. My first response is to phone or go and speak to the sender, generally I have found that a quick conversation can answer the query, and deal with any follow-up questions much more quickly. I have found that sometimes it takes me a concerted effort not to send a ‘quick’ email. I have had to mentally stop myself from hitting the reply button automatically on several occasions.

More people are coming to see me, This was an unexpected result but generally I seem to have had a higher rate of visitors to my little patch of the world. Generally I feel better from having face to face communications with people too.

E-mail still has its uses. Getting messages to large audiences, meeting agenda’s, and as backup when other comms channels have failed, have all resulted in sending long e-mails. However I’m more aware of the fact that longer mails are less effective. I need to stay concise.

Sending short emails has highlighted my rambling use of the English language. I have a tendency to write e-mails in the same way that I talk, sometimes I can rattle off on different tangents. Face to face this can generally be handled by looking at the body language of the person I am talking to. It’s easy to see when you are losing someone and I can change the subject or change my tack. E-mails don’t allow this, limiting myself to 140 characters has highlighted just how rambling my natural use of English can be.  As a result I’m going to explore Oration a lot more, hey you never know it might improve this blog!

Finally, if I think I have a problem I want to solve, I need to describe and measure that problem much more effectively to see if changes make an improvement. All of the findings I have listed above are subjective and I’m really annoyed with myself that I didn’t baseline more effectively. (I’m more annoyed with the total lack of analytics in Outlook!) As a consequence of the changes last week I know I will fundamentally treat email differently now, I have no measurable way to know if this change is for the better.

As a counter point to that last point however, if I had planned to set out measurable outcomes, would I have got lost in the planning and not got on with the doing? Intangibly, reducing e-mail length seems to have been for the best, is this enough? We shall see.

140 character e-mail challenge. Day 1.

So the first challenge of the day was finding an easy way to view characters in outlook 2010. For a product that supports sending text messages, the lack of auto generating character count was surprising. However with a quick search on the Web I found this advice on Tod’s Tomes which has worked well for me so far.

Early into the day I realised I was going to need a couple of extra caveats. Firstly twitter is a much more informal place to communicate than work, I wasn’t going to be able to avoid having an opening and closing ‘Hi’ and ‘Regards’, therefore I have decided to only count the main content of the mail. Secondly I hate calendar invites that don’t have some sort of agenda, even if it is a loose description of the problem and what needs to be decided. Describing that in 140 characters has so far proved to be impossible.

What have I learnt from today? Generally I have found that when I can speak to the person either by phone or in person it is much easier to judge the urgency of the request, this isn’t always apparent in an e-mail. The body language, or aural tone of conversation has helped me judge and prioritise what is being asked of me. I also feel more engaged in what is being asked of me, personal conversations mean I haven’t attached any of the jadedness that I sometimes am guilty of applying under the constant barrage of the inbox.

So how have I done in day 1?
Number of emails received. 55
Number of emails responded to by email: 21
Number of emails responded to in other ways: Stupidly I forgot to record this, one to add to the list for tomorrow.
Emails that surpassed 140 characters: 3.

The reasons for larger emails?

An email to a colleague that contained a hyperlink however I’m not going to get carried away and use bitly or other URL shortening services for the purposes of the challenge.

A notification to our customers about a forthcoming change sent for forwarding to the service desk.

A long winded explanation to a product manager about a particular communication channel, interestingly I think this could have benefited from a phone conversation and has potential to drag out if I don’t keep an eye on it, unfortunately the product manager wasn’t available to speak to due to all day meetings (shudder).

Early impressions are that not using email as my primary communication tool seems to bring benefit, but already the list of occasions when it is unavoidable is growing much more rapidly than I expected.

140 character e-mail challenge

I hate e-mail. Now I know thats not a particularly shocking point of view, and lots of people would agree. Indeed many people and organisations have already stopped using it, bliss! The organisation I work for is just starting on the collaboration tools journey so completely cutting e-mail out of my life isnt practical at the moment. However since starting to use twitter an idea has been growing. Would it would be feasible and more productive to handle my email traffic in 140 character replies?

My educational background is in the Maritime sector and in many ways e-mail reminds me of the challenges of VHF radio.

  1. Its easy to misconstrue the message.
  2. Its unclear who the message is aimed at. (cc’ed emails make up at least half of my daily emails)
  3. The message can get lost in all the other radio noise.

Indeed poor communication by VHF was such an issue a set of communication protocols and a whole new language were developed. My inner mariner is always surprised email hasn’t followed a similar path.

So how do I think the challenge will address these issues? Well the main benefit I perceive will be that if I cannot get my point across in 140 chars then I will have to find an alternative form of communication, like actually getting up and going to see someone, or giving them a ring. This alone should clear up all three problems. The shortness of my replies will also ensure I have to be really succinct, and my message is less likely to be misunderstood or lost in the noise.

I’m very aware that I haven’t defined any tangible measures, this shouldn’t stop me from trying, instead I just need to be aware of the fact and look to do this as early into the challenge as possible.

A challenge isn’t a challenge without some constraints initially I will try it out for a week to see if it is worth pursuing. I won’t actively communicate the challenge to my colleagues, I have a feeling it will be interesting to measure perception in some way. If I can’t reply in 140 chars I must seek alternative means of communication. I can send emails with more then 140 chars if no other form of communication is feasible but I need to measure how many and examine the reasons for doing so.

I will blog how the challenge is going each day so watch this space.

Btw I’m fully aware of the irony of describing how much better short messages are in a long blog post, will short messages really prove to be effective? We shall see…

Ok here goes…

I’ve been toying with the idea of blogging for many years, mainly after seeing the success my brother has had with the good work he is doing at ibikelondon to promote cycling for all and better cycling infrastructure. The thing that has really prompted me to start engaging with the blogosphere is my introduction to twitter.

Now at this point you are probably thinking surely this blog post was written in the late noughties, but I am a late come to twitter. I have to admit to being a bit of a skeptic. My perception was that it was a tool for popstars, footballers and politicians to massage their fragile ego’s and share their nihilistic tendencies and it just didn’t appeal to me.

The thing that changed my thinking was a project I was assigned at work to deliver a technical support feed for our online services. It was a pretty basic feed, our Service Desk tweeted their availability, and sent tweets when our services had significant issues, or we planned to do disruptive change. I went with a soft launch to give our desk the opportunity to get used to this brave new world (in my eyes) of being in the firing line from multiple customers at the same time.

My colleague Darren Hartley a much more experienced tweeter than me, thankfully ignored the quiet launch approach and started following our customers feeds. I found the take up in followers in the space of a week astonishing. What also surprised me was how our customers reactions to outages differed from long held misconceptions I had about the importance of availability of services. I was expecting us to get hammered with negative comments and complaints when our services fell over, the reality was that our particular userbase, mostly lawyers and conveyancing firms were mainly relieved that it wasn’t a problem with their IT systems, that we knew we had an issue to resolve, and just wanted to be informed when the service was back. There weren’t the hordes of users quoting availability and mean time to recovery metrics that I was expecting.

I have since been using twitter to engage with the #Devops and #Agile communities to learn more about these working practices. I have found twitter to be a great way to learn and share with people with a wide range of experiences, a much richer resource than available to me within my organisation alone. Finally all of the spiel you hear from collaboration salesman was starting to make sense!

My biggest obstacle (and one of twitters greatest strengths!) has been the 140 character limit. Sometimes it just isn’t enough to describe your thoughts or point of view. This has been the straw that has broken the camels back and has finally propelled me into becoming a contributor to the blogosphere and not just a consumer. To take a talk show radio analogy I’m a long term listener first time caller!