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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The value of saving emails and old files

I often clean out useless emails to save space, but I learned a long time ago not to remove genuine business emails.

We recently had two situations where this has proved of extreme value to our business.

1) We were asked to provide information about a difficult situation to a supplier. We were able to go back through the emails and provide a paper trail going over a number of months.

2) Today we were asked to provide a copy of a purchase order from 1979. Now it happens that our history files are all stored on a ZIP disk. Problem is that the only ZIP drive we have is a SCSI drive that doesn't fit any of our current computers. So we are unable to access the files. Fortunately our email files go back that far and while we couldn't provide the original document we could at least provide emails that referenced it and gave all the correct details.

SO DON'T DISCARD THOSE EMAIL FILES !!! You never know when you'll need them. And being email they are easily moved from one system to another as you update your computer. Even small businesses like ours need to have this type of backup in place.

That brings up another matter. The rapid changes in technology mean that you need to be aware of being able to access old files.

So when you update your computers you need to make sure that the files on your old computer are still accessible. Ant that applies to software as well. We actually have old data files that we can no longer access because the software we used doesn't work on the current operating system. The safest way seems to be to save old files as PDF. We even have very old word processor documents that can't be read, although we could extract some information from them. Even worse are old graphics files that were done in software that is no longer available.

The moral of the story is that you need to think of the future every time you update hardware or software.

Turn off Mac startup sound

Ever been bothered by the startup chime on a Macintosh? It can be a real problem if you're in a room full of people such as a class or conference and you need to start your computer as it is annoying to others.

Well you can turn it off. CLICK HERE to download a prefPane that does the job for you. All you have to do is go into System Preference to set it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

We've come a long way with form design

Take a look at the following book cover. It's typical of the technology when I first started to design forms.

I've recently been archiving a lot of old books in my business library and it's been interesting to see how far we've come in my lifetime.

What I found surprising is that while the technological emphasis was on the use of the typewriter, some of the design philosophy was sound and are still ignored by many systems and IT people. Take this quote for example;
"It will be observed that the forms designer must apply a wide knowledge of the many requirements which go into the functional design of a form. Furthermore, form design is usually one part of the total result of skillful application of the principles of work simplification to clerical operations. Only in the simplest applications may one safely disregard the services of the experienced designer."
Elsewhere the book says:
"The techniques of designing efficient business records are of such breadth and complexity as to require several years of specialized training before they are mastered."
Something which still applies today if the forms analyst is to be fully equipped for the task.

Usability book of essays

Interested in finding out more about usability? The Usability Professionals' Association has a great introductory book called "Essays on Usability" edited by Russell J. Branaghan.

I found it very informative. It contains various important essays that UPA has published since 1991 when the Association started, including an introductory essay by Janice James, the founder of UPA. Not that it contains a lot of new information for us—but I took a lot of comfort in that it backs up things we were doing at the Communication Research Institute of Australia as early as 1985 and still do today.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mac Favourite Notepad Widget

To date my favourite and most used widget has been Notepad as it stores all the bits of info I need to access regularly.

Unfortunately, it became corrupt and new versions are no longer available. But it did save all the text in separate text files.

The good news is that I found a couple of new notepad widgets. Both have their good and bad points.

The best one for me is SecretNotePadPlus. It allows for extensive editing and has a large window if needed. It can also lock the notepad with a password as shown in the bottom screen shot below.

The other one has a fixed window which is much smaller. Although it doesn't have the same edit capabilities, it does have the facility to enter a category if you use multiple windows and also a page title. Both of these are lacking in SecretNotePadPlus.

Below are a couple of other screen shots.

Toxic emissions from laser printers

I've often said in forms training courses that we need to be careful in our use of such things as recycled paper and laser printing.

Here is further proof. The following is from the 16 April 2009 issue of PrintGraphic News.
RESEARCHERS at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, and the Fraunhofer Wilhelm-Klauditz Institute, Germany, have used HPLC and GC/MS analysis to better understand the environmental dangers of laser printer emission.

Laser printers emit volatile compounds (VOCs) including Ozone aldehydes, especially formaldehyde, and the benzene derivatives toluene, ethylbenzene, m- and p-xylene and styrene. Emissions also tend to be higher from laser printers than from inkjet printers.

CLICK HERE to see the full article in PrintGraphic News.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Reading between the lines – a bad communication practice

I've often said that human communication is one of the most difficult subjects we have to deal with and this past week was no exception.

Last night my wife and I went to a restaurant for a meal with some friends. If you've read earlier posts in this blog you would know that I have tonsil cancer that has moved to my throat, so I can only eat pureed food. Trish had checked with the restaurant ahead of time that they would be able to puree the meal and they were only too happy to do so. The owner was delighted to be able to help.

Well, here is where the fun started.

First, the soup arrived, full of pieces of vegetable and chicken. They were only small but still caused me to choke on them, so we asked for the soup to be pureed. They were happy to oblige. About 15 minutes later the soup came back—a little colder and in another dish, but still the same soup and still with pieces of vegetable and chicken. So I put it aside and said nothing as I didn't want to create a scene in the restaurant. After all, someone else was paying.

Then came the main course—specially prepared for me. But this time it was pureed, only it turned out to be very thick. That wasn't their fault. I don't think we specified that it should be about the consistency of whipped cream. I just can't swallow thick food, so we asked for a cup of BOILING water (so that I could soften it). Again we waited over 15 minutes for the cup of BOILING water. By this time the dinner was cold and a cup arrived, with HOT DRINKABLE water, nowhere near BOILING. Since I didn't want to create any disturbance I mashed it with the food and got it soft enough to eat.

We discovered later that the owner "READ BETWEEN THE LINES" and assumed that when we said "pureed", we really meant "mixed" and when we said "boiling" we really meant "hot". She was very apologetic and admitted that she hadn't realised how bad my condition was, so made assumptions—a dangerous practice in communication that is all too common.

The point I'm making is that all the person had to do was provide EXACTLY what we asked for and all would have been well, but she chose to interpret what we said as if we weren't using the right words.

How often do we do this?

I was commenting to my brother today that this was a regular problem for our company when we were communicating with business people in the USA and Canada. (Now I should point out at this stage that Australians tend to say what they mean—they don't beat about the bush and try to be overly polite.) So I rarely got back answers to questions we asked in emails.

It seems that American and Canadian readers of the emails assumed that when we asked a question, we really meant something other than what we asked. My brother, who works regularly with American companies, said that his experience was the same. He has recently been working on a major project with a large American organisation and in almost every case he got back answers to questions that were not what he had asked for. I found that I had to spell out my question in detailed numbered points to make sure that the person at the other end actually gave me what I wanted to know. Of course, this becomes very frustrating and wastes a lot of time because the questions have to be asked again. When the wrong answers were pointed out, the person invariably said that they had misunderstood the question, when all they really had to do was read it and not "read between the lines", assuming that I had not meant what I said.

I've yet to find out why this is such a big problem for Americans and Canadians. It wasn't a rare occurrence, but happened almost daily when dealing with a range of different people on a regular basis. So it wasn't just a few isolated cases. It occasionally happens in Australia, but much less frequently.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Some thoughts on leadership—are leaders born or made?

Leadership is a subject that has interested me for many years and I have numerous books on it, especially those by John Maxwell and Bill Hybels.

I'd been discussing the need for leadership training within organisations with a close friend who has had much experience in the business world. The discussion turned to whether or not leaders are born or whether they can, in reality, be trained. My friend was of the view that leaders are born with leadership talent and therfeore cannot be made into leaders.

As our discussion progressed and we talked about what others were saying it became obvious to me that we needed to clarify what we meant by the word "leader". We had been thinking primarily in terms of the person who is able to lead by setting the direction others are to follow—the person who can give directions with others being able to follow in confidence, knowing that the leader's approach is sound. Is this a natural talent or can people be trained to lead in this way? I'm strongly inclined to agree with my friend that such people are born with this talent and that there is little training that can make anyone into such a leader.

So the next step for me was to find out what some of the dictionaries defined as "leadership". Much to my surprise, various dictionaries provided little insight into the usage of "leadership" or the word "leader". My Australian Concise Macquarie Dictionary defined "leader" as the "guiding or directing head", but it didn't even have an entry for "leadership". The American Websters Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary provided little additional information on "leader" although it did have a small entry for "leadership", defining it as "1. The office or position of a leader; 2. Capacity to lead". The Concise Oxford Dictionary also failed to provide a definition of "leadership". So using dictionaries wasn't a suitable source of information.

However, as we discussed the issue further it became obvious to me that the word "leader" had two totally different meanings in common usage. The first was what we had been discussing—the person who has the capacity to set the direction for others in such a way that they naturally follow and succeed. The second is far more common in today's society and refers to the position a person has, whether they actually lead or not. It refers to the person in charge, the boss, the supervisor, the political party head, the Prime Minister or President of a country.

As for the second group, these are the people who often do need training, especially in business.

I find it a sad commentary on today's society that so many "leaders" are just figureheads. Take modern-day work practices. There was a time when organisations employed managers or supervisors. But in a desire to give everyone a "say" in the running of the organisation, they are more likely to be called "team leaders". It could be a very sound management concept, but from my experience, these people rarely lead in the real world—their primary tasks seem to be to chair meetings and possibly act as spokesmen for the team. I have no problem with the overall concept of letting people have their input into the running of things but from my experience, if there isn't sound leadership the team becomes ineffective.

As for the first group, I believe anyone can improve their leadership ability, but I'm strongly inclined to agree with my friend that REAL leaders are born that way.

Two of the best leadership books that I've read are The 360° Leader and The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell. The first book deals with how the natural leader can lead a whole organisation from within and doesn't have to be the person at the top of the management hierarchy.

Here is what John Maxwell says in the opening pages of The 360° Leader:
"You do not have to be held hostage to your circumstances or position. You do not have to be the CEO to lead effectively. And you can learn to make ah impact through your leadership even if you report to someone who is not a good leader. What's the secret? You learn to develop your influence from wherever you are in the organization by becoming a 360-Degree Leader, You learn to lead up, lead across, and lead down.
Not everyone understands what it means to influence others in every direction—those you work for, the people who are on the same level with you, and those who work for you. Some people are good at leading the members of their own team, but they seem to alienate tthe leaders in other departments of the organization. Others individuals excel at building a great relationship with their boss, but they have no influence with anyone below them in the organization. A few people can get along within just about anybody, but they never seem to get any work done. On the other hand, some people are productive, but they can't get along with anybody. But 360-Degree Leaders are different. Only 360-Degree Leaders influence people at every level of the organization. By helping others, they help themselves."
He goes on to say:
"If I had to identify the number on misconception people have about leadership, it would be the belief that leadership comes simply from having a position or title. But nothing could be further from the truth. You don't need to possess a position at the top of your group, department, division, or organization in order to lead. If you think you do then you have bought into the position myth."
From The 21 Laws of Irrefutable Leadership, here are some of the quotes I like best from some of his chapter headings:

"To change the direction of the organization, change the leader"

"The True Measure of Leadership Is Influence—Nothing More, Nothing Less"

"Anyone Can Steer the Ship, But It Takes a Leader to Chart the Course"

"When the Real Leader Speaks, People Listen"

"Trust Is the Foundation of Leadership"

"People Naturally Follow Leaders Stronger Than Themselves"

"Leaders Touch a Heart Before They Ask for a Hand"

"Only Secure Leaders Give Power to Others"

"People Buy Into the Leader, Then the Vision"

"Leaders Find a Way for the Team to Win"

"Leaders Understand That Activity Is Not Necessarily Accomplishment"

Well, this is a giant subject and these are just a few miniscule thoughts that come to mind, but I believe they are working considering if you are in a position of responsibility, or even with no official responsibility but with a natural talent for leadership.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Added two new entries to Rob's Perspective

The following short articles have been added to Rob's Perspective:

1. Failure to Learn - Anthony Hopkins - Lessons for IT and forms management
This paper is based on lessons learned from Anthony Hopkins in his books on gas plant explosions in Australia and Texas and how they apply to IT and forms management.
2. Procedures – Handling choices within a choice
This paper deals with a new Playscript approach to handling complex routing in procedure manuals.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Amazing customs

The Encyclopedia Britannica wrote in its 27th edition, 1959, volume 7, about Easter:

"The English word, 'Easter'... corresponding to the German Ostern, reveals Christianity's indebtedness to the Teutonic tribes of central Europe. Christianity, when it reached the Teutons, incorporated in its celebrations of the great Christian feast many of the heathen rites and customs which accompanied their observance of the spring festival... The customs and symbols associated with the observance of Easter have ancient origins, not only in the Teutonic rites of spring but also far back in antiquity... the conception of the egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who also had the custom of colouring and eating eggs during their spring festival... Like the Easter egg, the Easter hare... came to Christianity from antiquity...

"And those families who, by custom, eat ham on Easter Sunday are unwittingly following an old practice of the Roman Catholics of England, who ate a gammon of bacon on Easter to show their contempt for the Jews, to whom pork is forbidden...

"In England... the Puritans... refused to celebrate Easter. Thus at first in the U.S... Easter was not observed. It was not until the latter part of the 19th century, particularly during the Civil War, that the Protestant churches, other than the Lutheran and the Episcopalian, began to mark this day by special services... The Protestant churches also followed the [pagan] custom of holding sunrise services on Easter morning."

The Reader's Digest Publication, "Why in the World," copyright 1994, states the following about Easter and its customs, on pages 199-201:

"Originally, Easter had nothing to do with the Christian calendar. Our word for the festival comes from Eastre or Ostara, the goddess of spring among Germanic tribes of northern Europe. Pagan tribes rejoiced at the coming of spring, which is why many of our Easter customs, such as the giving of eggs, have pagan not Christian origins...

"Hares are born with their eyes open and are nocturnal. Because of this, the Egyptians made them sacred to the Moon. Later, ancient Britons gave the hare magical powers, using it in rites such as fortune-telling. Some villagers in Ireland refused to kill or eat hares, believing that they carried the souls of their grandparents. Later, Germanic tribes who worshipped Eastre (or Ostara), associated the fecund hare with her, their goddess of life and spring...

"Just as pagan customs figure in our Christmas festival, so too they have become associated inextricably with Easter. Long before the beginnings of Christianity, Egyptians and Romans gave gifts of eggs as symbols of life. Easter was originally a pagan festival to celebrate the coming of spring, which marked the rebirth of life in plants, a time when many birds mated and produced young. The hen's egg, from which new life could spring, was a potent sign of regeneration. Often its shell was decorated with colours representing certain flowers and aimed at encouraging their regrowth...

"Traditionally, hot cross buns are eaten on Good Friday, but their origins, like many Eastertide and Christmas customs, go back to pagan times... The baking of special bread, flavoured with spices, was part of pagan celebrations to greet the spring and worship the sun. The ancient Greeks stamped their festival bread with a horned emblem in honour of Astarte, their goddess of love and fertility. The word 'bun' comes from 'boun,' an ancient word for a sacred ox. Cakes stamped with horns became buns marked with a cross."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hybels Axiom — Getting back to people who call

One of my favourite books on leadership is "AXIOM" by Bill Hybels. While he is writing as the leader of a large church organisation, the book is a collection of short essays that are applicable to any organisation.

One of those essays is called "Sweat the small stuff" and I couldn't agree more with what he says. It has been my practice for many years. In it refers to the failure of many people to respond to enquiries.
Here is part of what he says:

"My peers are often shocked to learn that I send out between fifteen and two dozen handwritten notes a week to follow up with people who have helped us a Willow. Or that I respond to my critics when they take time to write. … These things may seem trivial to some people, but the best leaders I know right-size they amount of small stuff required to do their job well and they tend to those things fastidiously. They return phone calls and acknowledge correspondence."

He goes on to talk about how he requires all of his staff to respond within 24 hours, even if it is just to let someone know that their email has been received and they will get back to them later. We do the same thing in our company, except when people send us email jokes, etc. We occasionally slip up but for the most part it is just good courtesy to let people know their email or phone call has been received.

Bill Hybels book is well worth reading.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Security Block on BLOG sites

I heard today the some government agencies put a security block on BLOG sites. I can't do anything about this BLOG other than suggest that people access it privately.

However, Rob's Perspective also uses BLOG software, so I will most likely recreate it using HTML to work the same way. This may take a while due to other commitments.

In the mean time both will continue as they are.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Paperless Office

I've just about finished reading "The Myth of the Paperless Office" by Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper

What a great book! I can highly recommend it.

My thoughts on it are well summed up by two comments on the back of the dust jacket:

"Paper is the old-fashioned technology that refuses to die—and for good reason. As this pioneering study by Sellen and Harper shows, paper supports many needs and work styles better than any other medium. As a result, paper is the perfect complement to electronic documents, superior at many things, inferior at many. Want to know if an organization is working efficiently" Sellen and Harper say to check the wastebaskets—they should be full."

"The authors approach their subject with academic rigour, observing real organisations to find out how people like to work."

It has some amazing revelations about their research into the way people actually work.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Peter Costello Memoirs

When I first head about Peter Costello's Memoirs, a number of journalists predicted that they would be political attacks on colleagues and opponents. But they were way off the track. I eventually read the book and was pleasantly surprised. He was certainly frank about his long term in office as Australia's Treasurer and the issues he faced, but he was just as frank about his ethical position as a practising Christian and how that affected his decision making.

I can highly recommend the book as a valuable insight into the workings of a national government. And now that the change in government has passed, the book can be obtained much cheaper than the original price.

Clean Apple Mac PDF with Graphic Converter

I was faced with a task today that taught me something new that is well worth passing on to any Mac users of Acrobat.

I had a number of old scanned journals that had a series of articles on a particular subject that I wanted to combine as a single PDF file. That part was easy—just a matter of extracting the relevant pages and recombining them as a single PDF document. However, about a third of the pages had other material on them such as parts of other articles, advertising, etc. that I didn't need. But Acrobat had no way of removing the unwanted material. It wold only let me remove whole pages.

The solution was to open the PDF file in that great Mac application "Graphic Converter". It was an easy matter to drag the cursor over anything on the page to be deleted and press the "delete" key. To move to the next page it asked me to save, which I did, and so on through the file. At the finish, saved it back as a PDF and then opened it in Acrobat, set the page size (in this case to Letter Size), added footer page numbers and then used OCR to convert it to searchable text.

A very simple solution that is also useful for removing unwanted marks and blotches in the scanned document.

Using the OCR function has a side benefit—it also correctly orients the page so that the text isn't skewed.

Singing the advantages of Skype

Skype is one of those magnificent free software applications that has many advantages for anyone with a broadband connection.
For example:
1. It's free
2. You can chat at no cost
3. You can send VERY large files to someone else at no cost and without the normal size limitations of email
4. You can make Skype phone calls to other Skype members at no cost
5. You can make ordinary phone calls to non-Skype people at very small cost
6. If you have a video camera as I do on my Apple PowerBook, you can have video phone calls to anyone else who has a camera at no cost.

For example, I have video phone calls with my friend Alex who lives in Paris and it doesn't cost either of us anything. We're also looking at getting my 96-year-old father a new computer with Skype. He is mentally very sound, but lives in a hostel in Sydney and can't get to see us. Because of my current physical condition, it isn't possible for me to go to see him. So the next best thing is to set him up with video phone using Skype and we can talk regularly.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Shana - FileNet - IBM - eForms - Major Decision

When specialised electronic forms software was introduced in the mid 1980’s it was fill and print only. Company’s such as Shana, Delrina, Jetform, Adobe, Apple and BLOC Development Corporation were all developing various types of electronic forms software. It was another five years before workflow-based electronic forms software became available when Canadian company, Shana Corporation, added the functionality to its Informed software. Shana was subsequently acquired by FileNet, which in turn was acquired by IBM with the name changed from Informed to IBM FileNet eForms.

In my opinion, IBM FileNet eForms is the best electronic forms software available. It lacks some of the features of other software, but is so easy to use and has so many built-in functions that it surpasses everything else overall. Shana even created a web-based server known as Forms Manager so that forms created in Informed Designer for their desktop Filler software could be run as HTML forms in a web browser.

Major decision by IBM changes eforms landscape

We’ve recently been notified by IBM that as of January 31 2009 they have decided to discontinue the Forms Manager server and no longer make the Desktop eForms software available to end users as a stand alone product. If you want Desktop eForms you have to purchase FileNet P8 content management software and then pay extra for the eForms software as an add-on feature. The decision doesn’t directly affect existing eForms users who may still be able to obtain support under existing contracts depending on which version of the software they are using. But organisations wanting a LOW-COST and VERY powerful electronic forms solution will have to look elsewhere.

About a year before acquiring FileNet, IBM’s Lotus Team purchased PureEdge, renaming it Workplace Forms and then changing the name again to Lotus Forms.

I've had a chance to look at the latest release and I want to thank the Lotus Team in Canberra for their co-operation. Version 3.5 is a vast improvement over the earlier version. The interface is still not as slick as the FileNet or Adobe products but it is way easier to use. It also has a much stronger array of built in calculations than I'd seen previously and that brings it more into line with the function list of FileNet eForms, which had the most comprehensive set of functions available.

Given that FileNet eForms cannot be purchased without also purchasing P8 Content Management (or other P8 offerings), Lotus Forms is a much more viable solution for organisations wanting only electronic forms.

Lotus Forms also has some great functionality that is lacking in the FileNet product since it uses XML and is able to create dynamic forms. I agree with many forms professionals that "dynamic forms" is often a sales gimmick and has its downside, but I've come across numerous situations where it would have been very useful. So I'm now looking forward to what we can do with it.

Lotus Forms now has a converter for both PDF forms and FileNet ITX templates. I did try converting FileNet eForms into Lotus and it brought over the layouts reasonably well, but at this stage not the calculations and intelligence. Much depends on how much intelligence is built into the FileNet form. I understand that the converter was mainly for converting fill and print forms, not the highly intelligent forms that FileNet can produce. Hopefully that will come in the future. It also brings across boxes that aren't fields as individual lines and these need to be replaced.

As we learn more about the product, I'll update the BLOG with more information. But at this stage I'm far happier with Lotus Forms than I was previously. Lotus also have a low-cost easy-to-use Designer called Lotus Forms Turbo which is a great idea for a small business, but it isn’t suitable for the complex forms that most larger organisations use as it is primarily for simple forms built using wizards.

My hope is that the IBM Lotus Team will step into the picture and do something concrete with Lotus Forms to make it even easier for ALL form designers to use without having to resort to “wizards” and simplistic designs. Combining the functionality and ease of use of FileNet eForms Designer with the XML capabilities of Lotus Forms would make the product FAR AHEAD of anything else available—and DEFINITELY the very best electronic forms software.

As a final word at this stage, I have another comment for the Lotus Team. Since Adobe and Lotus are both built on the Eclipse platform, my hope is that Lotus can make their product just as easy to use as Adobe's.

But is the Lotus Team prepared to do this? I don’t know, but I sure hope they take up the challenge.

Book on web forms

I've just received a copy of the book, Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability, by Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney.

What a superb publication! The writing style is exceptional and very easy to understand.

Although it deals specifically with web forms, there is a lot of content that applies equally well to paper forms.

I can highly recommend it.

It can be obtained from www.amazon.com or in Australia from www.fishpond.com.au where Aussies won't have to pay overseas shipping charges.

Rob's Perspective

I decided to put up another website for short articles rather than using this blog for them. It makes it easier for people to find things.
The new site is called "Rob's Perspective" and it can be found at:
http://rba3.putblog.com/  .
The initial papers are the ones that have been on the web site called "A Forms Perspective", but I wanted to be able to put up more than just forms-related articles, so the new site is a simpler solution and easier for readers to get to the content.