Saturday, January 10, 2015

Make mobile communication disappear

Maybe “disperse” is a better word than “disappear,” but futurist Mike Walsh thinks mobile communication already is disappearing. “When you look at new technologies like Google Glass, like Fitbit, things that are tracking our motion and steps, you are actually seeing the idea of mobile fragmenting, breaking up, and disappearing into our clothing, our eye wear, into our everyday lives,” he said.

Source: Ecourterre, Fittersift
“This is more than just about being cool or having new technology. The disappearance of the mobile phone is actually about a total integration between the digital world and our real world. And that’s going to change everything.” 

Everything? That includes how we communicate and how we behave. Communication is not about putting words, images or sound on any number of screens. Communication at work helps people understand and succeed. What if you receive an infographic with this hour’s purchase uptick after your new product introduction, exactly at the time you are delivering a presentation to your sales executive, sent to your aural or visual field simply because you are in a conversation on that topic? 

For one thing, you wouldn’t be heads-down in a digital screen to retrieve your most current numbers. And for another, you’d be out talking with people, having a conversation—the richest communication. How we communicate and how we behave will be different when smartphones, tablets, watches and glasses are truly contextual—aware of where you are and what you are doing—not a conveyance method driven by someone else’s delivery routine.

That’s been a problem employee communicators have faced from Day One. We can deliver messages, but their relevance depends on the receiver, not the sender trying to capture attention and drive engagement.

Employee communicators are trying out company-to-employee apps on smartphones, practicing limited context even as very early adopters are practicing integrated context in wearable computers like clothing or tattoos. Since more than half of adult Americans said in the recent Pew Research Internet Project it would be “very hard to give up” their cellphones, we as communicators have a path to bridge real life with smartphones into future, on-the-job, context technology.

Also from the Pew study, both the Internet and cell phones were more important to respondents than television, email, and even social media. In real life, people experience how cell phones connect them to others, and maybe intuitively they understand it’s the Internet that helps them find, create and share information, not to mention organize work, learn skills and do our jobs better.

So when you think of mobile communication, think of context, not merely delivery. Appreciating context, not just delivering information, is a good practice for any workplace communication.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Is Google Glass a fading blip on the technology screen?

At the end of 2014—the proclaimed Year of the Wearable—where is the consumer release of Google Glass? Epic failure? 

Naturally, I’m inclined to say no. As a Glass Explorer I have spent my own time and money testing the beta eyewear for a year and a half and researching wearables. There is no failure in this learning opportunity for me or, I’m sure, for Google and others in the wearables market.

What worked

Having information suspended in front of your eyes feels more futuristic than holding a smartphone in your hand or wearing a band on your wrist. I like the fact that Glass tethers to multiple branded phones, not only Google or Android phones. What really fells different is being hands-free.

I certainly don’t know if Google will make a wide consumer release of Glass. But I am sure the company has learned from all the input about how people use and develop applications for wearables.

What didn’t work

The “killer app” for consumer acceptance evades us, except perhaps eyewitness video—photographing your baby’s first steps or a first-person view of an extreme sport attempt. Google offered the means for developers and users to come up with applications for real life. Some interesting ideas emerged. I’m not counting games that require you to move like a bobble-head.

The hands-free advantage of Google Glass almost disappeared as more smartphones recognized voice instructions and talked back. A phone-as-personal-assistant seems friendly, or at least not as unnerving as the person next to you wearing Glass. Besides, snooping via Glass is harder to ignore at this point than surveillance cameras or surreptitious phone cameras. Google continues to explore, with some success, the use of Glass in niche business markets where hands-free is useful.

The initial audio interface didn’t achieve what I’d hoped. Transmitting sound through bone vibration just didn’t work on different-shaped heads. Given the input choice of speaking to air or tapping the side of Glass, I usually end up tapping.

Why I did it

What could wearables do for future improvement of employee communication? Here was a chance to test a promising technology, just in case I didn’t live long enough to see wearables change lives for the better. I remember testing the Internet, even before the World Wide Web, and piecing together ideas for interconnected networks for average workers. Yet it took decades to evolve into intranets.

Wearables will take a while to evolve as well, and probably into a form that will make Google Glass, as cyborg nouveau, seem primitive. Let’s keep gazing further in 2015.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Your choice. Easy to check. Do something different.

No Fitbit on my wrist for the past few days. Mine broke. I really miss it. The wearable step counter, it turns out, did motivate me. It kept track of my movements and ever so gently nudged me on, every day.

Reminders were subtle. I had the Fitbit Force with the built-in watch. So all during a day, when I checked the time, an easy push on the button told me my steps so far.

At noon, 3,000 steps…I need to park further away and walk up and down the sidewalk before going in to the restaurant for lunch. Mid afternoon, I’ve got to get up from the keyboard and stretch…oh, and walk, because I’m only at 5,000 steps. At home after a hard day, only at 7,000 steps…so, yes, I need to get on the treadmill.

With my aspirational goal of 10,000 steps a day, which is about five miles, you can tell my Fitbit didn’t break from over use or dripping sweat. It simply cracked. Because mine was a model Fitbit no longer sells and was still under warranty, Fitbit is going to send me a refund. I’m just waiting for return instructions and materials to be mailed to me.

What will I do with that cash I’ll get back? I will buy another health band, and I do like Fitbit. It was my choice among the contenders, and that competitive playing field hasn’t changed that much. Or should I wait a couple of weeks to see if an iWatch materializes to change the game?

Now what does all this have to do with the stated goal of this blog, to see wearables through the eyes of people communicating at work? The obvious connection, and the one I’ve read lots about, relates to corporate wellness programs. Your company wants you to be healthy; your company gives you a health band. You and your coworkers team up and win rewards. The company presumes to save health care costs in the long run. Great plan! However, from what I’ve read, most people who join those teams are already exercising—or they drop out before long.

I found a different value to my Fitbit. Incremental metrics throughout the day encouraged me to do just a little bit more, without peer pressure. It was my choice to check the status and to decide how to respond. Choice, check, respond—that could apply to any communication message. If an employee chooses to know and there is an easy way to find out, that can lead to a particular behavior.

If you choose to know
and there is an easy way to find out,
that may lead to a desired behavior.
For some time now, in factories and call centers, metrics like numbers completed and time spent seemed to bark out: Do more faster. Sales goals hang over the heads of salespeople. Some places, a Twitter stream flies by with comments from customers, but it seems too much to follow. Cable news and a stock ticker doesn’t seem to fit the bill for individual response.

What should we be putting on our digital screens in the workplace? If employees could see an instructional metric or invitation to respond at the moment they walk by an unobtrusive screen, maybe they will want to respond to help meet a shared goal. Or maybe a quick invitation via Google Glass for more information may be the easy choice to take a micro-behavior. Simple communication might provide enough of an incentive for incremental effort.

What’s the difference between standard corporate motivation communication and Fitbit? It’s the choice to check the status, knowing the incremental goal, instead of becoming blind to the flashing light that’s always visible so eventually ignored.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A keyboard in the hand is worth…

I remember what a challenge it was to learn to type. I took a course taught at my high school in summer school because I couldn’t imagine a whole semester of typing exercises. Now, of course, I type constantly, and I’m pretty fast at it, if not perfect.

I even look forward to conducting telephone interviews when distance prevents face-to-face research, because I can type a transcript as we talk, capturing quotable responses efficiently via my desktop keyboard. I learned that skill decades ago to replace audio recording, because I seldom had time to have to listen to the whole conversation again.

I still have a Chiclets BlackBerry, though I’m all thumbs—in a negative, slow way. I much prefer my iPhone and one- or two-finger mobile typing. Yet for speed, it’s back to my full-sized keyboard.

That kind of input won't work with wearable computing. Some innovators say gestures in the air are enough. With Google Glass, its trackpad-at-the-temple will feed in motion instructions. Tap once to open or play. Swipe down to close. Swipe forward with great speed to get Glass to identify the song you are listening to at the moment.

Samsung, which makes smart watches among other things, has reportedly applied for a patent for an intricate approach for thumb-tapping different sections of your fingers to represent different characters. And I thought learning QWERTY over the summer in an un-air-conditioned classroom was hard.

Nonetheless, I’m sure I’ll take time to learn that, or Twiddler. In the category of devices called chorded keyboards, a Twiddler is a one-handed alternative that has been around for years and is getting renewed interest. Instead of tapping parts of your fingers representing different characters as in Samsung’s vision, using Twiddler is more like playing a guitar. Different finger combinations on the Twiddler play a chord that represents a character or command.

We seem to want an input method other than our voices. Imagine how distracting it would be for everyone around you to be talking into wearable whatevers. People seem grateful that on most airline flights, passengers can’t use cell phones, because no one wants to sit next to that chatty passenger, or even worse, a talker on each side. Imagine a workplace full of people talking into their shirtsleeves or…wait a minute. That describes a busy office with people talking into headsets.

What we need is not only a path for quietly inputting our thoughts so much as for computing power that truly understands what we’re saying and what to do with that information, in common language, when we do talk out loud. Now, for example Google Glass’s spoken menu must be repeated word for word, like “make a call to…” or “send a message to...” I might be inclined to say “send a text message to…” instead of “send a message to….” It doesn’t work.

And as for me and my typing, I will miss the opportunity to go back and edit what I’ve written before tapping “send.”

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Wearables point to distinctive communication for productivity

With wearables and sensors,
we know now that people with
more face-to-face interaction
had lots of experts to turn to
when they had questions,
and they completed tasks more quickly.
Especially when it’s more than flashy eyewear taking cool videos, and when it measures more than steps taken or stairs climbed, wearable technology has landed squarely in the workplace. And it has everything to do with communication.

I had the truly exciting chance to talk with Ben Waber of Sociometrics Solutions about a year ago, and since then, I’ve seen his name and his work pop up in business publications all over, recently in Bloomberg Businessweek and the Financial Times.

ID for productivity (more than security entry)

This sociometric story starts with your badge or ID card that hangs around your neck at work, not a digitally connected watch or titanium face frame. A sociometric badge can, as an example, record how you move through your workday, how much time you spend in a meeting, who is talking, and how that affects decisions, using microphones and transceivers. The badge also measures your energy, specifically how you lean it to a dialogue, with an accelerometer noting posture and movement. Collectively, the data point to productivity—or not.

“All the things we think are soft can now be measured,” according to Waber. People’s interactions are quantified with 0s and 1s, the data of personal dynamics, though not exact words that specific people use. Sociometrics Solutions doesn’t record content of conversations but the type and length of interactions. That, with energy metrics, tells a useful behavior story.

By looking at what seemed to be soft skills now backed up by data, Waber has been particularly fascinated by the value of promoting people who help others do their tasks more quickly and who provide people with answers, as opposed to promoting the highest-producers themselves out of producer jobs. “These are the people who help others be more productive. Never before could we quantify this.”

Useful behavior counted in interactions (not surveys)

Sociometrics also quantifies peoples’ networks—how many people you actually talk with during a day’s work. At a major financial company’s call center, Sociometrics Solutions determined that the people with highest efficiency had the most cohesive networks. Simply put, people with more face-to-face interaction had lots of experts to turn to when they had questions, and they completed tasks more quickly.

Eighty percent of the time those call center employees were talking was when lunchtimes overlapped. So what did the financial firm do to take advantage of this insight? It synched more break times as well, essentially a no-cost improvement for more productivity. “A 10 percent increase in crossover interaction and exploration raises the return a bit more than 10 percent. Even a shared, central coffee area where people bump into each other works,” Waber said. 

Conversely, cutting into break time can cut productivity. Reigning in travel budgets for meetings is a short term, line-item fix that could affect long-term employee engagement as people’s networking takes a hit. “Work is getting so complex, that dependency on others is more important," Waber said.

That seems to be stating the obvious, but it raises the urgency for employee communication professionals to enable interactions instead of generating more posts or paper.

So while I walk around with a Fitbit and wear Google Glass, Waber’s wisdom reminds me that lagging or cutting-edge technology is not the problem or the solution for communicators. How employees interact and collaborate, or don’t, is what we need to measure and act on.

Yes, we can ask the right survey questions to measure engagement, but that doesn’t completely define what to do to improve collaboration, maintain culture across offices, or manage change. There’s a reason to pay attention to the sensors popping up on people at work.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Google Glass becomes “glamorous” to enhance communication

Admitting it's a long road to adoption, Virgin Atlantic airlines is testing Google Glass for customer service at London’s Heathrow airport.

Virgin Atlantic says the test is based on research that shows the experience of flight is not as exciting as it used to be for customers. Google Glass might turn that feeling around. In fact, Virgin Atlantic says a customer greeted by a Glass-wearing customer service representative might find flying to be a glamorous experience again.

Virgin writes in its press release:
“From the minute Upper Class passengers step out of their chauffeured limousine at Heathrow’s T3 and are greeted by name, Virgin Atlantic staff wearing the technology will start the check-in process. At the same time, staff will be able to update passengers on their latest flight information, weather and local events at their destination and translate any foreign language information. In future, the technology could also tell Virgin Atlantic staff their passengers’ dietary and refreshment preferences–anything that provides a better and more personalised service.”

Galactic-style publicity aside, the real possibilities come with the disappearance of the ticket counter with a big computer monitor that divides the staff from passengers. Virgin Atlantic representatives can step out from behind the counter to talk with the passenger and still have instant access to the check-in process and flight updates. Notice the absence of any mention of taking pictures. It's like a natural conversation. And, while keeping eye contact, the representative can translate information into another language, given the capabilities of Glass. 

This could be a breakthrough for Google to see how quickly people will become comfortable in conversation with someone who is wearing Glasssomeone who is engaging and helpful, not creepy. It’s about delivering information, not sneaking a photo or video. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

The best use of your Google Glass could be to give it away

“Journalist Nilay Patel wanted to tell the story of Indiana University shooting guard Victor Oladipo in the moments leading up to the 2013 NBA draft, but he didn’t want to get in the way.” So begins the retelling in the American Journalism Review of how basketball star Oladipo became a first-person experiential journalism trendsetter.

It’s journalism, but it’s also storytelling. And that’s what we do every day at work. We tell stories to share experiences and ideas related to the work we do to reach our goals.

I can envision sharing my Google Glass with someone at work on a typical day or for a special event, to see how the day or event unfolds before his or her eyes. And then, I’d post the video (edited, as appropriate) for people throughout the company. What an extension of what we already know—that people relate to other people as we communication about work. I usually talk about the “potential” of Glass. This, I could do tomorrow. And I just might!

Be sure to watch the story of Oladipo’s experience.