Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Some things that really do work

There should be no doubt in your minds that I have become a cynic when it comes to activity controls. You will be happy to learn that there are areas and methodologies that I have found really do work.

Over the past year, I have been working exclusively for a very young, progressive entrepreneur starting out what will someday be a very large and successful corporation. I have had the freedom to try out many new systems and methodologies designed to carry his companies through future growth.

At any given time, we have had over twenty projects on the go with varying levels of complexity. These projects have involved both internal and external resources and keeping everyone on track with their tasks has been critical to the success of the companies. These projects have included such things as:

  • Developing and publishing an employee handbook
  • Several large construction projects
  • Regulatory and funding projects
  • New product development and launches
  • Patent and confidentiality work
  • Mechanical automation, design, and the moving of an industrial site in the dead of winter
  • Working with individual employees on time management and organization
  • Conducting and organizing research projects
  • Expense reporting and management
  • Safety and security audits
  • Organizing and facilitating regular brainstorming and strategic planning sessions
  • Developing internal and external communications systems
  • Cost analysis of mobile devices and the switching of vendors
  • Creating vendor evaluation systems
  • ERP systems and vendor analysis (Future planning)
  • Discovering and implementing an employee time-clock software system
All these were done with tight timelines and budgetary constraints

With limited resources, I have had to be very creative in discovering and developing systems to achieve a successful outcome to each project or determine and defend an no-go position.

Internal Systems and Applications Initially Added

  • Exchange server
  • SQL server (For Outlook Business Contact Management database)
  • BES Blackberry server
  • Shared drive
  • Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Management (My first project with them)
  • Office 2007 suite

Other factors:
  • SharePoint was cost-prohibitive
  • The owner of the companies uses email as his primary form of communication (Literally hundreds)
  • Seven business units, all under two years old
  • No middle managers
  • Overwhelmed, individual employees working on multiple projects in multiple business units
  • Accounting, legal, HR, marketing, coaching, and IT support, all outsourced to small companies
Those of you in the consulting profession are probably thinking that I was out of my mind to jump in to this quagmire with both feet and I think you are probably right :-)

Since the theme of this post is what went right, let me share some fantastic tools I discovered to address some of the many challenges I faced in the past year and four months. I was also able to clearly define the shortcomings in systems and applications that I previously thought would fit the bill for a growing enterprise.

Challenge #1 - Email overload
  • How many emails can you handle each day?
  • How much time do you spend searching for past emails?
  • How many tasks sent via email get missed in your world?
  • How many "Let's meet Thursday at 2:00" emails result in a forgotten meeting?
  • How many times do you end up endlessly and needlessly cc'd on email conversations?
  • What if your boss works weekends, sending you twenty "important" emails that greet you Monday morning?
Let me say that I know everything there is to know about Outlook. I know every trick and tool; setting up folders, email rules, customizing views, categories, drag-and-drop emails to task and calendar buttons, the works. I have done programming, customizations, and training. You may think as I did that with so many ways to handle basic functions and look at information, Outlook should work great for every user regardless of technical expertise provided there was proper training and "one sheet" guides. Perhaps in your environment your employees have mastered Outlook, if this is the case I applaud you.

If, on the other hand, like me you discovered valuable, frustrated employees that lived in fear of Outlook because of sheer volumes of emails and wrongly-formatted information, here are some tools that worked well for certain employees. As always, a warning that users will usually say that every new tool will help them, but explore key functions to discover the true intention to use before purchasing these add-ons. Fortunately, most come with extended trial periods of full versions. I do not resell or receive compensation for any of the applications mentioned in any post I make, nor am I affiliated with, or shareholder of any company mentioned. I pay rack rate for all applications.

Integrated Outlook Add-On
30 day trial - $90 to buy

Despite it's steep price tag, this is one application that I use every single day and have been for the past few years. A major new release came out a few months ago and I happily paid the upgrade cost for it.

Two main application features I and others use
  1. Project (Folder) creation and assignment - Which provides #2
  2. Project (Folder) Dashboard
The biggest benefit of this program to me is also its main pitfall for some. I call it "the nag". Every time I send or receive an email that has not been assigned to a Project folder, a list of current Projects pops up to select from or type in a new one. Once selected or created, subsequent reply or conversation emails and attachments are automatically or selectively added to that Project folder. Appointments and tasks can also be assigned to these Projects and it all comes together in the Clear Context Dashboard that saves me many hours each week.

Unfortunately, if you tick the "Don't ask me again to assign a Project" box at the bottom of "The nag" dialog, you lose what I see as the main benefits of the program. Once you get used to assigning projects, this program becomes an application you will never want to be without.

Email and contact scoring are Clear Context features I do not use although the inbox cleaning features can help you go from over 1500 unfiled emails (you know who you are) to zero in about an hour. I have worked through this process several times with users and it really is impressive.

Again the caution here, in my opinion, if a user prefers to turn off "The nag" function, this program is not worth the investment, despite the other noteworthy features.

Pocketday Personal (Or Pro) for Blackberry

PD is one of the least expensive PIM programs that works as advertised. Their web site and update systems suck and I keep expecting Cross River to disappear, but there are a few gems in this program. I honestly tried to use and appreciate the (seemingly) more advanced (and more expensive) E-Mobile Today Pro, but PD remains far superior for user customization.
  • Send an email to calendar or task - Most PIM programs have the ability to add the contents of an email read on your Blackberry to an appointment or task. This is a great feature because it helps avoid missed items read on the fly
  • Dashboard View - Pocketday has one of the most customizable dashboards and I appreciate being able to set it up the way I like
  • If you can get past the lousy web site, this program can help you stay organized while also being mobile and the price is right.
MS OneNote
Included with certain MS Office versions - $65 stand alone

While I personally do not use OneNote much, I have found for certain overwhelmed employees it can be just what they need. Designed primarily as a program for students, I have found it also works extremely well for employees that spend a lot of time pouring through online research and receiving many emails on the topics they are researching. OneNote provides yet another way of looking at accumulated information that suits the needs of some employees and executives in electronic binder format.

In my next post, I will speak on project management which I spend a great deal of my consulting time on. I have discovered a reasonably-priced project management application that allows for internal and external resources to be integrated in an easy-to-use format.

Until then, best regards and it is nice to be back!
Arne Huse

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