Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Engaging a Distributed Workforce

As more and more companies come to rely on remote workers, many issues arise. A company may have employees working remotely for a variety of reasons: key employees travel, necessitating a remote connection, at least temporarily; having employees from all over the nation or globe offers businesses the opportunity to draw on talent and expertise that may not be available locally; locally-based employees may wish to work from home to cut down on commuting time and costs. The problem is how to ensure that remote workers feel valued, engaged and motivated.

Sharing goals, updates and events:

If remote workers are to stay engaged with the company they must be aware of, and share, the company's goals. They also need to be included in every update in the company and in events, large and small, business and social. When workers are in different time zones it can be difficult to ensure that everyone is up to date. Cloud computing helps by having data available to employees anytime, anywhere, but the HR department faces the not inconsiderable challenge of keeping everyone on the same page. Every worker's contribution must be recognized and valued, while their input must also be obtained for many company decisions.

Maintain regular communications:

All communications from head office should be mobile compatible so that remote workers can read and respond easily. These employees must still be able to see themselves as a valuable part of a team. Having regular times scheduled for conference calls, messaging, email updates, etc. can help assure that everyone is not only kept in the loop but also accountable; no one can argue that they weren't advised of something or missed a vital email.

Provide remote workers with the appropriate tools:

Clearly, a remote workforce needs the right tools: laptop computers, iPads or PC tablets, smart phones, etc. are essential to allow remote workers, permanent or temporary, constant accessibility to up-to-date data. Conference calls can be arranged to work around time zone differences and communication networks must allow for updating employees that may be absent from the office as frequently as needed. 'Face time' and video chatting can help managers based at a company's head office identify more regularly with their remote workforce; speaking to a 'face' tends to be more meaningful than sending or receiving emails or text messages.

Avoid isolating remote workers:

It is only too easy for remote workers to feel isolated and left out, a situation that will clearly be detrimental to morale and the achievement of a company's goals. Remote workers are not able to walk over to a colleague's desk for a chat and cannot readily stay abreast of office gossip (a mixed blessing perhaps, but being completely unaware that a colleague has married, had a baby, is seriously ill, etc. will only add to an employee's feeling that s/he is not really part of the team). Regular social updates may be needed to make remote workers feel part of the 'family'.

Provide ongoing training and education opportunities:

Whether they are located on the other side of the globe or just the other side of the city, remote employees are entitled to have access to the same education and professional development opportunities as their office-based colleagues. Online educational programs, such as those provided by Shift iQ, allow remote workers to participate in online, self-study or instructor-led programs while managers can easily assess workers' knowledge and understanding of new initiatives and analyze test results.

Keeping their remote employees fully involved is essential if a company is to get maximum benefit from a remote workforce. Fortunately, technology is on our side; in the twenty-first century, there is really no excuse for allowing any employees to feel out of touch.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Motivating Your Employees

Interestingly, money — whether a bonus or a raise in salary — is often not the key motivator for employees. Of course, money is always welcome — no one is going to turn down a raise, unless it comes with unacceptable conditions — however, bonuses are initially heavily taxed and then frequently spent quite quickly. Likewise, employees soon become accustomed to a salary increase and simply adjust their lifestyle to fit — six months later they may see no appreciable benefit. Does this mean employers should institute a salary freeze? By no means, cost-of-living raises are only fair and people do deserve to have their efforts or increased skill levels suitably rewarded.

Nevertheless, there are other ways to motivate employees that may be far more effective than an increase in salary. Demonstrable appreciation, more vacation time, flexi-time, better working conditions, shorter working hours, offering ongoing educational and personal development programs, social events and engendering team spirit may all succeed in motivating people. A surprising number of workers, for example, when asked if they would prefer a raise in salary or more vacation time, opted for more vacation time. A change in the work/life balance may be a considerable inducement for many people and it is likely to have side benefits in reduced stress, leading to happier employees and fewer sick days, which lead in turn to higher productivity — a 'win-win' situation.

Not all employees are created equal; depending on where they are in their career and what their family situations are, motivation will vary. The chance to pursue a course to improve skills and possibly earn a promotion is likely to be far more attractive to younger employees than to someone within two years of retirement for example. Likewise, employees with young children are more likely to value flexi-time or a greater allotment of vacation days.

Showing appreciation is such an obvious solution to the motivation question and yet it is overlooked surprisingly often by employers. Many of us fall into the trap of complaining when something is wrong while barely noticing when everything goes right. Everyone wants to feel special; showing appreciation can range from a simple 'thank you' for a job well done or for going the extra mile, to a tangible reward. Recognizing a particular employee's achievements publicly can be tremendously motivating, both to the employee and to others who may be stimulated to achieve the same recognition.

Social events and team-building exercises can also help engender a feeling that the workforce is like a large extended family and that everyone is valued and appreciated. Recognizing milestones in people's personal lives; birthdays, weddings, engagements, births of children, etc. shows that management is interested in the employee as a person, not just a cog in the wheel and organizing social events for holidays or special occasions provides light relief.

Having an effective mentoring program and affording all employees access to professional development and the possibility to update skills or earn a promotion is also a no-brainer. Updating skills and competencies is essential to the efficient running of any business and helping employees to climb the ladder will both motivate and encourage employee retention. Employees who feel they can go no further with their present company, or are not being encouraged to develop their career, are employees that will be searching the employment ads for a position where they can indeed achieve their goals.

InSite offers an integrated suite of applications, providing a cost-effective way to develop and deliver online learning, compensation and performance management programs to businesses anxious to motivate their employees and optimize their organizational talent.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Work Smarter, Not Longer

Traditional workplace culture is changing — rapidly. Gone are the days when new employees feel they have to climb the corporate ladder as rapidly as possible, putting in punishing hours in order to do so. Today's employees are more likely to be demanding a healthy work/life balance. Forward-thinking companies are well aware of this and have changed, or are changing, their corporate structure accordingly.

Generation X employees may be the children of 'baby boomer' moms who bought into the 'superwoman' ideal prevalent in the 70s. These women were programmed to feel they needed to put in 70-hour weeks at the office while simultaneously raising their children, whipping up gourmet meals, enjoying an active social life and maintaining a household. The message passed to the next generation was that work was more important than family, a message that understandably may have caused a strong reaction, leading today's generation to seek more flexible working conditions. 'Latchkey kids' themselves, they want a different scenario for their own children if they have them; even if they don't, they still want time to enjoy life outside of work.

There was considerable social media buzz recently about a video where Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (Forbes 5th most powerful woman) admits to leaving work at 5:30 every day so that she can eat dinner with her children. Apparently we are still shocked that someone in her position would admit to leaving the office — at the designated close of business — to spend quality time with her family. In fact, she herself states that it is only in the last year or so that she has been comfortable admitting this. She also remains in touch via email late at night and early in the morning; nevertheless, she has made a decision to be present with her family every evening because she feels that is very important. In fact, she suggests that this should be the norm for any employee, regardless of gender or family obligations.

Many employees in their 30s are still carrying student loans while simultaneously taking on larger mortgages, car loans and after-school care/daycare fees. They are certainly not looking to opt out of the rat race and start an alpaca farm — what they do seem to want is to work smarter rather than longer, without being perceived as shirkers. Flexi-time is only the beginning; this generation wants to be able to telecommute, at least part of the time; working from home has gained huge popularity in the last decade or so. The advent of widespread wireless Internet availability and smartphones has enabled office personnel to work from almost anywhere and still remain in constant touch with other team members.

Forward-thinking employers will provide their employees with the flexibility they desire and foster a workplace culture that encourages professional development and movement within the corporate structure while actively discouraging long hours spent in the physical workplace itself. Working remotely reduces stress and pollution from long commutes as well as allowing employees more time to enjoy life outside of work. Taking off early on a summer afternoon to head for the beach or the golf course and finishing that project later in the evening can do wonders for one's stress levels, resulting in happier, healthier workers — wise employers are beginning to recognize this. Shift iQ's Learning Management System is completely mobile compatible, allowing workers to access professional development anywhere, anytime.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Benefits of Virtual Teams

Virtual teams can offer considerable benefits to companies, whether small, medium or large.

Accessing a wider pool of talent:

The pool of available talent is no longer limited to one city or town. While it is true that one could, for certain senior positions, hire employees from elsewhere in the country, this would normally involve paying removal expenses. Additionally, a higher salary would probably be required to compensate the new hires for uprooting spouses and families. While many people may be happy to move anywhere for the right position, many excellent potential employees are not — their spouses have good jobs, their children are settled in school, they have friends and family and commitments in their current community. Virtual teams avoid all these problems; suddenly the available talent pool is nationwide or even worldwide.

Cost savings:

Cost savings for some corporations using virtual teams are considerable, running into millions of dollars a year. Clearly relocation packages are no longer an issue. Additionally, there is a significant reduction in travel costs, commuting, and paying for office space. Of course, some of these cost savings are passed on to the employee, making the position even more attractive.

Time saving and increased productivity:

As mentioned above, virtual teams allow employees the luxury of flexibility; commuting is eliminated, employees are subject to lower stress levels and take fewer sick days, resulting in increased productivity. Additionally, having a team whose members are located across several time zones effectively expands the business day from eight hours to twelve hours, even twenty-four in some cases. Projects can be accomplished in a shorter period by utilizing more hours in the day.

Sales and marketing:

Having team members in multiple locations gives customers access to a physical presence nationwide or even globally.

Small/medium businesses:

Virtual teams can help level the playing field for small or medium businesses, giving them advantages that were previously only available to larger corporations since marketing and communications can be outsourced to different countries.

Obviously, virtual teams also present unique challenges but these can be readily overcome with experienced leadership and careful selection of team members. Virtual team members will need to be self-motivated and capable of working alone without the stimulus of co-workers. They will also need to be good communicators; maintaining effective communications may be one of the biggest challenges facing virtual teams. Cutting-edge technology — allowing cloud computing, video conferencing, email, messaging, etc. — will be the team members' strongest ally.

Effective team leaders will be able to establish clear performance standards and ensure that all team members are clear on the company’s goals. A collaborative ethos that allows all employees to feel that their opinions are welcomed and respected, enabling positive discussions, needs to be fostered by the team leaders. Remote team members need to feel they are not being left out of the loop and that they have the support of the rest of the team. Successes also need to be celebrated, just as would happen if all team members shared the same corporate office space.

Virtual teams clearly need to be able to communicate and access information anytime, anywhere. To this end, cloud-computing options offer the perfect answer for virtual team members.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Rest in Peace, RFP

At one time or another, most of us have gone through the Request for Proposal (RFP) process — either as a customer looking for a vendor, or as a vendor responding to a request from a prospective customer. At the end of the day though, I think everyone comes to the same (and sometimes rather abrupt) realization that the RFP exercise is a massive waste of time and resources for both parties, and rarely yields the desired results.

Still, it surprises me that RFP's are so widely used by organizations looking to select vendors. And, I'm not alone in my thinking here. Craig Weiss at E-Learning 24/7 has commented on this in his excellent article, LMS Guide: Everything from Selecting to Implementing. On the first page he asks the question, "When should I use an RFP?" — and his answer mirrors my own: "Ideally, never."

Of course, Craig follows up with constructive alternatives to the RFP process, and I will offer some of my thoughts on that later. First, let's look at the primary culprits that make the RFP process so dysfunctional, and how they misdirect valuable time, energy and resources.

Culprit #1 — Poorly specified requirements

An RFP should clearly specify requirements and desired outcomes so that a vendor can propose the best possible solution in accordance with a realistic and feasible budget. Ideally, requirements analysis is done first, and the outcome from that analysis shapes an RFP.

However, when I look back at every RFP that has crossed my desk in the past 20 years, very few include requirements that are defined with sufficient detail to support constructive conversation, let alone an actionable response. You've heard of "putting the cart before the horse." That's what tends to happen and as a result, the RFP too often becomes a glorified fact-finding document, and this leads us to the second culprit.

Culprit #2 — RFP as fact finding

OK, so here we are. A typical RFP offers little in the way of structured, actionable specifications. It may have been shaped by a committee, and it almost certainly contains inconsistencies and omissions in its attempt to serve the whims of multiple stakeholders.

Of course there are plenty of vendors willing to spend the time and resources "educating" their potential customers by doing the necessary requirements analysis as part of the proposal effort. Essentially, the proposal document becomes something that is a combination of: a statement of interest, a functional specification, and an implementation estimate; all prepared by the vendor, free of charges and obligations.

From my experience, if you are not certain that you have at least a 50/50 chance of winning an RFP, then it is insane to even consider a response. After all, in what other context would you willingly forego compensation for time, effort, and expertise?

Vendors expend a tremendous amount of time and money preparing their responses to a typical RFP, most of which is wasted effort when only one vendor is selected — and all of which is wasted effort when no vendor is selected because the process is scrapped partway through. This leads us to our third culprit.

Culprit #3 — A one-sided process

No matter how you look at it, the RFP process is opaque and one-sided. Don't believe me? Consider how often a budget is disclosed in an RFP. Almost never. Consider how often an RFP is recalled or cancelled for no reason at all. All too often.

The RFP process fails to support or engage customers and vendors in an environment that is characterized by clear and constructive dialogue, with lines of communication that are open and transparent. Some argue they do not disclose budget for fear of vendors who will propose solutions based on price rather than proposing solutions based on merit and capability. I disagree. The reality is this position needlessly complicates (and sometimes blocks) meaningful communication, it negates value, and it attracts desperate vendors who are willing to say anything to get the work they need.

The RFP process is not a panacea for vendor selection because it is disingenuous and one-sided from the start, and it sets the stage for a frustrating experience for both vendors and customers. Think about it, who walks into a dealership with the intent of buying a car without disclosing the basics of the buying decision, like budget?

Alternatives to the RFP process

About two years ago we decided we would respond to an RFP only when: 1) the requirements are clearly defined and 2) we have a minimum 50/50 chance of being awarded the work. If both of these criteria are not met then our response is simple: no response. Instead we get on with productive work for real customers who value our efforts, and with whom we can communicate openly.

Craig's LMS Guide emphasizes a strong focus on "putting first things first" and "not putting the cart before the horse." You need to begin by allocating time to do your homework properly: identify systems of interest, commit to product demonstrations, and understand the capabilities of prospective vendors.

I agree, and I would add that the results from your "homework" should be captured and documented in a formal product planning or requirements analysis.

Product Planning and Requirements Analysis

Product planning and requirements analysis is our first step when we on-board new customers and when we work with current customers to expand and tailor our solutions to their growing and evolving business needs. Without this first step, the probability of a successful implementation is greatly diminished.

Product planning and requirements analysis typically unfolds in several phases; it requires its own budget, with an experienced guide and a strong commitment from the entire team. If the resources for this are not available to you internally, then you need to find them before you start. This is critical.

Core Components of Requirements Analysis and Product Planning
Requirements Gathering
  • Product concept and definition
  • Business process
  • Business value
  • Platform summary
Requirements Analysis
  • Functional specifications
  • Underlying data model
  • Application security requirements
  • Reporting capabilities
  • Configuration and integration requirements
  • Data conversion
  • Value-added features
  • System delivery
Product Planning
  • Methodology and approach
  • Project team
  • Schedule
  • Cost estimates
Product planning and requirements analysis is tremendously valuable when it's done right. If you are working in an organization that still needs to follow an RFP process, then the outcome from this work will allow you to prepare a well-considered and properly documented RFP that vendors will truly appreciate.

At InSite we advocate for transparency and we value relationships. In fact, our company was founded on relationships first and technology second. Our culture empowers us to develop incredible solutions like Shift iQ and InSite's Open Management Information system.

If you work in a company like ours then you know every constructive relationship supports collaboration in an open and transparent environment, which allows everyone to discuss, decide, and deliver on realistic expectations. RFPs rarely, if ever, contribute to achieving this, and we have been pleased to see organizations of every size begin to abandon the RFP process in favor of much more productive alternatives.

Rest In Peace, RFP!

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Common E-Learning Development Challenges

The great team at e-Learning Heroes has recently completed a survey of e-learning developers to learn more about their biggest hurdles.

The survey found that 65 percent of e-learning developers don't have enough time to create high-quality e-learning, and 73 percent said it's difficult to ensure content looks good on every device. Collaboration with subject matter experts is another very common challenge.

You can read a summary of the survey results here: Common e-Learning Development Challenges

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Database Table and Column Naming Conventions

We have worked with many different databases over the years, and we have seen many different naming conventions for tables and columns. Some of the naming conventions we have encountered are great, and others are simply awful.

If you are curious to know what conventions are followed by the database development team at InSite, one of our developers has posted a great article on the topic.

SQL Server Table and Column Naming Conventions

The article describes standard naming conventions for tables and columns, and it provides code that leverages the conventions to do some useful things like dependency visualization and foreign key constraint validation.