How do you office? Ways and ways of working.

A couple of months in to this new career (freelance, portfolio, self-employed, whatever etc.) I am learning about myself in ways, I suppose, I could have predicted (as usual I didn’t though). To be a little more specific, I am learning about how I like, can and prefer to work. By that I mean the actual performance of the activity of work.

I was an employee from the age of 22 onwards. Those of you who know me, or have seen me, will recognise that some time has passed since then. The passage of that time saw me become a seasoned and experienced office dweller. Open plan, small office, flexible working and hot desking have all been tried. A heady period saw me in three different glass panelled offices; the zenith, with with my own PA outside. These desks were in small technology companies, large corporates, public sector organisations and (whisper it) a global management consultancy.

I like to think that I know something of office life. I will not share much of that though because you all do too. Office life is well known, documented and equally well lamented. We have all spent so much time in offices. So…much…time…No need for repeats of the theme here other than to say it is not all bad . Much great work is done in offices and excellent relationships are formed. Weird though it might be, office life kind of works. Like an extended family staying over at Christmas, it can be tense and draining and fun and surprising.

When I was a dedicated company office user, I never quite found a comfortable mode working from home. Yes, there was the truth of “getting so much done without all those distractions”. There was also the truth of missing out on the serendipity and osmosis from all those distractions. As a team leader and manager there is a longer gap to bridge as well and remoteness still makes that bridge less reliable. Leadership is hard enough without the added handicap of absence. So, I faced the idea of freelancing and working from wherever with some trepidation. Could I do it?

It is early days so far but I think it might be OK. To qualify my situation a little further, I have chosen not to work from home as a default. I am typing this from home but WFH days are rare. I seem to like getting out of the house and respond better to the feeling of “going to work”. Despite my advancing years, flexibility may not be such a problem.

So far I have worked on client sites (my favourite, I think, with all those helpful distractions to hand), in cafes of course (scanning the environment for power and wifi like newcomer to a waterhole on the savannah), from a variety of spots at home, from the Biritish Museum (a kind of posh, remote office affair – arrive early to avoid a disappointing berth). Yesterday was something of an awakening, however. Thanks to the generosity and simple good sense of Michelle Parry Slater, I joined the #LndCowork group(?) at one of their monthly open gatherings of freelance folk and similar types.

Like an office day, we talked about work, the office, the commute, work, sandwiches, the weather, work and many, many ideas and thoughts. A good day for all those reasons. But also a very helpful day. I think a very helpful day for all of us.

These CoWorking spaces (we were at The Office Group in Holborn)  are pretty common now, certainly in London. The office has been unbundled. The work many do can now be done from many locations. The tools we use are portable. The connectivity we rely on is pretty much ubiquitous. The people we work with are constantly, or mainly reliably connected too. There is little meed to commit to the whole office bundle to extract the important benefits. With tools like Slack around as well, a lot of the chatter is available as well. Both productive and less so. It is a little like iTunes without the bad software.

Now that I have unbundled my office(s) I’m not sure I will buy the full album again. I will however, subscribe to the social features. I like Slack and similar tools but not as much as I like spending time in the presence of people.










Open or closed? If your content is not open it had better be valuable.

Perhaps there is something of a hippy lurking inside…I seem to have a tendency to prefer openness. I don’t mean that open is always best or that everything should always be open. That decision, as usual, would depend on many factors and an inevitable act of faith somewhere along the line. I mean that my preference is for openness. The possibilities of making the most of resources and connections are greater when circumstances around them are open. More connections, more content = greater potential. Simple, no?

On arriving in the learning world from the world of search I was a strong proponent of openness of learning content (which could be any content in many ways). The open access to knowledge seemed to take care of everything at that time. From my current vantage, I see things slightly differently. Probably.

Good learning products will add value to the content they present to learners. This may be achieved by aiding discovery, organisation, context, recommendation or re-use. It is no longer enough to assume that, in the act of producing content, my organisation (whichever it is) has made it valuable. A good commissioning test for all of our content is to see what you can find via Google on the same topic before you start. Assuming  that you can, the next question to ask is whether it is being made more valuable in any of those ways listed above. The curation argument alone is insufficient now, I think. (Unless your curation is better than Google, that is).

When content cannot be accessed without access to your product, that product experience had better be good enough to warrant the restriction.

When content cannot be accessed without access to your product, that product had better be good enough to warrant that restriction. The enduring example of the Kahn Academy is instructive here. Built on YouTube videos, in the main, there is no controlled access to the individual films. These are freely available (openly, if you must). The value of using them in the Kahn ecosystem is from various points: the context of the levels they are presented in, the signal of quality and relevance of that context, the feedback of the tutors, the scaffolding of the self-paced learning and so on…The curious among us can still view the Beauty of Algebra if we are so moved. Freely and openly, in fact.

The social age we are now creating has added a level of sophistication to this in recent years. The social value – the value of connectedness – that we can add to content is also quite freely available in a number of dramatically successful platforms. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Tumblr etc. all offer us access to expertise, peer comment and authority in a very direct way. They can add social signals of value to all of that freely available content. The bar for value of the learning content in our own products is raised even further as a result.

Why I have stepped back from a diet of total freedom is the effort it can place on the leaner to find everything and and make sense of it. That can be a demanding pressure for busy folks who are not always confident of their subject expertise. The access to that expertise on social channels is keeping my mind open though. There may still be a little bit of hippy lurking…

More on this topic after the CIPD show I suspect.





Beware the one stop shop…

Be wary of buying from the one stop shop. In fact, I would suggest that you don’t. Perhaps best not to purchase at all, if you are in any doubt.

Last week, I was speaking with a systems vendor who was, politely, pitching their product to me. The beauty of it (apparently) is that a newly minted sole trader and a corporate client can use the tools therein. This struck as an interesting pitch territory: a tool which will satisfy an SME and a corporation alike. We didn’t get on to pricing which would have been an interesting space as well – I am confident of success but I suspect my investment potential is somewhat limited by comparison to a corporation of any scale, as yet.

The reason, it seems, that it is useful for me as a consultant and to corporate buyers is that it does pretty much everything. In the cloud. I could use it as an LMS, an intranet, an extranet, a enterprise social tool, a document store, a resource library and video library (which is somehow different) and an e-commerce package. I am uncertain that I need any of these things at present. Were I in a position to buy on behalf of a corporation, I would frown and ask: “What is it?”. I mean, singularly, what is it for – what problem does it solve?

Defining the customer defines the benefits of the product. Or, it should do. There are so many potential buyers implied in the list above that confound a clear pitch of the benefits of the tools. That is to say nothing of the budget holder that one would seek to pitch at. Where are they in the global address list?

Let me exemplify the problem with a metaphor from the pitch itself. (And this where I really lost my way). The product (or products) were likened to 3D chess. Now, I like chess. I am quite bad at it but I do like it. It is very hard and requires a lot of effort to be good at. I have not yet played 3D chess but I suspect it is rather horrible and on the unsatisfying end of the difficulty spectrum. I think the benefit behind the metaphor (some distance behind, in the shadows) is that it can be seem from many perspectives and applied in many ways. It is a cunning and powerful tool (maybe). Let me be clear, this was supposed to be a good thing. There is a reason this is not even a thing of any kind. There is little joy or utility in it. 3D chess has currency as a metaphor precisely because it is exclusively difficult and challenging. Nobody plays 3D chess.

To be honest, if it were pitched as likening good old 2D chess, I was a lost customer. A good workplace tool, or set of tools, needs to help us find things out and get things done. Quickly.

Despite the problem of the pitch missing the benefit by a country mile there is a design problem too. A one stop shop is not what I need – there is not a destination that I am travelling to. I want resources, advice, ideas and context as I travel. A diversion to the universal emporium will slow me down and may re-route me entirely.