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Thursday, December 16, 2004

The First Step Is Admitting You Have A Problem (Or, It Will Make You Go Blind) (Or, Carnegie Mellon Is Again Kewl)
I just spent a working afternoon and working morning without computer access. This can create some problems, most of which I am not at liberty to discuss, but you can imagine what would happen if YOU lost computer access at work.

At 10:30 on Wednesday (yesterday) morning, my work computer decided that it wanted to automatically reboot. Attempts to login to the computer mostly resulted in additional automatic reboots.

So I spent most of Wednesday walking around clueless, with little pieces of paper, going to meetings (after a co-worker printed out my calendar, which was luckily publicly accessible), and slowly going insane from lack of information access.

We have an in-house IT department, and they spent Wednesday preparing my laptop for use again on Thursday (today). However, when I tried the computer, I got the same problem. So they had to transfer all of my data (which luckily was still accessible) to a second computer, which I received at noon. Except for minor little tweaks, I'm back online.

The sad thing is that workers in the 1960s didn't depend so heavily on having a computer at their desk. In fact, even today 25% of all workers don't depend on staring at a computer on their desk:

Close your eyes for a moment and visualize your business operating without computers. It is hard to imagine, isn't it? Unquestionably, computers have become an ever-present tool in our offices and, as the Internet grows, we'll be spending more and more time staring at our computer screens way beyond office hours. It is estimated that by the turn of the century 75% of all office workers will have a computer and video display terminal (VDT) on their desks, equating to nearly 100 million users, with many millions regularly using another computer at home.

However, these computers are making us sick:

While mass computer expansion at home and in the office offers a big boost to global communications, computers have and will continue to take a toll on our eyesight. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has reported that eyestrain is prevalent in nearly 90% of all computer users and occupational health experts agree that today's number one source of vision complaints in the workplace is the computer monitor. "Eye strain is a common problem for adults who spend four hours or more each day concentrating on a computer screen," says Dr. Kent Daum, an optometrist at the University of Alabama School of Optometry. "And even short 25-minute periods can cause some eye discomfort." In addition to eyestrain, many computer users complain of tired, burning, itching, dry and/or watery eyes, headaches, double vision and afterimages, photophobia (sensitivity to light), pain in the eyes, or excessive blinking or squinting resulting from work at the terminal. James Sheedy, O.D., Ph.D. coined the phrase "Computer Vision Syndrome" (CVS) in reference to these myriad ailments.

Computer Vision Syndrome -- together with transient visual complaints (asthenopia) among VDT workers -- resulted in more than 15 million workers seeking eyecare treatment for computer-related vision problems in 1995. According to Stewart B. Leavitt, Ph.D., in his report "Vision Comfort at VDTs," the costs for this medical treatment and lost productivity associated with vision-related disorders among VDT users could amount to several billion dollars annually.

Not that I'm a modern day Luddite about it all:

Waiting in line at the supermarket the other night, a Luddite behind me struck up a conversation with the woman waiting behind him. "You know what really holds these queues up?" he asked rhetorically, "It's these silly things!" He waved his hand dismissively at the EFTPOS (Electronic Funds Transfer - Point of Sale) unit sitting beside the cash register. "They're a waste of time. There's a bank just across the road! If people can't find the time to get money there... it's their own fault for being so disorganised!" His audience of one agreed emphatically....

Rapid advancements in computer technology during the last half of this century have changed almost every facet of urban life. But modern Luddites are more selective in the machines they denounce.

Back in the supermarket the shopper never complained that it took less than a minute for the attendant to scan his items and present him with a totalled receipt. He may have been on his way to the TAB, to keep an eye on the odds of his favourite pony, which were being updated on the big screen every few minutes. Or he may have been crossing the road to the bank, perhaps to check on the electronic transfer of funds into his account. All in all he may have come across modern technology over a dozen times that day, most of which he had taken for granted.

Back to laptoplessness. One problem with not having a laptop is that you can't get any work done at meetings:

Farhad Mohit is a busy executive who doesn't have time for people who waste his time.

So instead of suffering through inane PowerPoint presentations at a recent Internet industry conference, the chairman of Los Angeles-based BizRate.com flipped open his laptop and began sending e-mails to colleagues at the office. Thanks to wireless Internet access throughout the conference area, Mohit paid attention when speakers interested him--and got real work done when they didn't.

"It's unbelievably helpful to be able to do e-mail at a conference," Mohit said. "Before wireless, I would have had to go back to my room--and then I'd probably miss the next speaker. Now, when these guys go into sales-pitch mode, I tune 'em out."

That, wireless critics say, is precisely the problem. Who can concentrate on what's going on at the speaker's podium when you can just as easily have a real-time chat with your girlfriend or knock off a few work-related e-mails without leaving the conference room?

From etiquette experts to senior executives at Microsoft, a growing number of people say wireless Internet access is becoming an annoyance--a technology that could potentially become more annoying than cell phones or pagers. They point to the alarming number of attendants at technology conferences and even internal office meetings who ignore speakers to focus on personal e-mail or Web surfing....

At the Industry Standard Internet Summit last week in Carlsbad, Calif., attendants discerned a direct correlation between the quality of the speaker's presentation and the number of noises--from Apple's "Wild Eep" and Microsoft "tada" to the shrill "knock! knock! knock!" of Yahoo Instant Messenger: Whenever the speech got boring, the computerized noise level increased dramatically....

That's why I normally mute my speaker on my laptop.

"It's outrageous. It's really rude," Sue Fox, founder and president of Los Gatos, Calif.-based Etiquette Survival, said of noisy notebooks. Author of "Business Etiquette for Dummies," Fox counsels many Silicon Valley executives about proper manners, and paying attention to the speaker is one of her top priorities.

"It's the same as talking on your cell phone or talking to your neighbor when someone's giving a speech. Maybe it's boring, but that's no excuse," Fox said. "If someone is talking or giving a presentation, it's not the time to have your laptop open--just as it's not appropriate to be talking on your cell phone."

Loquacious laptops don't pique etiquette experts exclusively. Corporations are increasingly calling for a mass muting of the machines....

The loud laptop could become an even bigger cultural battle. Unlike the simple cell phone, notebooks can transmit a huge variety of sounds--and many Web sites offer audio downloads ranging from rap to dolphin screeches....

Trust me, cell phones can transmit a lot of sounds also.

At Microsoft's Redmond, Wash.-based campus, about 10,000 workers have the ability to tap into wireless Internet access. At any given time, about 3,500 Microsoft employees are sending e-mail or surfing the Web via Wi-Fi, said Mike Edwards, general manager of infrastructure engineering at Microsoft.

Edwards said that the typical person with Wi-Fi can boost daily productivity as much as one and a half hours per day. But he also noted that it's not uncommon for 10 people in a meeting of 20 to 25 workers to be buried in their laptops, not paying full attention to the presentation or meeting coordinator.

Edwards said that they're "multitasking," but some executives at other technology companies have determined that it's tough to pay attention to both a speaker and a constant stream of incoming e-mail. At Compaq Computer and Dell Computer, for instance, midlevel managers say, it's not uncommon for meeting coordinators to ask attendants to keep their laptops folded and turned off.

"What's the point of having a meeting if half the people are doing e-mail?" asked one Dell manager, who requested anonymity. "If you're doing e-mail, you probably shouldn't be attending the meeting in the first place."

That is the crux of the matter. Too many people (probably myself included) call too many meetings. I attempt to keep my meetings as focused as possible, and as short as possible, to minimize the disruption to so-called real work (but when you're dealing in ideas, nothing is real). Yet I've been stuck in 2 hour, 3 hour, all day, or multi-day meetings which were a complete waste of time.

In a survey reported in Industry Week, two thousand managers claimed that about one-third of the time they spend in meetings is wasted. The cost of this waste is staggering. If they spend only fifteen hours a week in meetings, they’re probably wasting five or more of those hours. The impact on their productivity is the same as if they took an extra six weeks of paid vacation each year!...

Trust me, it doesn't SEEM like a vacation...

There are many things you can do to hold (or attend) fewer, shorter meetings that get better results....[A] meeting begins when someone decides that other people need to be involved in a decision or collective action of some sort. It continues through the collective time spent in the meeting room, and doesn’t end until all the decisions and action items are completely implemented....

[M]ost problems in the visible meeting directly result from failures in the preparation phase before the meeting. Even a lack of results after the meeting can often be traced to poor preparation, or the G.I.G.O. Principle (Garbage In, Garbage Out). A three-point checklist can help you ensure a garbage-free meeting: Purpose, People and Plan.

PURPOSE--A crisp, clear, concise purpose statement lays the foundation for the success of any meeting....Once you have a clear purpose statement, you may find that holding a meeting isn’t the most effective way to achieve that purpose. E-mail, memos, phone calls, or distributing reports may get the same job done, faster and easier.

PEOPLE--With a clear purpose in mind, you can select a concentrated group with expertise or insight relating to that purpose....

PLAN--Your plan for the meeting, commonly known as the agenda, includes logistics such as time, place, and date. It also includes a listing of objectives to be achieved, or anticipated outcomes, and details that will help people prepare ahead of time to make strong contributions and decisions.

Ideally this agenda should be circulated to all participants a few days before the actual meeting. In practice, this is almost never done....

As part of their meeting process improvement efforts at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute, a ground rule was drafted that nobody had to attend a meeting if they didn’t receive an agenda at least 48 hours before the meeting. Pete Malpass, a staff member, documented continuous improvement over two years in their meeting process that has resulted in a cost saving of two-thirds. He attributes a large part of this phenomenal success to the now almost universal use of predistributed agendas.

I have a problem. I cannot be without the Internet. I would save a ton of money without it, though. But I do have it, and my laptop is an appendage. Without it, I only have a measley PDA with no access to anything but solitaire, appointments and phone numbers. No matter where I am, my computer can help me with something. I am probably way more dependent than I care to admit. After all, I can sing or use a hammer... so, all hope is not lost when the power goes out. :)
I won't even buy a PDA until I can afford one with 24/7 'Net access.
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