Technology and Organizations

Sharing Control of the Tools with People Doing the Work: Platform as a Service

I like to say that I know enough about technology to be dangerous. Back in the day of IBM XTs, I could code, tie devices together in new ways, and generally do a decent job of integrating technology and work without getting my hands too dirty. For a while though, I’ve felt that the world has gone beyond my skills and I let the experts do the tech side while I advocate for those trying to get their work done. Recently, I’m seeing some interesting possibilities for all of us to take back some control of the technologies that make up the tools of our work. While large firms will not be setting aside their CIOs anytime soon, and small firms still need tech experts to do their security audits, we can all still get a better grip on our individual and team tools.

Paul Pluschkell , Kandy Founder and Executive Vice President of Strategy and Cloud Services at GENBAND, helped me see a range of possibilities. At the most sophisticated are the tools that help technical people create business applications without getting into or reinventing the detailed programming that would otherwise be necessary. In the middle are specific services that help all of us do things like share files securely without managing the storage decisions one by one. At the most basic, we have tools that let us use a drag and drop, what you see is what you get, approach that otherwise would take some level of programming capability. While I agree that the basics of coding should be part of business literacy, I do not want to have to code or formally access a file server to do something simple like creating a new blog post or sharing a document with my colleagues. I (we) need platforms that take that on for us while giving us the control to more directly do our work.

(Photo credit: NASA. Image of Ed White, first American space walker -- and an image of a technology platform providing great freedom.)

Platforms as a Service

Ben Kepes gave me a simple definition of platform as a service (PaaS): PaaS is where you have a "computing platform that allows the creation of web applications quickly and easily and without the complexity of buying and maintaining the software and infrastructure underneath it” (click here for more). There are platforms across levels of Internet experience (our personal experience and the depth of the interaction).

Basic -- SquareSpace (Website Design for All of Us)

SquareSpace is a drag and drop platform that lets you build your own beautiful website, without knowing any HTML, the basic language of website design. If you do have skills, customization is only a click away. Templates and consideration of the basic needs for shops, photographers, bloggers, artists, restaurants, musicians, and weddings (and everything in between) mean that the power of the web is available to most through the thoughtfulness of the platform.

Midrange -- Platforms that Help Your Organization Get Work Done

Egynte, co-founded by Vineet Jain, a Santa Clara University alum, is a platform for your files and how you store and share them. Egnyte’s vision is that organizations need more control over where their files reside, but that this needs to be strictly under the control of the organization. Whether the file is behind the company walls, in the cloud, or some combination of employee and customer phones, tablets, and computers, Egnyte provides the choice and flexibility through it’s platform.

Consider a construction company working with large files - files too big to be email attachments and files that need to be a single source of truth. Platforms like Egnyte offer secure and effective collaboration strategies that give flexibility and power to the people doing the work. Balfour Beatty used the platform to enable an $800M renovation, while being paperless and saving $5.1M in the process. So much for blueprints.

Sophisticated -- Platforms for Technology Professionals, or Talented Do-It-Yourselfers

Kandy , for example, is a “platform as a service” for integrating communications into your existing applications and business processes. While the Internet, security and all, is increasingly complex, more modularized approaches wrap deep expertise into reusable nuggets that help us get work done. For Paul Pluschkell’s firm, these are “little pieces of Kandy” offering video shopping assistance, a live customer service button, instant multi-party video, and the like. You (or your web developers) don’t have to start from scratch to build in the communications components for your website. The nuggets are there giving more control with less need for technical sophistication.

Toy Genius uses Kandy to enable their expert clerks (lab coats and all) to communicate in real time with customers, including being able to show videos of the toys in action. Clerks can also help customers put the toys into their virtual shopping cart and move through the check-out process. The Internet shopping experience becomes much closer to the brick-and-mortar one, but the inclusion is powered by the platform, not custom software.

3 “Takeaways”

  1. Be sure your IT staff understand that power is to be shared to the point where the work is being done. If there is a way to leverage a platform to let the people doing the work design their own tools, go for it.
  2. Look for opportunities to move to platform as a service, but be sure to understand where your information is being held and how safe it is. Your needs will be specific to your organization so have a good mental image of what information is where and who has access to it.
  3. Feel free to experiment (having taken points 1 & 2 into account). The beauty of the platform as a service is that you aren’t buying, you're renting. Just like AirBnB can let you try out different neighborhoods, try different platforms until you find the one that best suits your needs.

How have you seen technology enable us to share power? Any specific platforms as a service that let you "lead by letting go?"


21st Century Management: Agile, Connected, & Designed for Execution

This week we premier our 21st Century Management executive education program. Designed and offered at Northwestern University’s James L. Allen Center, the program is five days offering:

  • How to lead with all your resources — human, technical and organizational — working in concert
  • How distributed teams, crowdsourcing, cross-cultural settings, and “new machine age” opportunities lead to broader, organization-wide considerations (e.g., building a strategic platform, creating a social business)
  • Key issues that arise during organizational transformation; developing tools for managing challenges, mitigating risk, and balancing priorities
  • New methods for motivating others, engaging teams, and leveraging innovation and networks
  • How to use social network analysis to understand 21st century opportunities


My sessions cover Thursday and Friday, but I’ve had the opportunity to preview many of the slide decks and I’m happily familiar with the work my co-conspirators presented earlier in the week:

Holly Raider has nurtured a seed of an idea into an actionable session for executives.
Mohanbir Sawhney kicked off the week with material from his book, Fewer, Bigger, Bolder: From Mindless Expansion to Focused Growth, and more. 
Nosh Contractor and Paul Leonardi are colleagues with amazing breadth. Here they focused on social networks, strategy, and change.
Loren Nordgren painted a picture of “Motivation 3.0” that I look forward to sharing the next time I cover the topic in my own classes.


Background and More

To any of the involved executives -- here are links to some of the material we will cover and a couple of sneak peeks at what I’ll suggest for further reading (for the rest of you, think of it as a teaser and join us in one of our upcoming versions in July or December):

Where to Start: Lead by Letting Go

As many of you know, I’m blogging toward a book on just how we do that  -- how do we design and lead organizations as the boundaries loosen and work is done by a blended workforce of employees, contractors, freelancers, alliance partners, and computers/AIs?
I had the chance to share some of my starting points with the MarketWatch community. Here are the bullets, but I hope you’ll take a look at the longer version in MarketWatch — and most importantly, please share your own perspective and experiences in the comments. How quickly do you think these transitions will take place? Will it be the same for large and small organizations?

How To Lead By Letting Go

  • Let go of traditional job reviews. Instead of the momentous annual sitdown, provide 24/7 performance feedback as needed. The colorful former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz once fired a manager with no notice after the manager fought so hard for her idea--ultimately successfully -- that she alienated the colleagues she’d need to enact it.’s makes feedback as easy as checking-in on Facebook. Younger workers want more feedback and transparency in their work -- embrace that, as great ideas can come from unexpected places in the organization. 
  • Let go of stay-in-one-place work rules. Marissa Mayer may have had her reasons for cancelling telecommuting at Yahoo, but if you have the right systems, technology, and people in place, flexible workplace strategies are  an important part of most organizations. You get access to a global workforce and the work environment can better match the task.
  • Let go of education requirements of old. Google is hiring more people without college degrees -- if they can do the work. Automattic (the company behind hires into its global workforce by having candidates take on a project as a contractor first.  Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, edX, and many others provide online, often free, ways to keep up the skills needed in the modern workforce. If you do want a degree, realize that you’ll eventually need another one or two to stay on top of the changing needs of the workforce.
  • Let go of traditional mentoring roles.  Mentoring is a two-way street where younger workers can share rapid-fire communication strategies and more senior colleagues can share wisdom around how to value the firehose of information. And like jobs, mentoring relationships can be more fluid with online matching services.

Thank You

Deborah Lohse of Santa Clara University made this post happen. She kicked off the MarketWatch opportunity by interviewing me after my Women of the Channel keynote and then walked me through edits for the OpEd format. 

Walked 6 Miles First Day of Electric Car

My walking was not the fault of the car; the car is great. The car is, however, part of a bleeding-edge ecosystem of apps, charging stations, employer support for sustainability, parking rules, university websites, and my commuting choices. I thought I had followed my own advice to work with all my human, organizational, and technological resources -- but it just wasn’t so.

What I Did to Prepare

  • Verified that I can get to work (47 miles) on a single charge (85 miles, 104 with special option)
  • Verified on website that my employer offers free charging with valid ($300/year) parking permit
  • Pre-registered with the charging network installed in the parking lots
  • Studied map of chargers across the different parking lots at work -- those near my office are free!
  • Bought car, downloaded apps to track charging, registered the keytag sent by charging network

What Happened

  • Drove to work and parked at free charger -- “Not Authorized” blinks after using my pre-registered tag
  • Called the charging network help number, told I need a number provided by my employer
  • Deep dive into employer’s website (using smartphone from parking lot) -- including filling out newly discovered online form to get needed secret code
  • Ate lunch while waiting on secret code
  • Walked to my organization’s parking office to learn more face-to-face and ask if code could be expedited
  • Moved car to other side of campus pay-as-you-go charger while waiting for code 
  • Got some work done (sidenote: someone unplugged car before it was fully charged -- not cool and against the etiquette of charging station use -- app messaged me, but didn’t take a picture of the perpetrator, would be useful feature)
  • Received secret code and submitted it to charging network website, saw that approval status switched to pending
  • Moved car back to free charger after receiving email of approval
  • “Not Authorized” still blinking
  • Called charging network help number and then moved car back to distant pay-as-you-go charger when told approval hadn’t percolated through all the databases to the charger and it could take overnight
  • Skipped going to the gym (I’d done some par course pull ups on one of my six walks across campus)
  • Got some work done
  • Drove home -- 16 "miles" left as it didn't have time for a full charge

What I Should Have Done

  • Realized it couldn’t be as easy as just pulling up to the charger I’ve been driving by for six months. It never is. That would be a silver/magic bullet and those don’t exist -- unicorns maybe; magic bullets, no way. No single technology, person, or organizational system stands alone.
  • Realized that electric car ecosystems are new for everyone and that the people in the parking office will have the curse of knowledge  -- they know how the system works, so communicating the practices to novices is more difficult, especially if they haven’t had to go through it themselves.
  • Gone deeper than the promotional material on my employer’s website. Yes there is free charging, but you have to be pre-approved by both the employer and the charging station network -- takes time and several loops of interaction as there is money at stake. Don’t expect the Internet of Things to come together in one day.
  • Taken note of who’s describing the process that seems so simple. The version that made it appear seamless was coming from our sustainability office, not the people who run parking and have to do the verification. The sustainability office must manage their search engine optimization better as theirs was the top result.
Systems like this are our reality and our future. As I look at my desk, I think my coffee cup is the only thing that isn’t part of a larger system of interactions. My Hint water has codes in the cap I use for promotions. My TV remote is just the beginning of three levels of service providers. Every piece of paper is tied to a website and system of deeper interactions.

What I Learned

If it looks easier than you expect, dig deeper. Think about each of the interactions across the human, technical, and organizational dimensions and what has to be happening in the background. Had I gone through a full checklist, it would have occurred to me that there had to be a way to tell the charger that I had the right to free power -- there had to be a secret code/handshake/incantation and I should have been looking for it. Then again, I did walk off my lunch.

Tiempo Speeds Pay and Motivation

Tiempo example

Aug, 12, 2014: After writing this post, I was invited to invest in Tiempo. I've accepted the opportunity and any future posts will include the disclaimer that I have a stake in the business.

The data entry portion of time-tracking generally isn’t value-added time in our work. In my #SummerOfWorkDesign, I’m interested in finding tools and tricks that help people focus on their work, and not the transaction costs of that work. Y Combinator participant, Tiempo, and other new approaches to time-tracking help speed up pay processes, accounting, and even personal monitoring.

Tiempo co-founder and CEO, Tad Milbourn, is an entrepreneur and intrapreneur I’ve been following for a while. (His Intuit Brainstorm project is the focus of the last chapter of my book, The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive.) With Tiempo, Tad and his co-founders (all Intuit alumni), Kyle Kilat and Peter Terrill, take Intuit’s focus on helping people manage their finances and run small businesses and extends it to the time-tracking process -- and integrates it with the Intuit suite -- with more integrations to follow.

Tad recently described Tiempo’s approach to me:

We're trying to create a world where service businesses can get paid instantly for the work they do. No more waiting to track time, waiting to create invoices, and waiting to get paid. Our first invoices that we processed were paid in an hour!


This isn’t just about cash flow. It’s also about motivation and engagement. Yes, I hope we all work at something we have a passion for -- feedback from the work itself is a great motivator (and one of the levers of work design I mentioned in an earlier post). However, motivation comes from a combination of outcomes and the tighter all the outcomes, including pay, are tied to the work, the better the motivation. Economists and management faculty alike will agree on that one.

In Tiempo, pay is the focus, but there is also a “Kudos” button you can click on as you are approving the time someone entered. Tiempo user, Joseph Graves of Workshed says, "Even though my coworker and I work so closely together (literally sitting next to each other), it's a good reminder for me to give praise for a job well done."

Tiempo has competition, which signals to me that other people see the need to take the friction out of this piece of our work design. No more watching my friends scramble as they realize they are about to miss their timecard deadline -- and no more having to listen to them grumble about what a waste of time it is.

Do you have a suggestion for my #SummerOfWorkDesign? A tool or trick that helps you or your organization do better at designing work that is valuable, provides feedback from the tasks themselves, and helps you get the collaboration you need?

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