Archive for the ‘Virtual work’ Category

Two 21st century workplaces

November 15, 2012

Last week I had the opportunity to visit two very different virtual workspaces, close to each other in the west end of London.  I’m contrasting them here, not to suggest that one is any better than the other, but to illustrate how two spaces with a rather similar set of requirements and starting points can nevertheless look and feel dramatically different.

180 Piccadilly is the home of the virtual office, and is part of a building that was originally the London office of French Railways, and still carries the word France in prominent capital letters along its frontage.  What makes it into a virtual office, and not just a set of serviced offices, and what also explains the apparent paradox of the name ‘virtual office’ referring to a solid concrete building, is a mail room and a small call centre within the building.  That means that businesses can create the illusion of being based in central London – right down to their mailing address and phone number – and offer meeting space in London, without their having any permanent physical presence there.
Call centre 

The call centre depends on a database which allows staff there to answer the phone in the most appropriate way for whichever of the virtual office’s clients they are representing.  So the instructions, for a particular business, may be to route a call that’s intended for a manager to a mobile number, or to a voice mailbox if the manager is in a meeting.  The building also includes short-term office space and meeting rooms.
Office space

If the virtual office in Piccadilly is a hotel for business – a description that its owners sometimes use themselves – the other virtual workspace that I visited, the Westminster Hub, is closer to a fashionable campsite, perhaps the place for the business equivalent of the curious early-21st century pastime of glamping.
Indoor greenhouse

By a strange coincidence, the hub is also in a building that was intially put up to represent a particular country – in this case New Zealand House in Haymarket.  It’s laid out as a single open space, with no conventional small offices or meeting rooms, although there is an indoor greenhouse and, interestingly, a wikihouse, within it.  Most areas of the space are almost self-consciously unconventional – even the coffee bar which sells the normal range of designer coffees, and also in a nod towards the open-source community, Ubuntu cola.

Coffee counter

Most of the occupants of the hub at the time of my visit seemed to be small, mostly high-technology, businesses using this as office space, and out to benefit from a kind of cluster effect by sharing ideas with others who used the same space.  No call centre here, as far as I could tell, but the telecoms infrastructure was all about having a fast wireless network.

As I said, two very different approaches and evidence that the nature of office space is still evolving


Identifying the student experience

June 21, 2012

Last month (Freemium education) I posted about the new online venture from Harvard and MIT.  This week I note that this piece about the venture has floated close to the top of the BBC news most shared list.

The piece rightly acknowledges that Harvard and MIT have incredibly strong brands, and that they aren’t in this particular segment of the education business to make money.  But it’s worth picking up on this particular question, about half way down:

“Because if the content of university courses becomes freely available, what is it that students are paying for?”

Increasingly I would argue that it isn’t about content, and that whether you sign up to attend a traditional face-to-face university, or engage in some sort of distance learning, the value added by the university is to do with interaction (it’s also to do with accreditation and proof that you’ve learned something, which is another issue).  After all, long before the Internet, it was possible for anybody wanting to learn about a subject on the basis of one expert’s view to do so by reading a book.  And, thanks to the availability of public libraries, a keen student could always read the expert’s views at no cost.

Maybe the real clue to why students can benefit from attending universities came from overhearing snatches of a phone conversation earlier this week.  It was  early on Tuesday evening, and the phone conversation was a man clearly making arrangements to meet a friend, in time to watch that evening’s football game on television in a pub.  He could, of course, have watched exactly the same television coverage from home, but clearly wanted to be part of a group which was watching the game collectively.  The same principle applies to education: people like the sense of participation and like to feel part of a group.

Choosing the wrong compartment

May 31, 2012

An issue which often arises with the increasing virtualisation of work, and the blurring of some of the traditional boundaries between people’s personal lives and their working lives, is the way that different activities can be compartmentalised through the different electronic tools that are used for communication.  Maybe it’s simply a matter of using separate email addresses for work and for personal matters (as I do, although inevitably there are sometimes overlaps between the two), maybe it’s a matter of of associating social networks for personal life, and traditional email for work.

So it’s interesting to see at the Leveson Inquiry this morning, the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt having his use of different email addresses forensically dissected.  The observation that, not only did all his official emails get screened by staff, but that the only email address he read himself was a personal one to which a selection of official emails were forward, is significant.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of his actions, it illustrates that there are significant ethical, as well as practical, issues around what channel he chose to receive the messages being discussed in the inquiry.

Interactivity at the iMoot

May 31, 2012

A couple of related things that I’ve taken away from the iMoot virtual conference for Moodle users.  One is the sheer ability to combine different sources.  So one contribution that I will remember is by John Iglar, who teaches in Ethiopia and had problems accessing the necessary tools on the Internet, who put his piece on ‘gamification’ up as a set of resources that attendees could explore interactively, using Slideshare, YouTube, and others.  I saw Twitter being used to gather ideas from attendees, in parallel with the more traditional approach of asking people to type their thoughts into a chat window.  Because Moodle is open-source it’s intrinsically extensible and a range of plugins were discussed (for sheer creativity of name, I like the idea of the video/audio add-on called PoodLL).  Quite a few presenters used the voting facilities built in to Moodle to run quick polls and to involve audience members.  And I did get to drop briefly into one virtual cocktail hour.  So a very impressive exercise from the viewpoint of creating the feeling of a conference where people were physically present.

A virtual Moot

May 29, 2012

Various communities on the Internet tend to build up their own vocabulary, and perhaps it was inevitable that when groups of users of the Moodle virtual learning environment got together, these gatherings would be referred to as Moodle Moots.  Much as I’m typing this while sitting at a desk in London, I’m also attending on such gathering right now – but it’s a gathering with a difference, because it’s known as an iMoot and takes place entirely on the Internet.

The international nature of it raises some unusual issues, which the incredibly hard-working technical people in Australia, who are behind this, making it work.  I’ve just attended a really interesting session on creating presence in online courses: it’s mid-afternoon for me but the presenter, Stephan Schmidt (who is from Germany but has lived in Australia for 20 years) was in Adelaide and mentioned that it was late evening for him.  Knowing that Stephan’s went to Australia to work as a chef, it’s slightly unnerving to listen to another speaker in the following session talking about a cookbook – but it turns out he’s using the word in the sense favoured by software development people as a tool to help create online material rapidly.

iMoot action takes place more-or-less 24 hours a day, but the setup is clever enough that when you log in you can see a timetable with dates and times which are correct for your own time zone.  My family have pointed out that there’s something vaguely druidic about my disappearing onto the computer late at night to attend part of an occasion referred to as a moot.  In fact the feel is not that different from the experience of attending a conference that’s based in one’s home town – you go to conference talks on occasions but return to everyday life in between.

And like the best conferences, it has given me a lot to think about – particularly in understanding my own use of Moodle and the potential for combining it with other tools on the Internet.

Showcased and captured

February 2, 2012

Yesterday City University’s learning development centre – that’s the people who operate across the university looking at good practice and innovative approaches to teaching and learning – held a showcase. It was cleverly arranged, with a carefully staged debate at the start about whether assessment methods in universities were really fit for purpose.Me using Moodle on a Macintosh 

As the title of the event suggests, it was arranged with stalls where participants from different parts of the university demonstrated what they were doing.  Like many universities, we use Moodle to support and organise learning materials on the web and the photo here (courtesy of the learning development centre’s Twitter feed) has me  looking intently at the Moodle screen for part of our first year Business Studies module.  I, and my immediate colleagues, were there to talk about the first year experience at university and also about the potential, using tools such as Moodle, for monitoring patterns of student use of the web.

But we were sandwiched between two stalls looking at video capture of lectures.  As it happens, one of them covers work by the economics department, who have been capturing lectures including some of mine, so students have the option of viewing lectures online. 

There are some interesting issues around video capture of lectures in a university based around face-to-face tuition.  Will students stay at home because they can see lectures online? (anecdotally the people I’ve spoken to think not)  or will it challenge students to think deeply about when it is worth their while physically coming to university, and why?  Should lecturers try to stay within view of the camera – difficult if, as in my case, it’s taking place in a room which has been set up with clusters of tables to encourage interaction?  Where students contribute, for instance by giving presentations, should their contributions be captured?  (I’ve given my students the choice but it’ll be interesting to see what they choose, given that there are presentations later on in the term).  How time consuming would the process of video editing become?  And should we be thinking about providing lecture material for iTunes university?

Incidentally one of the neatest touches is that the e-learning specialists supporting this exercise have QR codes against their names on their website…

Banking in the cloud

January 12, 2012

The BBC has also been reporting this major deal for the Spanish bank BBV to use Google’s services.  It’s notable that their account of the deal stresses the division between internal communication, where mobility is important and security of customer data less so, and the systems that support core banking activities and that do store customer data, and suggests that Google’s responsibility is for the former type of system.

New year, new telepresence

January 7, 2012

This piece from America’s National Public Radio covers the use of robots to simulate the effect of somebody being present in a meeting.  I’ve often thought that this sort of thing offers something closer to real telepresence (creating the sense of physically being in a different place) than the sort of high-quality videoconferencing approaches which are more often marketed as telepresence.  Incidentally I know that there’s a tendency to use almost any noun as a verb, but I’d never come across the usage about half way down the piece that a robot receptionist is operated by somebody who ‘remotes into the robots’

A new kind of distributed system

September 15, 2011

An interesting example of the trend towards distributing computing power among many different devices is a proposed new radio telescope, called the square kilometre array.  Two possible sites are being considered: one in South Africa  and one in Australia.  The Guardian has a nice graphic showing how the South African location would work.  While the numerous individual units that comprise the array are much more complex and specialised than anything you’d see in your local personal computing shop, the principle still applies that it makes sense to use a lot of devices linked together.  It’s significant that the decision on the location will have  a lot to do with the economic geography of the area.

Radio  astronomy is about understanding some of the fundamentals of the universe, which perhaps makes it as ‘pure’ as science can get.  While the square kilometre array will be implemented somewhere in the southern hemisphere, its project development office is in Manchester and associated with the long-established Jodrell Bank centre.  While the square kilometre array will be sited in a huge sparsely populated area to minimise radio interference, Sir Bernard Lovell and his colleagues, who built the Jodrell Bank observatory in the 1950, looked for a relatively empty swathe of Cheshire countryside for the same reason.  Their rivalry with scientists working in Cambridge, in similar areas of research, is sometimes cited as an example of how competition in research can be beneficial.  Today, visitors to Jodrell Bank are asked to switch their mobile phones off to ensure radio silence.  The Lovell telescope remains unusual (possibly unique) in being both a grade 1 listed building and a scientific instrument in active use.

First Direct’s lab rats

August 4, 2011

HSBC’s online and phone bank First Direct has now introduced a lab section to its website, where customers can view and comment on new ideas.  The lab idea appears to have been inspired by Google labs, where new ideas are experimented with, and of course customers browsing the First Direct lab page can comment on the lab page itself.  First Direct’s ideas don’t have the same out-and-out creativity as Google’s but then most of us don’t want the people managing our current accounts being over-creative with them.

Most of the first few comments on First Direct labs are very positive and, significantly, one is from somebody who declares herself to be a First Direct employee.  But, interestingly, somebody has asked whether Google minds the idea being copied.  The answer – of course – is almost certainly not: this is related to the concept of perpetual beta which originated with Tim O’Reilly as one of the key elements of Web 2.0.  Nevertheless it’s a fair point: the idea of asking your customers about ideas and and calling the forum for this a lab is quite a generic one, but Google could certainly argue that certain characteristics of their lab site were specific and shouldn’t be copied.

First Direct has good reasons to concentrate on being customer focused.  It was created in the 1980s as a phone bank in response partly to the Midland Bank, as it then was, having a reputation for atrocious customer service.   This was done through the (then radical) idea of encouraging customers to contact the bank by phone, and not to use their local branches.  Although phone, Internet, and mobile banking are all important parts of their service, I do get the impression that the call centre is still regarded as the principal point of contact for most customers.