Originally posted at AVNation.tv on January 11, 2018

As many of you know, I was laid off from Harman Professional on December 21, 2017. This column is about what I have been doing since then. If you are looking for a post talking bad about Harman or spouting all sorts of venom, keep looking. This article is not the article you are looking for. I also am not going to be using this as my personal blog talking about playing in the snow and going to the movies … etc. This article is about what I have been doing within AVNation.

As some of you know, Tim takes an annual vacation during the Holiday Season. This year, he made a mistake. He left me in charge, and in fact deputized me to make improvements in our processes; all processes. We have cobbled together over the past six and a half years AVNation’s processes and data management on an ad hoc basis. As we needed things we added them. Sometimes without thinking toward the future. (That is the polite way of saying they didn’t ask me.) As a result various pieces of data are stored on different services or someone’s hard drive. In addition there were things besides Sugar Plum Fairies in Tim’s head. He had agreements, show topics, projects, blogs, and thoughts of the Bears. I put on my digital janitor outfit and went about the organizing and cleaning.

I am confident we are not the only entity that needed to do this process, every company should go through this process on a regular basis. It frees companies from the quagmire from the phrase of, “We have always done it this way.” Instead it allows people to ask, “Why do we do it this way?” I know from experience there are times new software is implemented so that it acts just like the old software, whether it is a best practice or not.

The first question I asked myself, was “Self, what makes doing AVNation stuff hard?” I came up with a list. Some of these might also be an issue in your organization. The list was longer then I thought it would be. I also included comments from Tim as we were evaluating our software contracts.

  1. Stuff is all over the place!
    1. Slack
    2. Trello
    3. Google Drive
    4. Dropbox
    5. Amazon S3
    6. Email Threads
    7. Google Hangouts
    8. Google Chats
    9. Zoom Meetings
    10. People’s personal computers
    11. Internal wiki
  2. Scheduling meetings
  3. Helping people with their email
  4. Collaboration tools
  5. Managing shared tasks
  6. Project Planning
  7. Where source files are located
  8. Who are the active underwriters
  9. Finding scopes of work for each underwriter
  10. Locating logos for each underwriter
  11. Poll topics & schedule
  12. What is the editorial calendar
  13. Documenting the process of…
    1. titling podcast episodes
    2. posting an episode
    3. getting reimbursed for money I have spent
  14. Making the other team members aware of website stuff
  15. Letting other people tell me about website issues
  16. Tim’s List
    1. Email Lists for newsletters
    2. Management Tool for newsletter subscriptions
    3. Landing pages for links in newsletters or for other special events
    4. Customer Relationship Manager for the Sales/Underwriting portion of the business
    5. Intergration with e-mail – nice to have
    6. Tracking lists – nice to have
    7. Tracking Deals – nice to have

I am pretty sure that evaluating other companies, most people would come up with very similar lists. I know that we are not the only ones trying to figure out these issues. These issues are not unique. So I did what every person does, I went to the Googles. Actually I use Duck Duck Go, the reason is simple: “Our privacy policy is simple: we don’t collect or share any of your personal information.” I started searching for “collaboration software”, “file sharing”, “revision control”, “group scheduling”, and “Shared Tasks Lists”.

There were lots of solutions available via open source. Some of these looked promising, some were not worth the time it took to download them. Having used various tools in my career I kept comparing everything to Microsoft Exchange for many of the features; email, contacts, calendaring, task management, shared calendars, shared tasks, shared contacts. I went in search of a hosted Exchange solution. One that we can afford, which is where Software as a Service is helpful.

Previously I had used Rackspace e-mail for my personal mail. I was happy with it. The reason I stopped, Apple broke it. TApple did an iOS update and e-mail longer was a push. I know their support is excellent. I also know it would solve group scheduling issues as part of the service. I also knew that they offered hosted Microsoft Exchange. Off to Rackspace to order up Exchange. Then came the surprise of the day, SaaS came through again. For the same price as hosted Microsoft Exchange, one could subscribe to hosted Office 365, including Exchange and SharePoint 365, you can see it here.

I reviewed my list comparing it to the applications within Office 365.

  1. Stuff is all over the place! – OneDrive, 1TB per user
  2. Scheduling meetings – Exchange calendering
  3. Helping people with their email – emailhelp.rackspace.com
  4. Collaboration tools – SharePoint, Planner, ToDo, Skype for Business,
  5. Managing shared tasks – SharePoint and Exchange
  6. Project Planning – SharePoint templates and sub apps
  7. Where source files are located – All in OneDrive can manage in SharePoint
  8. Who are the active underwriters – SharePoint
  9. Finding scopes of work for each underwriter – OneNote or SharePoint
  10. Locating logos for each underwriter – OneDrive
  11. Poll topics & schedule OneNote or Sharepoint Page
  12. What is the editorial calendar – Exchange or SharePoint
  13. Documenting the process of… – SharePoint, OneNote
  14. Making the other team members aware of website stuff – SharePoint, Yammer, Exchange
  15. Letting other people tell me about website issues – SharePoint, Yammer, Exchange
  16. Tim’s List
    1. Email Lists for newsletters – Excel, Word, and Outlook
    2. Management Tool for newsletter subscriptions – Excel
    3. Landing pages for links in newsletters or for other special events – WordPress already being used
    4. Customer Relationship Manager – SharePoint, Exchange, OneDrive
    5. Intergration with e-mail – Microsoft Flow
    6. Tracking lists – SharePoint or Exchange
    7. Tracking Deals – SharePoint

Yup, Microsoft had done their research and figured out what most businesses need. They had lots of ways to work built in, as well they had recommended practices that made things work easily. They also added solutions for when they didn’t have the proper solution. Microsoft includes Microsoft Flow, an easy to use automation tool. That was where it really shines. Automation that includes connections to other services that we use. For example, the e-mail list solution using Microsoft Office is not as powerful as MailChimp, we can create a link between our Microsoft data and MailChimp easily. The same for SurveyMonkey, Twitter WordPress, our main website engine. It also has allowed Tim to customize his workflow process to meet his needs; I do not have to make any changes to my workflow or the base solution.

Through this review I found out lots of things. I found cost savings, almost US$10K. The vast majority of this cost from ending our subscription to our CRM and Social Media Management service. The service is powerful, too powerful and does not actually meet AVNation’s needs. It would not have been realized if I hadn’t sat down to review our needs, our process, and our software to see if they all still align. Ours did not. I was able to come up with a solution that simplified our day to day operations (one location for information) and saves us money. Spending the time to review how we are working is something we can all probably benefit from. Both on a personal and professional level.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to document the changes so that the rest of the AVNation.tv knows what I have done. The great thing is that I know exactly where to put it now.

In this age of collaboration there are many tools available to help teams work together. There is software to help automate processes. There is unified communications software. There is project management software. There is customer relationship management software. There is bug tracking software. I have found one thing to be consistent among all of these software packages and solutions. They are not panaceas.

Software will not magically fix all problems. A piece of software will not magically make someone efficient any more than owning a treadmill will cause one to lose weight. There needs to be a basic understanding of the processes and problems that the tool is supposed to be addressing. To lose weight, one needs to walk, waddle, jog, or run on the treadmill, plus likely modify their diet; one has to accept the weight loss process. To become efficient using a software tool the same idea applies; one has to accept and integrate the process.

I have been involved with various software integration projects and found certain things to be common within any software configuration process. It all starts with the user documenting what they are trying to accomplish. If one is specifying an audio, video, control or lighting system the first step is the same: get the user requirements and determine what they are trying to accomplish. When looking at software that same step must occur. It is not just picking the latest or coolest piece of software. If one cannot document the process and what they are trying to accomplish on a piece of paper, how can workflow through a piece of software solve the issue?

I use and leverage technology when I can for my benefit. I own and have tried various pieces of software for keeping track of things and thoughts: Dropbox, Evernote, Notes, iThoughts, Wunderlist, Clear, NoteTakerHD…and the list continues. The most effective tool I have for creating and tracking ideas is the whiteboard in my office or the notebook in front of me. I then transfer the thoughts and ideas into a digital format.

That is an important thought. Software is a tool that simplifies the analog process. It is still key to understand the process and follow it through to completion. A user needs to be aware of what the software is tracking and indicating. If an internal tool calculates, whether analog or digital, a task or project will not be completed in time it still must be communicated internally and to the client and then acted upon as the client will often not have visibility of the tool.

Most importantly, if the tool is collaborative everyone on the team has to use and engage with the tool. If not everyone is using the tool, the data it provides is not accurate and each person has varying degrees of information. If you notice I say tool and not software. The reason for that is that this idea is key whether one is using a whiteboard, a spreadsheet, a database, or a specialized software package. If the users do not engage and keep the data current the tool is worthless.

Do not confuse a software package with a solution. It is simply a tool. One can run a project in the analog domain, one can run a project in the digital domain. The process is the same in both; sharing information with interested parties and keeping the data current. Software might make it easier but it still requires discipline.