5 Steps to Time Management in the Cloud

February 13, 2011 at 12:45 am | Posted in Collaboration, Home Office, Remote Working | Leave a comment
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How many times have you agreed to a meeting  (or conference call or webex) and then, when you got back online, found that it clashes with another commitment?  No?  Well, it’s happened to me often enough that I decided I need to do something about it.

Up until the time (nearly 2 years ago now) when I stepped out of the corporate world and into independent consulting, I was happy to manage my work commitments through Outlook and Exchange server, conveniently relayed to me wherever I was through Blackberry.

When I set up Identigrate UK, the Outlook calendar on my home desktop PC became the heart of my time management strategy.   Judicious use of categories allowed me to distinguish between business and domestic commitments, while allowing MrsV1951 to act as unpaid diary manager in my absence.  Fine for starters, but as I figured out how to run a consulting operation, so I needed to add some sophistication.

Step 1 – Add a laptop

The ability to work at a client site makes a decent laptop an essential item of kit for any consultant.  The problem is, how to maintain a single coherent diary across both desktop and laptop, with the ability to make changes to either.  The answer proved to be very simple and – like a lot of things these days – came from Google.  I already had a Google account and, though I didn’t (and still don’t) make much use of Gmail, I am a big fan of Google Reader.  It was a simple matter to add Google Calendar and to install and configure the free calendar sync application on each of the two machines.

I have both machines set to sync once per hour, so on average their Outlook Calendars are up to date within 30 minutes.

Step 2 – Sync to iPhone

My next acquisition – and destined to become a vital part of my travelling toolkit – was my iPhone.  Now, I could send and receive emails on the road, in much the same way as I used to do with Blackberry.  Initially, I chose to sync the iPhone calendar to my Outlook calendar when I connected to iTunes.  Of course, this meant remembering to do this before setting out on each trip.  I needed to do better than that.  Once again, the answer lay with Google Calendar.  The iPhone can be configured to sync to Google Calendar, by adding it as a new Microsoft Exchange account.  If the iPhone is configured for Push delivery, then it will sync whenever you start the calendar app.

So, now, I have calendars on the desktop, laptop and iPhone.  I can add, delete or modify entries on any one of those devices and within a short time (say 30 minutes), it’s propagated to the other two devices.

Step 3 – Lotus Notes

In May 2010, I joined IBM Global Business Services and found myself with yet another laptop and yet another calendar to include in my synchronisation scheme.  This time however, I had to find a way of dealing with Lotus Notes.  The solution came in the form of CompanionLink,the only paid-for commercial product in my strategy.  CompanionLink is actually a very versatile tool, which can sync events, contacts and to do lists between a wide range of applications and mobile devices.  The version I used, CompanionLink Express limits you to one from each category to sync.  Once installed, it runs in the system tray on the laptop and connects to sync (you choose either one-way or two-way) according to a pre-defined schedule.

This brings our running total to 3 PCs/laptops and one iPhone all synchronised through a single Google Calendar, still with a latency of around 30 minutes to propagate a new entry to all the devices.

Step 4 – Add travel destinations

I’m a long-time user of LinkedIn and in the past, have occasionally used the built-in TripIt application for travel planning.  It occurred to me that, whether I use TripIt (on LinkedIn or through its website) to plan the details of a trip or not, it might be a useful way of just recording my whereabouts geographically.

TripIt supports iCal as a mechanism for keeping a calendar up to date with travel plans.  This facility is available for all the components of my sync strategy, with the exception of Lotus Notes, where I would need to upgrade to v8.5 to get iCal support.  However, there’s a small catch in this plan.  Subscribing a device (with Outlook, Notes, Google Calendar or iPhone) to an iCal feed actually creates a separate calendar on that device.  Google Calendar and iPhone will happily display all calendars simultaneously on a single display, but Outlook only allows you to view two separate calendar panes side by side.

Notwithstanding the small problems over display, the effect is that I can quickly and easily publish my whereabouts in advance and show them as an all day event on the calendar.  I can do this from within LinkedIn, via the TripIt website or using the TripIt widget in the Lotus Notes sidebar.

Step 5 – Publishing a schedule online

So, now I have a (more or less) single consistent view of my diary across all the devices I use and that view will update everywhere as soon as I make a change.  The last challenge then is to make that information available to others.  Of course, I could just give access to my Google Calendar, but that contains a lot of detail about my activities, both business and personal.  The solution came from fellow IBMer Emily O’Byrne.  I noticed that Emily points people to Tungle.me to view her schedule.  Tungle.me publishes your availability in real-time to interested parties and allows them to schedule a meeting or call with you at a time when you’re free.  Tungle does this by syncing with your existing calendar and works for people inside and outside your organisation.  It can sync simultaneously with multiple calendars and you have control over how much detail to share.

So, you can check out my schedule on tungle.me, which uses Google Calendar to show times when I’m available and uses TripIt to show where I am on any day when I’m travelling.

Try it Yourself

Back in the 1980s, as PCs were becoming available for the first time, the Managing Director of a major British computer company was asked if he’d be using one of his company’s new PCs.  He replied that if his life ever became so complicated that he needed a computer to manage his time, he’d change his lifestyle.  Now though, for many of us, it’s hard to imagine not using PCs, laptops, smart phones and the web to plan our activities and track down those that we deal with.

I’m not saying what I’ve described is the only way to get a single synchronised view, nor even necessarily the best way.  But, I am saying it works for me.  Try it out yourself and let me know how you get on.  If you find a neater way of doing things, I’d really like to hear!

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Skype Meets Segway – the Ultimate Teleconferencing Gadget

May 19, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Posted in Collaboration, Remote Working | 2 Comments
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I’ve long been a fan of deploying technology as an alternative to travel (including commuting).  Just recently, I posted on this blog about the impact on business continuity, if key staff are unable to get to their place of work I also published the same discussion as two articles on Ezine Articles

So, I was intrigued earlier today to see the BBC’s Techbrief announce on Twitter the prospect of a “telepresence robot”.   The story came from the IEEE’s Spectrum blog and describes QB, the brainchild of Mountain View CA robotics startup Anybots.  This 15Kg self-propelled webcam has a top speed of around 3.5mph and features two cameras (one for conferencing and one pointing downwards so you can see where you’re going), high quality speakers and 3 microphones.  The Spectrum blogger claims their favourite gadget (oh, me too!) is the green laser pointer that emanates from the robot’s left eye.  Oh come on, would I lie about something as cools as this? 

The QB robot will cost around $15k when it ships in the Autumn of 2010 and soon, you’ll be able to test drive a demonstrator model at Anybots’ offices, through your (Firefox) browser.  Apparently, the only infrastructure required is a wi-fi network.  Anybots draw a distinction between conventional structured videoconferencing systems and the use of QB in a completely unstructured way.  Instead of needing to go to a specially equipped conference room, QB comes to you.  I’m not sure what happens when two gadget-mad telecommuters in the same company have one of these.  Will they need 3rd party insurance?  You wouldn’t want to be carrying a tray of coffees from the canteen, when a big meeting’s about to start.

Nevertheless, as a proponent of remote working and incurable gadget freak, this ticks all the boxes for me.  Mind you, I can’t help thinking it bears an unmistakable resemblance to the star of my kids’ favourite movie from the 1980’s, “Short Circuit”.  I’m not sure that it could dance with Ally Sheedy though.  It also struck me that, with the addition of a small motor and some flexible hosing, the QB could lend a hand to facilities management, while it’s in transit.

I’m off to figure out how to convince MrsV1951 that I absolutely need one of these – any (even vaguely) believable arguments in favour can be left in the Comments section below.  In the meantime, take a look at QB in action.

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