Automating, Syncing, and Integrating IT Services

This past week has been chock full of information technology (IT) upgrades for the non-profit board (alumni association of my graduate program) of which I am a leader.  For a bit of background, our current website platform has some technical limitations that cause extra time and effort to coordinate between committees in order to process membership requests, dues payments, and renewal reminders.  It almost makes me wonder whether a paper-and-mail process would be quicker–though I thought my stamp-licking days were over after undergrad!

Short of having the time, luck, and technical skills to transplant all the data and member profiles to a new system overnight, we are making 2014 the year to overhaul our online presence.  Yet, my patience is tested a bit too much having to wait months to fix some of the technical roadblocks and bottlenecks our current site so delightfully offers us.  In the meantime, I’ve made it my week’s purpose to upgrade and overhaul some other information-sharing and collaboration processes in order to keep us on track, informed, and able to make intelligent decisions.  Going beyond the content of one of our previous articles, here is a snapshot of a few ways we are taking advantage of IT to help us work together in a mostly virtual environment:

Automating

Now that we are rethinking how technology can serve our administrative needs (member join and renewal processes) and connect our constituents (social media), it could become cumbersome to update multiple databases with the same information when a member joins the association.  Instead, we’ve added an automated service provided by Zapier to help streamline moving data from our Google Drive contact list to our MailChimp email list.  Not only does this cut down double data entry, but it also reduces the risk of leaving off new members from our email list, which we use to distribute the organization’s newsletter.

How this works is, Zapier, along with other similar service providers, allow you to connect different web products together.  You can then ask Zapier to take action B when update A occurs.  For us, the action is to update the email list in MailChimp when a new record is added to our Google Drive spreadsheet.  Other actions and connections with many online tools are available, making it scalable and flexible as our needs change and grow over time.

Syncing

It is hard to express my deep gratitude to Google for creating Drive (formerly Docs) with its robust collaboration and online sharing capabilities.  Gone are the days (so long as I can help promote the use of Drive within my team) of sharing a document by email with 10 people, hoping each person downloads it with a unique name, edits it with track changes, and then reading 10+ versions of the same file unable to easily decipher which changes should be incorporated in the final document.  My head used to ache when documents would fail to open because the file name was the same as an already-open version, or having to take extra time to create a relay-style editing process, waiting for one person to make changes and then passing on to the next until everyone has had a turn.

Instead, we stay in sync with only one version of a Google Doc, which multiple people can edit online–even simultaneously.  With versioning controls and track changes built in, and a seamless way to view a final-draft version of the document, I praise this service highly!  We also have begun to use Google’s other online product, Hangouts, to sync with each other using video conferencing and document sharing so we can boost our productivity in a virtual team environment.

Another syncing method we use is the wise social-media service, HootSuite.  Using this product, we can connect and post the same message to multiple social-media accounts with one clicks.  This saves time and frustration, as we no longer need to log into each account separately and copy-paste the content one-by-one.

Integrating

Yes, I am about to applaud Google again.  With Gmail, I enjoy being able to include a Google Drive file into an email without actually attaching it.  Instead, a link is provided to the document, which can be set up so that the recipients can view only, make comments, or have full edit rights to the document.  Adding links within documents to other files makes it easier to integrate a fuller picture and make a more robust reader experience for my audience.

The association is looking to rebuild the way information and the user experience integrate with each other once we launch a new website on a better platform.  The goal is to include widgets–or plug-and-play tools–to allow systems to talk to each other and share information so that our users can have the documents, photos, videos, and other content at their fingertips without having to create multiple logins and accounts to access the services and content we want to provide.  Users familiar with WordPress will comment on the myriad pre-built widgets available to make almost limitless integrations with services such as–dare I say again–Google products, or MailChimp sign-up forms for newsletter campaigns, just to name a few.

As we begin to re-look at how we do business and investigate the tools out there that automate, sync-up, and integrate the specialized services that different companies provide, I look forward to building a user-friendly and comprehensive online presence for the association’s membership, as well as for its administrators.

What about You?

Leave a comment below about the IT products you use to simplify your online connection, or post a question about how to make your life easier using technology.

Special recognitions go to Dan, Ray, and Jay for tips you’ve shared with over the years!

Boosting Your Processing Power: Using Technology as a Business Tool

Inboxes are clogging with unread emails.  Voice-mailboxes and text are messaging tones causing tinnitus.  Thumbs are cramping from pecking emails on mobile phones.  No wonder it is so easy to become frustrated when the person on the other end sets off our fuses with a confusing message!  By the way, are you reading this on your mobile phone at 2 a.m.?

When technology came along, business leaders saw the time-saving potential of number-crunching computers and near-human intelligence of supercomputers.  What took months to calculate now takes milliseconds for a computer to analyze.  So why do our lives seem to be busier, faster, and more stressful than before?  How do we take control back from technology and enjoy the time between work?  The answer is to reframe how we look at and use technology.

Rather than seeing technology as a 24/7 must-have part of our lives, it can be healthier and more beneficial to view it as a means to helping improve quality of life.  In other words, instead of tying ourselves to the computer monitor or smart-phone screen all day long, it is necessary to draw boundaries around technology use.  There are many tools available, and I have outlined the most common ones that I use to keep organized and connected.

Email and Phone Calls 

As a business leader, it is easy to become tethered to smart-phones and be accessible all day and all night.  But, is it worth it to wake up to read emails immediately, regardless of the urgency?  Aside from the health concerns of not getting enough sleep and the effects on performance from fatigue, it also builds an organizational culture that inhibits proper use of delegation of authority.  Staff become overly reliant on the leader who is always accessible, when it is possible to come up with a solution for medium- or low-priority issues in your absence.

With email inbox rules and smart-phone alert settings (some phones now come with “VIP Alerts”), it is now possible to set up a process where emails with certain urgency levels or subject lines get forwarded to you during your personal time, while others auto-reply with a message that you are away.  Of course, this also requires discussing your boundaries with teammates and staff, so that they are aware of when you will respond and when it is up to them to take initiative.  Also, remember to call people or meet them directly when discussing complicated or personal matters.  Email is a great follow-up tool to confirm what was discussed verbally, but it lacks the tactfulness and quick richness of vocal dialogue.

To-Do Lists

Aside from personal boundary-setting, technology can help you to track your to-do lists, and even share them with others so that they know what is still in queue.  Lists can be therapeutic in a sense as well, because crossing off completed items allows you to see how much you have already finished.  This is especially rewarding when the number of action items seems unending: As you progress, you will see that you are making progress.  Need to generate a status report?  Refer back to your action item list to see what you have accomplished and what is yet to be done.  My personal preference is for Apple’s Reminders app, because it syncs with my phone, home computer, and the iCloud.  That way I receive reminders of all my action items’ due dates on my devices and can check them off wherever I am.

Document Sharing

While I prefer reading printed copies over on-screen documents, it is generally faster (and more environmentally friendly) to view docs on a computer or smart phone.  Sharing documents with teams can cause confusion when emailing different versions back and forth for editing: “Did I include Sally’s changes in that version?  Wait, she sent two.  Ok, now is this the final draft, or is that?  Oops – I forgot that Jack’s email was saved in another folder, and I had not yet incorporated his changes.”

Two of the available options solve this problem: Subversion and the Cloud.  Subversion allows users on the same network to share the same version of documents and includes version control (with locking and unlocking of files) to assist teams collaborating together.  Cloud services offer similar functionality, without requiring everyone to be on the same server.  I use Google Docs/Drive when collaborating with teams as well.  It allows anyone with a Google Account (which can be created from generally any email address) to share documents online.  It also lets you see who made which changes, and multiple users can edit the same document simultaneously.  Google Docs are also accessible via smart phones and tablets with Internet access.

Paper and Pencil

Sometimes good ol’ fashioned paper and pencil (or whiteboard and marker) make for the best technology.  This is especially the case when starting to draft an idea, diagram, or document from scratch.  Mind-mapping, brainstorming, and sketching symbols, words, or phrases help to pull innovative thoughts out of your mind and put them onto paper.  It is easy to edit using paper and pencil, shaping the idea until it looks just right.  Then it is possible to take a photo or recreate the draft electronically to share with others on the team.

When preparing to use technology to help you organize or connect with others, it is important to first understand why you need the tool: what issue or challenge is being addressed?  Then, analyze the different options available and select a medium that is optimal for the identified issue.  Also remember to set some boundaries regarding when, how, and why you will use that tool.  It is wise to use technology to your advantage so long as you remember to take breaks and recharge your own batteries.