I don’t like email – but I like Slack!

I don’t like emails. As IT coordinator I get what I consider to be a lot of emails – around 60 a day right now. I’m often too busy during the day to go through them effectively and leave them till I get home. Then I spend around two hours mowing through them. I don’t like email not because I hate the volume I receive, but more due to its inefficiency.

Our school just had its first day of the school year today. Leading up to this week I received around 50–60 emails a day on top of trying to do my part to get the school in shape. I often, spend my day running around, completing tasks, helping my colleagues however I can and rarely have time to sit down and address them pesky emails. That leaves me with 50+ emails every night to mow through.

You might be thinking that the volume of email I receive is what bothers me, but that’s really not it. It’s how inefficient it is. Let me paint a picture for you. A teacher in a classroom is having trouble printing and so are five other teachers who have the same issue. Even though it’s one issue all five teachers will email me at different times to report it.

Instead of just dealing with all five issues at once, we end up dealing with them individually throughout the day – interrupting our tasks and thus making our time less effective. It’s not the teacher’s fault. How are they supposed to know that the issue is not confined to them? They’re just reporting an issue that is pressing and needs to be solved.

Another problem with this scenario is that only I see the message. I work with 5 other very talented and capable ICT engineers who are often as good or better at solving issues than myself. They will often miss out on these issues as they are only sent to me. Then if I do forward it onto a team member, they maybe too busy working on another problem to help that teacher in a timely manner.

See – not too efficient.

Now let me give you another issue. A member of the IT team wants to let me know of an issue so they email me. Sounds OK right? Not really. There may be other members of the team who need to know about this but are left in the dark. This leads me to do a lot of micromanaging and miscommunication. This often leaves the team going over the same old ground again and again. I don’t blame my team members – email is fast, reliable, and for a long time the only means to reach out to someone. It just happens to not be a sucky tool for team communication.

Groups

To help combat this I created a Google group. You don’t need to have Google apps for education, but it helps if you do. Instead of emailing just me, they email the group. All of the IT team will receive the email as well as myself, thus keeping the whole team informed and in the loop. I have one person per grade level or subject email a list of problems their team has. So we can engage in multiple issues in one visit as opposed to stopping back again and again.

This helps a little bit but we run into another problem. The rogue emailer. A person who decides that the protocol just doesn’t apply to them or they simply forget to send it to the group. This person isn’t nefarious and they probably feel that one direct email is harmless. Now chain that together with 15–20 people in a day. Yep – that is a lot busy work. Often, these emails can get buried in my inbox too, escaping the focus of the IT team and making the sender frustrated.

You see, I can’t control these people anymore than I can control the weather. I would have better luck getting Omar to clean his desk. 🙂 They act independently and to be honest – there aren’t any consequences they will suffer doing this. I can’t dock their pay or place them in time out – are you kidding me. Also, for me to ignore their request just is irresponsible and not in my nature. The result is a bloated inbox that eats up my time.

So you see – I don’t like email, but I’m stuck with it. I deal with too many people to ignore it and there isn’t a better option out there for me – at least not yet. Yet, all hope is not lost.

Slack

Then I saw an article on The Verge about Slack. Slack is a way for groups or teams to communicate. Despite the link bait headline

Slack lets you create a small community focused on nothing but communication. Check out the screen shot below.

At a quick glance it may look like a simple chat program and it certainly has that feature (even with emojis) but there is much more to it. On the far left hand column there are some cool features.

As you can see there are channels. Slack creates a General and a Random channel (of course you can rename or delete these). I’ve also added Major Issues and Xerox to the mix as well. Then below that is a list of all members in the team. Since I created the group I have control on who is in the group. You can create as many channels as you want and each channel requires a purpose so it is clear why it was created.

When they are online a green dot is next to their name so I know who on my team is watching and available for immediate action. When I send a message, they receive it in real time and can reply. I can even send direct messages if need be.

Another great feature is how you can add Integrations to your Slack team. You can up to five for free and then you need to pay after that. For us, it works great because I can add Google Drive to it, making it easy to share files with my team.

In fact there is an impressive amount of integrations that you can add to Slack making it much more than just a communication hub for your team. Another great feature is how Slack handles linked files and actual files. You can easily find them in a side bar that you can hide or show at any time.

So for example, we were going to be setting up some new computers for about 60 staff members. We needed print drivers, ActivInspire, AirServer and a few other programs. As a team we all had them but no easy place to store them all. Slack stepped in and we were all able to upload our files and make them accessible for the entire team. This has already proved to be very, very nice.

This helps me and the rest of the team stay on the same page. We can update each other of ongoing projects, alert everyone of new issues, ask for help. No worry of sending errant emails to the wrong person, or accidentally hit Reply to all. It’s closed, just for us and gives us a clearer focus.

This isn’t to say that it is perfect, but it is certainly better than just email. My team and I still use email, especially dealing with vendors or administration to build an email chain, but when it comes to communication within the team Slack is the way to go for us.

It also has an iOS app, an Android app and desktop apps for Windows and Mac. They have all the bases covered here. If, you’re like Tony who is rocking Linux, you can still access the web version and if you have a BlackBerry, get a new phone.

Not for everyone

Don’t get me wrong, Slack will not replace email. That would probably be a disaster – but it helps me keep in touch with the IT team. Could this work within a school? I think it could if used properly. You wouldn’t want a Slack for an entire division or even a grade level, but let’s say you have a curriculum team, Slack could work very well. Also, if you have a team of people in charge of reaccreditation or working on a grant – Slack may very well be the better route to helping you build something effective and meaningful in your school.

The fact that all messages are easily searchable, files are very easy to find, you can make focused channels for various sections of your project makes Slack a real alternative to emailing when working within groups or on teams. Technology doesn’t always make our lives better or easier, but Slack is a product that seems to offer more focus, better efficiency and a clearer focus for members of a team. Give it a try for you and your team. It’s free!

https://slack.com/

Patrick Cauley
The Tech Jonsey

DOUBLE SECRET PROBATION!

Animal House 1978

This week I had an interesting experience. I received and email that was vague, but critical, about a project I had been working on.

Like anyone, I hate having to mull over everything I have done wrong. I do make it a point to spend the last few hours of work at the end of each week doing just that. To facilitate the reflection, I do inventory or something very mechanical while I think.

In this case though, I was confused about the comments. The reason being- the project was finished in October 2012.

I myself have to constantly follow-up on numerous projects. Almost everything I do is in the public view. This is one reason I document everything, write reports, and update the school’s IT Policy and Procedures Manual every 3-4 months. If I cannot deliver a criticism to someone within a short time after a project is finished, I just move on. The time between projects is short, so I never want to carry the negative energy from one project into another.

If I have been working with someone, and they seem to constantly repeat mistakes, I make a point to be prepared for that behavior, and deal with it while things are fluid and in progress.

As annoyed as I was, I had to admit that there was a problem. I was not sure what the problem really was, because the comments I received were very vague. I was not sure if the issues were from something else that had triggered some negative memories from October, or if, the concern arose since were approaching planning for the next year.

I dug into my Google Apps and found the IT report I wrote in November of 2012. This was a report to show the current state of IT after switching to BYOD and to Apple in the secondary division. Both projects, very huge, and they occurred concurrently.

The report clearly shows that I had summarized, with data and comments, where the school “was” after the two implementations.  The person who contacted me about the October 2012 issues, was the person I wrote this report for, and met with, in November.

I feel now that I may have been on Double Secret Probation for most of the year. What I mean by that, is, obviously for a very long time there have been concerns with the way I managed these two large implementations.  These concerns, were not voiced all year. I feel like they were not voiced because everyone was busy, and things were actually working fine when the implementation was finished.

I knew, at the time, the level of stress was high. I predicted a six month period of issues and adjustments with these two big implementations. The fact is though, we only suffered a three month adjustment period. The staff and students were amazing and adaptive. I assumed, which one should never do, that the stress among the school’s leadership team would be reduced after the staff and students had settled in. I was wrong.

I should have had more contact time with those who felt the most concerned about the projects, if they had failed.

As I have said, most of the things I do are in the face of the community, but I am not the face of community. It is easy to forget the people who are trusting the technology plan are also the people who have to be accountable for it. It was, and will always be, a mistake to not provide extra time for those whose support is the fuel for change. A lesson to not be forgotten- at least for me.

At the same time though, feedback has to come quickly to people who are working on projects. Projects require planning, budgeting, and are often connected. By not being up front, and even confrontational, about problems, the community can suffer. Mistakes can build up, and a bad project, following a bad project will lead to an exponential growth in problems.

At this stage, I am hoping last year’s data will help eliminate the stress, and get to the heart of the issues. I know one thing, I want to be off of Double Secret Probation as soon as possible.

Tony DePrato

www.tonydeprato.com