Sunrise launches Office 365 and Outlook.com integration, and Meet scheduling tool

Microsoft bought Sunrise in February (see Microsoft reported to acquire calendar app Sunrise), so it’s no surprise that they have been working on an integration with Office 365 and Outlook.com. Here’s the web interface showing the new integrations, now at the top of the list:
Screenshot 2015-07-11 10.04.17
I don’t have an active Office 365 account (something I let lapse when the old Gigaom shut down in March), so I couldn’t test it out, and apparently the Outlook.com integration is not 100% there, yet.
I tacked on the Meet scheduling tool now integrated into Sunrise, since it was released in May, prior to the Gigaom Research relaunch. Meet is a capability designed to deal with the headaches involved in scheduling meetings.
On the web version there is a ‘Meet’ button, and when you click you can then select a collection of possible times from your calendar. Options exist for various lengths for the meeting (30 minutes, and hour, etc.) and the location or medium for the meeting. Once your done making the list you hit a check mark, and a URL is placed in your clip buffer, so you can paste into an email or chat.
The approach on iOS and Android is actually slicker. New versions of the app include a keyboard, which — once configured — can be popped up inside any app, and which displays your calendar in context. Here’s my Gmail, for example:
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Here, you see I’ve selected two times for a possible meeting. Once I hit the checkmark, it is pasted into the text of the mail:
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This is a great design, and avoids having to switch back and forth between apps. Brilliant.
The only limitation is that this approach is currently limited to one-on-one meetings, and doesn’t tackle the exponential complexities of coordinating with many meeting participants, but I bet that the Sunrise folks are going to iron that out soon. Maybe I’ll drop my Amy Ingram virtual assistant (see x.ai is the best scheduling tool — er, assistant? — ever) when they release that!

x.ai is the best scheduling tool — er, assistant? — ever

For the past few weeks, I’ve been using a virtual personal assistant called x.ai to schedule appointments and calls. The magic behind its near perfect performance is artificial intelligence, according to the company:

Magically schedule meetings

That’s us. That’s all we think about. x.ai is a personal assistant that lets you use email to schedule meetings. You speak to [email protected] as you would to any other person – and you can have her do all the tedious email ping pong that comes along with arranging a meeting.

It’s unclear to me how much is being accomplished by the AI of x.ai and how much involves people, but as a user I certainly don’t care, because it has been the best scheduling tool I’ve ever used.

The mechanism is simple in the extreme. When I’ve gotten to the place in a discussion with someone about scheduling a meeting or call, I simply do something like this, cc’ing Amy Ingram (the email address of the AI):

Screenshot 2014-10-25 17.07.21

Subsequently, Amy emails the other person and — by access to my Google calendar — offers up various times on the week or days that I suggested, resolves the time with them, and then tees up an invitation for us both.

Amy also sends me copies of the emails she sends out (although I have stopped looking at them), as well as weekly updates on the status of outstanding meeting arrangements.

Screenshot 2014-10-17 13.38.52

I am certain that Konstantin and the dozens of others who have ‘spoken’ to Amy believe she is a real person.

I can also update Amy on my preferences, as I did today, telling ‘her’ that I’d rather, in general, schedule calls and meetings in the afternoon:

Screenshot 2014-10-25 15.42.59

I’ve updated Amy with my phone number and Skype account, so that can be added to meeting requests, too, when I stipulate.

To date, Amy has performed flawlessly. For example, She was coordinate with a sales director at Gigaom Research about a meeting, and he had already spoken to me face-to-face when I was in San Francisco this past week, so he emailed her that it was already set up. She emailed me explaining that it had already been done. Wow.

x.ai is in closed beta at the moment, but I am certain that we will all be directing our Amy to talk to other people’s Amys before too long.

Perhaps more importantly is the bigger observation about the use of bounded AI in business-related domains, like virtual assistant tasks. Conceivably Amy could soon be doing my expense reports, invoicing, travel plans, and a long list of tightly scripted tasks that eat away at my time. I estimate that Amy is already giving me back an hour or more a week, and as the list grows, the benefits simply mount.

There are greater areas, perhaps more strategic to the company, where AI is likely to play. I am planning a research note on Algorithmic and AI HR, where I will explore how the hiring, evaluation, guidance, training, and firing that goes on in HR might be better handled by non-human agents. Amy and other tools like ‘her’ is showing how that might start.

What are the people on your conference call doing when on mute?

A recent poll by Intercall, the conference call company, details the ways that attendees are not paying attention:

whatelseareemployees

 

47% have gone to the restroom during conference calls.

A survey from 2011 from Clarizen and Harris Interactive found that status meetings — largely informative meetings where the attendees update each other on the status of what they are working on — are a waste:

Only 30 percent of information workers feel status meetings help them accomplish work tasks and almost 40 percent of respondents believe status meetings are a waste of time.

[…]

67 percent of information workers spend between one to four (or more) hours per week just preparing for status meetings, while four out of ten of those respondents feel that prepping for and attending status meetings is the largest obstacle to efficiently completing work.

And again, this survey showed people not paying attention: 57% multitask during meetings.

The conventional attitude about meetings should be turned on its head. Meetings should be avoided, and no purely informative ones should ever be held. Use other means — like social media or work tech tools — to post status and updates.

Coworking — getting together with one or more coworkers to actually work together — is a completely different thing, and should be embraced. But even that has limits, and some work is simply done best in solitude. There is also value in pure socializing. But these aren’t meetings.

My rules for meetings:

  1. Can this meeting be cancelled, and handled by a few conversations or text messages? Do so, if possible.
  2. All meetings should have a purpose, an agenda, and description circulated before or at the outset of the meeting. Otherwise, don’t go.
  3. All meetings should be constrained to a short time frame, less than an hour. If the agenda is not finished, set up an additional meeting, but don’t go longer.
  4. All meetings should have the least people attending, with seven as an operational maximum.
  5. All meetings should have an agreed upon action plan, with all actions assigned to specific people attending. If someone doesn’t have action items, they probably shouldn’t have been in the meeting to begin with.

Al Pittampalli, the author of Read This Before Our Next Meeting, said

We’re now addicted to meetings that insulate us from the work we ought to be doing.

Think big, but have small, short, and focused meetings

Noah Brier of Percolate recently posted the company’s meeting rules online:

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After a torrent of commentary on Twitter, he decided to post a little more qualification of some of the rules. For example, it’s ok to use a laptop in a meeting it you’re explicitly taking meeting notes, or actually assigning tasks to people. As Noah puts it,

If their computer is open and they’re not presenting or creating tasks/taking notes, ask them to close it. If they need to be checking mail or working on something else, they probably shouldn’t be at the meeting.

Some people on Twitter asked if the person who called the meeting is responsible for enforcing the rules and the answer is no. Obviously they’re responsible for stating the purpose of the meeting, but everyone is responsible for the others. If, for example, you’re leaving a meeting without clarity around who is responsible for next steps it should be called out regardless of whether it was your meeting or not.

I especially like the ‘everyone is responsible’ aspect of enforcing the rules, apropos of the post I wrote this weekend about accountability (see Work skills for the future: accountability). The emphasis that meeting should lead to action is solid, too, although I am  happier when tasks are taken on by participants rather that being ‘assigned’. But the action bias and the need for accountability is key.

Also, the rules read almost like a program: if (person=spectator) then eject(person).

I’ve written in the past about the meetings at Amazon, as required by Jeff Bezos, where the idea of a meeting’s purpose is carried to a high art (see Flipped meetings: Learning from Amazon’s meeting policy). Amazon turns the typical corporate meeting on it’s head, so that instead of a powerpoint the attendees read a six page ‘narrative’  that are structured like a dissertation defense (from a Quora answer by Pete Abilla, a former Amazonian):

1) the context or question.

2) approaches to answer the question – by whom, by which method, and their conclusions

3) how is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches

4) now what? – that is, what’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?

This is one way to make meetings shorter: by having the meeting organizer do more work, and then having the attendees get on the same page (or six pages) at the outset of the meeting.

I fear that most companies aren’t disciplined enough to take on this level of preparation, but I think that such effort is an indicator of high-performance.

Steve Jobs wanted to keep meetings as small as possible,  and following the ‘no spectators’ approach he was known to ask people to leave when he thought they were unnecessary to a meeting’s purpose. The reasoning behind the ‘fewest possible attendees’ rule, according to Ken Segall, who worked closely with Jobs for a decade, was to keep complexity  at bay. Or as Segall puts it,

Apple encourages big thinking but small everything else.

So, to summarize, meetings are best when

  • they are focused on as few issues as possible (optimally one),
  • those issues are clearly explained by the organizer (and narratively, not bullets),
  • when people focus on those issues exclusively for the time allotted,
  • the time is as short as possible,
  • they involve the smallest possible attendee list,
  • all decisions and necessary actions are noted,
  • and someone (or some set of people collectively) takes responsibility for each necessary action.

And optionally, while standing.

How to fix meetings: go long and short

People mostly hate meetings. They can be enormous time sinks and boring, especially if Powerpoints are involved, and as Farhad Manjoo observed last week, the technologists have built tools that have changed a great deal of what goes on in business, but they haven’t really fixed meetings. He spoke with some technologists, like Evernote CEO Phil Libin, who offered this,

The concentrated, beating heart of most stupidity in the world is in meetings. If we want to punch at stupidity in the most effective way possible, we’ve got to tackle making meetings less stupid.

Like Jeff Bezos, Libin has made the anti-Powerpoint vow, and meetings at Evernote have to be preceded by a long-form agenda, with complete sentences or paragraphs, all of course shared in Evernote. And during the meeting, people are taking notes, and later on those notes are distributed. Evernote has introduced a presentation mode (premium feature) where a folder of notes can be presented in full screen format, with slide show UX so you can jump from one note to the next, plus the ability to scroll down in the note:

Screenshot 2013-12-19 16.06.41

 

Personally, I am a fan of the Bezos approach to meetings, where each has to be preceded by a 6 page meeting narrative, in a prescribed format (see Flipped meetings: Learning from Amazon’s meeting policy). At the outset of an Amazon meeting, everyone reads the document — which is formatted like a dissertation defense — and then the points are discussed.

The other lesson to apply to meetingology — and just as important as long format writing to go deep on topics — comes from the lean manufacturing world, and that is the lean meeting. At companies like Toyota these are just in time, unplanned, and driven by the need to discuss an issue and come to a decision, and move onto execution. In the creative world, that might entail a designer and writer meeting to discuss content for a web page design — make changes in the mock-up together in real time — and then break up after 13 minutes.

So the trend to push for in your meeting hygiene is to go long and short.

 

Zyncro is a very innovative and powerful work media tool

Looking at the sponsors for the upcoming Enterprise 2.0 Summit in Paris I saw an ad for Zyncro, positioned as ‘Your Enterprise Social Network’. Intrigued, I browsed over, and was immediately impressed with what I saw. After creating an account, and fooling with the tool for an hour, I found a lot of innovative ideas, including an implementation of open following, similar to that of Yammer.
The open follower model is what we have come to know from Twitter and other open (‘consumer’ social networks, where a user can follow any other user, and receive their public updates. It is a true pull model, since the creator of the tweet does not need to address the tweets to people specifically.
Most other work media tools that I am aware of do not implement this model fully. Instead they implement a much more limited model, where users are implicitly ‘following’ projects, spaces, or other defined contexts they’ve created or to which they have been invited to. There is no general mechanism for simply following the status updates of people you are interested in. Yammer supports this. And I think it is essential for social networking to flourish in the workplace.
Zyncro takes the idea a step further, implementing something like retweets, or reposts. These are called ‘quotes’ in Zyncro. Here you see where I am logged in and I opt to quote something posted by my alter ego, O Boyd:

Quoting an Update


Note that I can choose to repost to all my followers, the whole organization (because I have admin rights), or into a specific ‘group’ (the term Zyncro uses for named contexts). I opted to send to the Project X group:

Quoted Update


Zyncro has a number of other intriguing features.
Along with files and tasks, the tool supports notes (called ‘information’) and decisions. Decisions are basically notes that are designated as representing decisions, which would make more sense if they were attached to other objects, like tasks and files. For example, I found myself envisioning a task linked to a file and assigned to a coworker, called ‘Review this document for release’. I imagined that a decision could be attached to the task, with the text ‘Approved’, or better yet, a selection from a list of values: ‘approved’, ‘not approved’, ‘rework and resubmit’, and so on. Maybe Zyncro is heading in that direction.
Updates can be voted on, so they can be used as a means of getting back a straw vote on ideas.
votes

Votes


When I want to drill down into Project X I click on the Files and Groups, then select Project X and I am show this context, with Messages of that project being displayed:
x

Project X


When I select the Tasks tab on the upper right, I am shown the tasks associated with Project X. Here I am showing all ‘tasks’ which includes information and decisions.
x tasks

Project X Tasks


Note that I can opt to check off those tasks that I’d like to ‘Include in next meeting’. I can generate a PDF of those tasks, for example, and open that PDF in the next meeting. I like this idea of staging things to be reviewed at meetings, and I can imagine that when integrated with other meeting-oriented tools, that could be quite helpful.
Note also that Zyncro does integrate with a long list of tools, including SurveyMonkey, Twitter, EverNote, LinkedIn, Google calendar and Gmail, and many more, including the companies own applets, like support for tags, and quotes. One of these is Join.me, which I was unable to try, but obviously holding online meetings and then pulling up the list of tasks to be discussed would be straightforward.
The Bottom Line
Zyncro looks to be a very innovative and powerful work media tool, and the company seems to be headed in a great direction toward more open following and a wide spectrum of use cases supported by the integration of third-party apps and Zyncro’s own add-ons.

Tempo is a very smart calendar appliance

It’s clear that calendar software suffers from a skeuomorphic adherence to the paper agendas that people used for centuries before the computer was invented. 30 little boxes with text, times and dates. Minimal metadata, and absolutely no smarts about what a calendar entry means.

The perfect proof of that state of affairs is the meeting. When I am about to attend a meeting — either face-to-face or online — there is a predictable series of activities. I pull up emails related to the meeting, and review documents attached. I often need to send a message out to the meeting attendees saying that I will be a few minutes late.

Until recently it seemed that calendar app developers simply disregarded these use cases. Recently, however, the designers behind Apple’s Siri at SRI, finally attacked the problem head on, and the result is Tempo, a new iPhone app.

At first glance — after associating my email and calendar accounts — the app looks like other calendars. Here you see the Agenda and Month views.

2013-03-05 15.16.25

2013-03-05 15.19.16

 

However, when you drill down into a specific event, like the meeting I am having tomorrow (on matters related to the Beacon Bike Loop project here in Beacon NY), you can see the capabilities of the tool. Along with the event’s time, place (which we haven’t settled yet), the contacts, and any recent emails from the contacts, Tempo allows me a simple way to send a message to all the attendees or to signal them that I will be late.

2013-03-05 15.13.25

Here you see the screen after clicking on ‘Message’, arranged so I can email all the contacts, or just one.

2013-03-05 12.41.18

Tempo is still processing my email, but when that is finished it will also fetch attachments in emails that might be related, as well, at least in principle. And it acts as a robotic assistant, working silently in the background, so that I don’t have to manually dig up the contacts, search for emails, etc. Tools like Meetin.gs work the opposite way, putting the burden of being organized on the user. Me, I want ‘bots to organize my mess for me, instead.

Tempo looks like a really smart tool, especially on a mobile device, but an appliance that I see myself using prior to almost any meeting. I wish there was a web version so I could use it on my Mac.

This is another great example of a small and simple social tool, one designed to attack a narrow set of related use cases without trying to boil the entire ocean of all event-related activities.

How to embrace remote meetings

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