Microsoft’s cross-platform Office push includes revamped Outlook

If you’re a fan of Microsoft services and you have an iOS or Android device, today’s your lucky day. The company has taken the wraps off a bunch of updates and, in some cases, new releases.

First up, Android tablets. Late last year Microsoft released preview versions of its Office apps – Word, Excel and PowerPoint – for Google’s larger-screened mobile devices, and now it’s removed the “preview” label. All these productivity apps are now available for free download in their fully-fledged forms, as is OneNote for Android.

For those with Android tablets running on Intel processors, Microsoft said in a Thursday blog post that a native implementation of its apps would be out for those “within a quarter.”

Microsoft has also released a new Outlook app for iOS and a preview version of Outlook for Android. There’s already a more basic app for Android, but this new version also incorporates calendaring, contacts and OneDrive file-handling functionality, as well as new “customizable swipes and actions.”

The new Outlook app actually represents an impressively swift wrangling of Accompli, the email/calendar app that Microsoft bought late last year. As Outlook GM and former Accompli CEO Javier Soltero wrote in a separate post, the intention now is to “continue rapidly delivering new features and functionality” in the app.

Workflow in new iOS Outlook app

Workflow in new iOS Outlook app

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.


Not Powerpoint, not whiteboards, but more visual sharing

The canonical boring meeting: a bunch of people who wish they were doing something else are listening to someone giving a Powerpoint presentation with lots and lots and lots of bullets. Maximum drag, minimum lift.
But we all know it doesn’t have to be that way. Even if a meeting has to be structured around one person presenting some body of information, even simple techniques can make it better. David Sibbet and the folks at Grove Consultants have for years argued that the bulleted list is one of the worst ways to transmit most sorts of ideas or information. Grove’s ‘Group Graphics Keyboard‘ collates different tools that could be applied in meetings (even in Powerpoint), and showing what the various sorts are good for.

In my experience, all of these techniques are best when applied collaboratively, through facilitated sessions, rather than simply as the result of an individual going off and building some representation on their own. And some of the complaints about more complex design types — like tree diagrams — are countered by the use of drawing programs or mind mapping tools.
And today’s 3D workforce — distributed, discontinuous, and decentralized — we don’t have the luxury of always meeting face-to-face, and that is an added incentive to use collaborative tools. But it may be that using collaborative web-based visual tools might be better in general than scribbling on white boards even when we are working face-to-face.
Conceptboard: A visual collaboration tool
I’ve just signed up to a new service that has great promise in this area. In my case, I do a great deal of remote collaboration. My least favorite experience is watching a remote presentation of a Powerpoint. But I haven’t found a way to easily collaborate visually using approaches like those in the Grove Group Graphics Keyboard.
The product is called Conceptboard, and it provides a variety of drawing tools on a large virtual canvas, making it relatively simple to add grids, diagrams, and other visual motifs. Because it is a web tool, images can be pulled from other sources, as well. And the tool implements a fairly broad social context around the premises of shared visual thinking.

The screen shot above is a bit busy. To the left is a panel with social controls for the conceptboard I created called ‘New Board’. The share button is to invite people to join, while the conference button toggles social conventions, like displaying where others are currently looking on the canvas (here, ‘Other Stowe’ is shown in green), toggling video and audio form the conference originator, and turning on or off the moderator mode, where the creator of the conceptboard can drive what others see.
To the right is the shared canvas itself. Note that all participants can add content, move visual elements around, or comment on any section.
The way I envision using this lines up with my thoughts about effective meetings. Let’s imagine I was planning to lead a meeting in a week’s time, perhaps a discussion with a conference organizer about an upcoming event where I had been hired to moderate a track. (I did this only a few months ago, so it is fresh in my mind as a use case.) Instead of just preparing some notes, or writing a long text-heavy agenda, I might create some visuals in advance of the meeting. A tree diagram of possible themes, ideas about speakers, maybe some graphics clipped from various reports. I’d prepopulate a conceptboard with those elements, and create an ‘action plan’ corner anticipating that as an outcome of the call.
I’d send out an invitation to the conceptboard to the attendees in advance, and suggest that they walk through the short tutorial in advance.
During the meeting, I’d forego video, but use the moderator mode to present my goals for the meeting, and then walk through various elements I had predefined. However, I’d also suggest that the others use the chat, comments, and other social communications in real-time, too. And finally, I’d invite the others to a period of silent brainstorming, where we’d add additional visual elements — for example, someone might be interested in the idea of using social tools in real-time at the conference — and then we’d reconvene to a summary, and development of actions to take.
One of the opportunities lost in so many meetings is that little or no feedback is given. The natural tendency is to focus on the discussion of issues, getting to agreement, and setting out a plan, so the chance to take a minute and tell someone how their contributions in the meeting helped: how their questions really sharpened the discussion, or that their reorganization of the critical path saved a great deal of time. With tools like Conceptboard, that feedback can be going on in real-time, in parallel to the brainstorming, discussion and getting to an action plan. It can be done in comments, chat, or in visual elements too. Imagine placing a big star on the bottom of a critical path diagram, with ‘Great Work!’ written inside.
After closing the meeting, Conceptboard would send out a ‘board report’ like that below, showing what people had done during the meeting. (I was unaware of this feature, so I didn’t think to add visual elements during the call, but they would have been included.)

Final Thoughts
The simplest way to make meetings engaging is to make them social, and shared. Instead of recitations of status, use meetings to actually work together. In today’s world of business, we have the infrastructure in place to instrument all meetings — even the ones where all participants are present — with social tools designed to make meetings suck less. In fact, that should be the tagline for Conceptboard, perhaps.
Some of the constants about meetings hold true: prepare, spend a lot of time listening, get people’s contributions, work to find consensus and common ground, and work towards concrete actions to take whenever possible. But we should increasingly try to work visually, and metaphorically, because whole-minded approaches to making sense of the world are simply richer than just words, even if the words come through social tools. Social visualization is a huge force multiplier when a group is struggling to develop a marketing plan, a strategy, or the next release of a product. Or anything else.

Clippy’s dead, but KeyRocket resurrects the good bits

What use are hundreds of shortcuts if you don’t know them? Berlin’s Veodin has come up with a free tool called KeyRocket, which trains users in the way of the shortcut with more relevance and less irritation than Microsoft’s hated old Office assistant.

Prezi zooms forward with $14m from Accel

Cloud-based presentation service Prezi kicked up a fuss when it offered a dynamic alternative to dreary formats. Now, two years after launch, the Hungarian startup has scored a serious round of funding to take the battle to PowerPoint.

How tablets can make meetings less painful

Those of you who hate meetings and can’t stand endless PowerPoint-based presentations, there’s hope. Todd Barr, chief marketing officer of Alfresco had some encouraging solutions for how to improve them at GigaOM’s Net:Work 2011 conference on Thursday: use tablets.

Iongrid brings Office apps securely to iPad

Iongrid’s new Nexus software promises to bring your Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets to your iPad with what it calls “pixel perfect” fidelity and in a way that won’t give IT or the compliance department a collective heart attack.

Knoodle Makes Cloud-Based Training a Cinch

Knoodle offers a training solution that provides a presentation with a split screen; you can have text or PowerPoint slides on one side of the screen and video on the other, then sync the video with the slides so they automatically advance at the right time.