Monthly Archives: June 2012

Virtual Teams: Collaborating over the web

Virtual Teams: Collaborating over the web

One of the key benefits our clients enjoy from using our hosted software services has been their ability to access our software – and therefore their data and projects – from any computer in any location 24/7. This level of access has meant that individuals can now work in teams that are not necessarily all located in the same office or even in the same town or Local Authority! 
Web-enabled technologies such as our e-Consultation, interactive mapping and content management systems all lend themselves to Local Authorities looking to increase IT efficiencies and cost savings by sharing software and the workloads associated with using that software.

However, working in ‘Virtual Teams’ presents new challenges to how people meet the demands of their workflows and workload particularly when other team members are not in the same room or building as them. Not all of these challenges can be met by technology alone.
Ian Fleming, author of The Virtual Teams Pocketbook, provides an overview at The Web Publishing Portal of what makes a good virtual team. Ian has spent his career working in organisations helping teams and individuals develop their potential and cope with change. The result is a wealth of practical knowledge and experience that he shares with others who may face similar situations. [more]

Virtually – the way forward

Whilst the benefits of team working have been known for many years, a new type of team is evolving. A team often put together using the best skills available, across a variety of locations, organisations or continents – yet one that may never meet.

With the advances in technology, the globalisation of business and the need to create products in shorter time pressures, new ways of working started to develop. Virtual Teams (VTs) started to appear in the language of organisations during the 1990’s. They weren’t planned; they simply evolved.

Now the best brains plus skilled people and companies with complimentary interests and experiences are finding creative ways to respond to business challenges and market opportunities.

Whilst the case for Virtual Team working is well made – i.e. costs, time, sharing knowledge etc – it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that:

Virtual Teams are like normal teams with people based in different places

Whilst this has some truth, much of what we know about teams is based on learning gained in face-to-face situations. Virtual Teams demand a different range of skills.

All teams need leaders and a worthwhile goal to aim for, plus an effective way of working, but in addition VTs face the task of building unity within a group of people who may rarely – if ever – meet and work across time zones. So, don’t make the mistake of simply transferring what you know about teams to new virtual situations.

Virtual Teams are all about technology

Wrong. Whilst technology plays a major part on how teams operate, success comes from applying inspirational leadership, developing trust, blending the skills available and encouraging both participation and accountability. It’s the human side of getting people to co-operate and work together that is key. Don’t fall into the trap of getting obsessed with technology – people make teams successful and not machines.

Virtual Teams will always work if they have the best people.

No team is guaranteed success. Even picking the best players doesn’t ensure you’ll be successful – as we see with national sports teams.

Teams fall short of their potential for many reasons from setting unrealistic goals and expectations to a failure of the leader to inspire their followers.

Many VTs have people from different countries and cultures (in simple terms culture being ‘the way people behave’). If the challenges this presents aren’t recognised and allowed for, then the team is likely to hit problems.

Remember that your contact with each other may be remote, but that you are dealing with human beings. You each have feelings; needs, hopes and aspirations that you want met.

So instead of emailing, pick up the phone and talk to people.

Also don’t undervalue the impact of saying thanks to people – not only when things go well but especially in difficult times. It’s easy to feel isolated and your efforts ignored.

Finally, enjoy it – virtual working is here to stay.

(If you want to know more about VTs and how to make them successful, then post your questions on line. Should you have your own experiences – good or bad – then please share them.)


Why SEO your website?

Why SEO your website?

I remember reading a quote around 8 years ago, sadly I cannot remember where but it went something like this;

“Submission prior to Optimization is much like entering a motorcycle race with a bicycle.”

It was a neat way to sum up why any website needs to be optimised for search engine performance and considering that the number of sites now available on the Internet has grown a hundredfold since this quote, it becomes more relevant today.

Imagine if you opened a shop. Your shop is not on the main drag of the high street and so won’t have high incidental footfall. Therefore would your shop survive without finding a way of telling people it is there? Probably not.

Having a website is exactly the same. Simply to build a fancy website with all your information clearly displayed is not enough to get traffic to pass through it. Submitting that site to a search engine without any optimisation will leave it flagging on page forty, along with the clumps of tumbleweed whistling down the list. Nobody goes there, nobody cares what’s on page forty. Indeed no-one really cares what’s on page four of the results pages – if it isn’t in the first three pages of listings it may as well not be there at all. [more]

You have to provide a way for your website to hold its hand up in the air and shout; “I have what you are looking for”. You must give the search engines a way to spot your website in a vast crowd, as one that offers the very thing that their customer has just typed into its search box. And the only way to do that is by SEO. Search Engine Optimisation – by someone who understands how it works.

Having said that, SEO is not rocket science and there is no need to be intimidated by People Who Know – because there are optimisation companies out there who make outrageous promises in the hopes of taking advantage of people who don’t really know. Here are some of my ‘favourites’;

We can get you to the top of the listings in Google. 

We guarantee thousands of hits for your website.

We will ensure hundreds of links coming into your site.

Sounds good doesn’t it? Over the years many of my clients have nearly fallen for such glowing promises of these agencies, but all it takes is to point out what’s not being said. The top of Google for what search term and for how long? Hits are okay but what about actual visitors? Will those links be reciprocal and/or produced via software (neither of which are taken into consideration by Google)? Suddenly the holes start to appear and you begin to feel as if this company is trying to hoodwink you – and they are! Do not spend your money with them.

However, there are many very good Search Engine Optimisers out there, just be sure you employ a reputable one. Look for recommendations and reasonable goals for your site. Finding a company that uses what is becoming known as White Hat tactics – tactics that fall within the rules and are honest ways of promoting your website – and you’ll be fine. 

Better still learn to do it yourself. There is no-one who knows your business and website better than you, and you are in the best position to research and learn what your potential customers are typing into Google, for example, to look for a company like yours. There is no mystery to optimizing your pages, there is a lot of free direction and support on the Internet, and a little effort into your SEO will pay dividends in terms of your website’s visibility once you have released it into the ether.

If you would like an article on the basics of SEO then let us know and we’ll get one online for you on the Web Publishing Portal.

Google Maps: Where next for the online mapping revolution?

Google Maps: Where next for the online mapping revolution?

The arrival of Google Maps in 2004 heralded a new era in mapping and in particular how people and organisations thought about the way mapping could be used on the web. Static, pixellated tiles of maps in raster formats were no longer good enough, people wanted interaction and more control over what their maps displayed and how they related to other important media such as documents, databases and imagery. Organisations had been there before offering interactive mapping but no-one had done it so boldly and so ubiquitously as Google.

It’s possible to be both supportive and critical of Google Maps, sometimes in the same breath.  One of the main benefits from Google entering the world of mapping has been the exponential rise in user demand for interactive maps and in the expectations of organisations in how they use maps to communicate and inform online. On the B2B scale small businesses like ourselves have been able to tap into that user demand by offering organisations either a map solution built with the Google Map API or an alternative solution based on open source technologies, implementing comparable features and functions but using alternative map sources such as Ordnance Survey mapping. [more]

You could say that we have a foot in both camps – non-proprietary and proprietary – but that was driven largely by customer demand. We love open source technologies and our own mapping software but we’re not slaves to it. As a small business we have to be pragmatic: it’s what our customers demand when they have a limited budget coupled with high expectations.  In certain quarters Google Maps is seen as a rogue; a corporate monopoliser less interested in mapping but more interested in the banner space above the map and the flow of traffic to its other products and services.

And therein lies a problem. The flip-side to the mass appeal of online interactive consumer mapping has been a perception that Google Maps unfairly dominates the market place. This threatened to come to some kind of a head in the UK when in 2010 the Ordnance Survey trailed (and then released in April 2011) its Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA). There was confusion – particularly voiced by Local Authorities – about whether or not organisations could show data derived from an Ordnance Survey (OS) map over a Google Map. Perhaps fresh in some minds was the copyright infringement claim made by OS against the AA for using OS maps as source material in certain AA road atlases. That case was eventually settled out of court to the tune of £20M in 2001 but was this latest spat between OS and Google threatening to grow to a similar level of acrimony?

Despite some public discussion on the issue neither side appears to have come to a common understanding of what it means to put OS-derived data on a Google Map nor do they seem to have been willing to give a clear and definitive answer that draws a line under the issue. Informally and publically each party has claimed that their own interpretation of the “legalese” is correct and a stalemate is now in place which seems to suit both parties.

Interestingly Google’s recently revised Terms of Service may provide some kind of possible closure with the phrasing of the words “When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services..”as using the Google Map API doesn’t require data being “uploaded” or “submit[ted]” to Google. On the other side of the fence the advent of the Ordnance Survey’s OpenData products may have helped to push the issue further down the agenda with OS able to direct Local Authorities and other interested parties to a Plan B with its own range of ‘free to use’ map data rather than into a cul-de-sac with open-ended answers in response to closed questions about Google Maps.

In France it’s been a different story. Earlier this year a French cartographic company successfully sued Google Maps for its “unfair dominance” of the market place, convincing the commercial tribunal that Google’s strategy is to drive out domestic competition. Google says it will appeal but it raises the spectre of cartographic companies in other EC countries also following suit.

Possibly the real winner in the UK and elsewhere in the last couple of years has been Open Street Map (OSM)which is turning heads with the richness of its content and the growing impression that its own business model is sustainable in the long-term. More and more applications and software – predominantly open source – are being developed to work with OSM data and the upswing in moves to cloud computing means that OSM is able to position itself in such a way that people can deliver products and services online with comparatively low start-up costs. Then of course there is Bing Maps from Microsoft – a long-standing commercial operator in mapping and cartography – which is arguably a superior digital cartographic product with a better update cycle in the UK to that of Google.

The majority of multi-platform media – of which mapping is now a commodity with unique leverage – struggle to find a successful business model that delivers content and features users want but which will also generate revenue and even – shock, horror – the ultimate prize: a self-sustainable and non-subsidised profit. The Ordnance Survey has made arguments to this effect for not releasing products like MasterMap as part of its OpenData portfolio. If MasterMap, its mapping crown jewel, is made freely available the OS claims it will need to be subsidised by £30M per annum to cover the shortfall in economic benefits it provides the organisation.

Google Maps is going the other way, changing its business model with the instigation in October 2011 of charging for use of its API once a certain number of map loads have been reached. It’s something that many commentators had been anticipating for years and is indicative of a key trend in organisations offering online software services: start “free”, build up a user base, make those users dependent, then start to charge.

Somewhere along this spectrum of licensing and monetising mapping is a sweet spot that both supplier and consumer will be happy with, but where is it?

Google Maps and its API  has undoubtedly shaped the way we now view not only mapping but also technology itself. Mobile phones, for example, go so well with interactive maps. We need never be lost ever again. The interesting conundrum for Google is that with the range of alternative commercial and open source mapping products now available, often providing  clearer and less contentious licensing agreements for their use, it means that developers and organisations are no longer dependent upon using Google Maps or its API to provide either a local or a global picture or service online.

Google has been a commercial trailblazer, instigating unprecedented demand for online mapping and acting as a  catalyst in creating and shaping a global market for consumer mapping that provides real choices to the buyer both in terms of what map data to use and what technology is best suited to delivering that data. In the UK the monopoly of the OS has been broken if not the dependency for large-scale accurate ‘definitive mapping’.

Whilst Google has not been alone in driving mapping demand over the past decade their shake-up of the market place has made mapping an integral part of the way our understanding of the real and virtual world have been shaped. Google has changed our perceptions of mapping in a way that could only really have emerged alongside the explosion of the Internet. The key for businesses like ours is to harness those perceptions with a successful business model that delivers online products and services people want.