Spring Cleaning Time for SharePoint Sites

We have been deeply involved in a cleanup of our SharePoint portal plan for the last several weeks and I thought I would share with you some of our observations because I know most of you with both Internet and intranet sites that are more than a few years old probably share the same issues we do. Our Internet and intranet portals have been around for 9 and 8 years respectively and over time, a lot of ‘junk’ has accumulated. The example I like to use is that it is similar to the way your email slowly fills up with ‘junk’ over time. For example, if you received 20 emails a day, but only have time to address 19 of them, you may go home feeling pretty good about the amount of work you got done. However, that 1 email you did not get to if you consider have only 1 email that you do not get to each day over the course of a typical work year can amount to over 250 emails. Of course, if you get more than 20 emails and the number that you do not get to is greater than 1, that total can expand much more rapidly.

So how do you get a handle on the problem? You could simply delete anything older than 2 weeks old, but that might delete important email messages that you really need to see. On the other hand, the email that you received yesterday and did not get to may be a total waste of time. Clearly the age of the email is not the only deciding factor. Maybe you choose to delete all emails from people outside of your department. Unfortunately, some of those emails from other departments may be more important than the email that circulated around asking people where they wanted to go to lunch on Friday. You could delete anything that comes from outside of the company. That would certainly help keep you focused on your work, but you would also miss notifications of appropriate training or white papers relevant to your job.

Thus you can see that cleaning out your inbox can be more complex than any simple rule or a set of rules (although they may help). It is also important to perform that cleanup on a more frequent basis than once every year. One a month may not be too often and even once a week perhaps on Friday afternoon as you are winding down for the week might be a good choice.

In a similar way, if you have both an Internet and intranet portal (hey, even if you only have a collaboration site), periodic cleanup is still something you need to consider doing. If nothing else, cleaning out old obsolete content will make search run faster and return more relevant results. So here are a few tips that may help you perform your own portal cleanup.

10 Steps for site owners to consider when performing their next portal cleanup:

  1. Remove obsolete or unnecessary sites – Sites where all content pages/documents have not been updated for 2 or more years are candidates.
  2. Examine all pages for duplicate or obsolete content and update or remove – This could result in removing the page itself if all content on the page is obsolete and removed.
  3. Remove obsolete/duplicate documents/files – Multiple instances of files all get indexed and results in bloating the search results with many invalid entries that do not point to the most recent data. Delete obsolete/duplicate files.  Burn copies onto a DVD if you want to keep them.  Adding them to your intranet site or collaboration site is not a valid solution.
  4. Remove content that appears on other sites for your organization that you do not own – Copying/duplicating content that appears on other sites within your organization bloats search results and diminishes the relevance rating of the correct document if multiple occurrences exist.  Any content not ‘owned’ by the department should be removed and replaced with a link to the content on the ‘true’ owner’s site.
  5. Remove content found on sites outside your organization – Not only is this a potential copyright issue, but updates made to the content on the ‘true’ source will not be reflected in the copied content resulting in misinformation.  Just link to external content.
  6. Clean out your calendar/announcements – If your site has a calendar or an announcements list, clean out old events that are no longer relevant.  This will improve the performance of the calendar and/or announcement list.
  7. Consolidate sites – Sometimes subsites were create when all that was needed was another page on the site that owns the subsite (parent site).  Unless the subsite requires a different set of permissions (owners, content managers, approvers, etc.) you may be able to simplify your site structure by moving content/pages/documents up a level.  This will also improve navigation and reduce the number of clicks to find the content you need.
  8. Remove content that really does not need to be public – For any content item (subsite/page/document) ask yourself if anyone in the public really needs to see this content on a public web site or whether it just clutters the public facing sites with content that no one really looks at.  Perhaps all you need is a ‘Contact Us’ link for anyone in the public to request additional information if necessary.  Some current public content probably should only be internal intranet content.  If so, move it there if it does not already exist and delete the public version.
  9. Do not duplicate content between the Internet and intranet – If the content needs to be seen by both the public and organization’s employees, place the content on the Internet and only add links to that content from the intranet. Don’t place the content on both and definitely don’t place the content only on the intranet.
  10. If content is not owned, remove it – If you have current Internet content that is not officially owned consider removing it.  Content that is not owned probably is not updated.  If the content is necessary, an owner for the content must be identified.

Well, that’s it for this time. C’ya.

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Dividing Up California

I just saw a news article about a Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Tim Draper who has been trying to get enough signatures to put a proposal on the state ballot to split the state of California into 6 separate smaller states. Although he did not get enough signatures for the November 2015 ballot, apparently, there have been over 800,000 signatures collected for the November 2016 ballot. The following table shows the six states (along with selected counties) defined from the south to the north along with their estimated population taken from a USA Today article.

Southern California (includes San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside) 10,784,000
West California (includes Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara) 11,505,000
Central California (includes Fresno, Madera, San Joaquin) 4,197,000
Silicon Valley (includes San Francisco, Santa Clara, Monterey) 6,787,000
North California (includes Napa, Sacramento, Sonoma, Sierra) 3,811,000
Jefferson (includes Butte, Humboldt, Shasta, Trinity) 947,000

 

One argument being put forward is that because the state is so large, both in terms of land and population, that individuals would be better served by smaller states which would better represent the local population rather than being dominated by the coastal city populations around the Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego areas. I suppose that makes some sense as the people in these large densely populated areas would have greatly different needs from their state government from the needs of the sparsely populated northern part of the state or even the eastern more mountainous parts of the state.

While some people might appreciate having smaller government entities with more elected officials that are more directly responsible to the voters, the breakup would also lead to high costs overall as many efforts would have to be duplicated for each of the new states rather than consolidated within the single current state.

I could also imagine that such a change would affect the way presidential races occurred in the future as it would no longer make sense to focus on California as a single large state with about 55 electoral votes compared to Texas’ 38 or Florida and New York’s 29 each. Even within the state legislature, the dynamics of voting would change as the larger metropolis area would not have to compete for the passage of bills with the less populated portions of the state. Each state would be able to draft its own constitution as well as its own laws.

I suppose from one point of view, splitting California into separate smaller states is no more shocking than if the New England states had originally been a single state and then were split into individual states later. Wait a second, that is not as crazy as it sounds. Maine was originally carved out of Massachusetts, West Virginia was cut from Virginia as was Kentucky, and Vermont was created from land disputed between New York and New Hampshire. Furthermore, in recent years there has been talk about splitting New York into a northern and southern state, splitting Florida in to two pieces (maybe Miami should be the separate piece), dividing Maryland, Arizona and Texas.

Current polls indicate that the majority of Californians are against the breakup of their state, but the margin isn’t huge. With two years to go before the ballot is put before the people, there is plenty of time for the pro-breakup promoters to strengthen their arguments and gather converts.

On the bright side, there may even be more programming jobs as all of those applications with a fixed list of 50 states in a dropdown list need to be modified to account for the new states and their individual new state income taxes. It might also be a good time to invest in a flag company because there will be lots of new flags to buy if we have to increase the number of stars.

C’ya next time. .

 

 

By sharepointmike Posted in Opinion

Will Robots Save Us or Enslave Us?

Sounds like the lead-in to a new Hollywood movie. Like most computer people, I’m fascinated with the ability to program machines to do ‘work’ for us. The modern industrial factory could not compete with lower labor costs from oversees if not for the ability of robots who once programmed will work 24/7 without a break, sick day, or vacation. While it is true that those robots replaced the jobs of real people, it has always been argued that those people can be retrained and take new jobs in other areas. For example, some would argue that without automation, it would require more crew members to fly today’s large aircraft. Furthermore, the ‘robots’ can fly more efficiently saving fuel and time and respond to most situations faster than a human can. In fact, loss of the electrical systems on an airplane can lead to a disaster. Some of this technology is being added to automobiles to improve fuel efficiency as well as to prevent accidents.

Robots have also helped our military to enter areas that may have mines, booby traps, and enemy troops without risking lives. More recently, robot planes, drones, fly over enemy territory to locate enemy positions and to track their movements. The success of these robots led to the use of robots by police departments to assist in defusing suspicious packages by bomb squads, and even by fire departments to search for trapped survivors in a burning building.

Recently robots have been used to monitor traffic, identify traffic violations and automatically issue tickets based on the reading of the automobile’s license plate numbers. Even simple stop light cameras are a simplistic form of robot that is replacing the cop on the street or perhaps is freeing up their time to pursue more serious crimes (at least we could hope).

On the surface none of these technologies using autonomous robots or even human guided robots were initially seen as a problem. In fact, most were developed to help save lives and have performed well in that capacity. But like any technology, whatever mankind can create for good can be distorted (perverted) for bad.

Recent stories of how red light cameras were set up with shortened caution (yellow) lights just to increase the revenues needed to pay for the cameras has caused some communities to force their removal. The use of drone planes that are successfully used to monitor enemy movement is also being used by the police to find and track criminals, but the people fear they can also be used to spy on them. Some people say that if you are not doing anything wrong, why should you worry. However, it is the uncomfortable feeling of being watched without your knowledge that makes people’s spine tingle. Have someone sit and watch you do your normal job every day and most people would react poorly to that level of scrutiny.

To add on top of those concerns, the public recently learned that the NSA is monitoring all calls, not just the calls identified as belonging to criminals or potential criminals through the use of court issued warrants. Yes, the good part is that they are trying to identify terrorist activity before they act, but at the same time, most people again don’t like the idea of their phone calls being potentially monitored. The same can be said of monitoring email contents by providers who claim they are only doing it to provide more directed advertising based on that content. But who is really to know? Even the GPS in your phone has been shown to track your every movement and that data could be stored for years. Have you ever seen a police car along with highway with no one in it? Perhaps it is sitting there with its camera recording all of the license plates of cars passing by. Of course, it might be a good thing to identify the car of a criminal or locate a stolen car or even a silver alert vehicle. However, again people get that feeling that someone they do not know is always watching what they are doing and where they are going.

The use of cameras in stores, mall, subways, cities, etc. has increased over the last several years. But how effective is it? Images from cameras during the Boston Marathon bombing were insufficient to identify the bombers. The failure to identify the real bombers leads the rest of us to worry about false positives, identifying innocent people because they look a little like the criminal.

I suppose it all depends on how much relevance is given to these robots. After all, machines are not as good at determining the difference between the letter and the intent of the law. Take for example the stop light cameras. Do you program the cameras to record images of every car that goes through the red light even if the red light just changed a tenth of a second ago? What about two tenths of a second? Three? Similarly, for identifying speeders, how much over the speed limit warrants a ticket, 1 MPH, 2 MPH, 5 MPH, more? Does that answer make a difference if the speed limit is 20 MPH or 40 MPH or 65 MPH?

Actually researchers are currently looking into ways to program robots to interpret the intent of the law. Some purists say that anything that violates the law should be ticketed by the robots and let the courts decide. But would that put a huge burden on the already overloaded court system? Perhaps more open to interpretation is identifying erratic drivers. You know, the ones who weave from one lane to another just to pass a few cars while putting everyone else at risk. Are they in a hurry or just drunk? Does it matter? Will it identify the motorcyclist going down the freeway pulling a wheelie? Or how about that same motorcyclist squeezing between cars stopped at a red light just to get to the front of the line for when the light changes to green? How about those drivers who just don’t seem to like any shade of green and wait 5 seconds before they go at a light? Or how about the drivers making right hand turns from the left hand lane? Should they be ticketed? Can car-based biometrics along with GPS help identify drivers who are texting while they drive? What about the abuse of helicopters flying in circles around a development looking for criminals waking everyone up with their rotor noise and their blinding search lights shining through your bedroom windows in the middle of the night? (Or was that the alien abductors?) Will your ‘smart’ phone soon be monitoring everything you eat and do and report it to your doctor or your insurance carrier? If you had a bad night of sleep or if you just had an argument or received bad news, will your car refuse to start?

I could go on and on. But the point is this I suppose, when technology is used to work in dangerous areas to protect humans from entering those area or when the technology is used to provide unbiased law enforcement, most people will accept it. However, if the technology appears intrusive, is being used for hunting expeditions, not to solve a specific crime, or is viewed as being unfairly biased in any way, many people will reject it. Unfortunately for robots, the world is not black or white, but many shades of grey which for now they cannot interpret. These shades of grey will leave open the question of whether robots are good or bad as a topic for the movies for years to come.

C’ya next time.

 

By sharepointmike Posted in Opinion

Only at Participating Locations

Ever wonder about this phrase often found at the bottom of advertisements, coupons and promotions? Did you ever think about what it really means or how it can be used? Or how about the phrase, ‘Participation may vary by location.’ Just what does that mean to you and me? There was a time I assumed that any business chain with multiple locations around the country owned by a single parent company had no choice but to follow all nationally advertised promotions. I also assumed that a business that was franchised had to follow any promotions of the franchiser, or parent company so that all customers would have a common experience no matter where they went. If you live in a small town, you may not notice the difference between how one business location operates compared to another because you may not have that many locations. Furthermore, you may think that if the parent company is spending large sums of money to develop and advertise promotions to drive customers to your door that you would want to take advantage of that business hoping to convert at least a percentage of them into repeat customers.

But apparently, that is not the case. In fact, I’ve notice quite a few businesses who advertise on television and direct email but when you go to their local stores, they do not honor the promotions. Perhaps the local stores feel that people might feel guilty about just getting up and walking out when a local store manager says, ‘Sorry, we are not participating.’ But are they really sorry? If they were so concerned about our feelings they would not trick us into their store only to say that they are not participating. Maybe it is time that we walked out of their store.

Truth be told, I live in tourist town, Orlando, FL. I first notice this effect several years ago. One time when we questioned the policy we were even told that because they are a tourist location, they do not honor the advertised discounts. I suppose they figure that the tourists have no choice. Most cannot make meals in their rooms. Most do not know the area well enough to risk finding another location that may be participating. And most don’t want to take the time away from their vacation just to save a few dollars. So you might think of it as a convenience fee.

Besides food chains, this effect becomes even more obvious with the price of gasoline which seems to almost consistently go up the closer you get to the major tourist attractions or the airport and its surrounding car rental agencies. Yes there are some exceptions and the locals know where they are just like the locals know the best places to eat that are not part of nationwide chains.

But let’s get back to the main issue. I know several of the fast food chains with locations near the tourist attractions that will not honor the promotions of the nationwide chain. Several times I’ve been told point blank that the locations near the attractions can charge more because they are there just for the tourists, not the locals. Were they telling me to go away? I guess I moved to the wrong side of town.

A good example occurred recently at a nationwide chain that was offering a meal deal of an entrée with an appetizer. (I will not go further into the details here.) The promotion was sent directly to my email address because I subscribed a long time ago to their ‘club’. Granted, the promotion added the words, ‘Limited time only.’ The thing is, I received that email just last Thursday. The next day, Friday, we decided to go there for supper to take advantage of the deal. As we sat down and were given menus, I noticed that there was no reference to the ‘special’. So I asked about it thinking that maybe they only gave the promotion menu to those that asked. Instead I was told by the waiter that he had heard about that promotion, but thought that it had ended but would go ask the manager. A few minutes later he came back and told us that his manager said that the promotion indeed had ended. Fortunately I could still bring that email from the previous day up on my phone. Aren’t smartphones great? So I showed him the email and the date on the email. He went back to his manager to ask again. This time when he came back, he said that his manager said, ‘We are not participating in that promotion.’ So we got up from our seats. He asked us if we were leaving. We replied that we were not participating in bait and switch tactics and left.

Really makes you wonder though whether the promotion was only for one day (which it did not say in the email) or whether they just did not want to offer it to their other customers, the majority of whom where tourists.

In any case, I say that it is bad business to advertise any promotion and then decide not to honor it just because your location is near tourists, a more affluent part of town, or any other arbitrary reason. It may be a long while until I go back to that location. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they get enough business from the tourists. For me, I’d rather find another location where the location manager operates fairly and honors the promotions of the parent organization he is a part of. If you don’t like the promotions, become a store manager of a store that does not have promotions or start your own store if you want to do whatever you want. The bottom line for me is that unless there is a legal reason not to honor a business promotion created for the chain that is designed to send more customers to your door, you should honor the promotion and give those customers the best experience possible so that they might decide to come back again and again.

C’ya next time.

Commuter Train Hits Some Bumps in the Tracks

Two weeks ago I talked about my experience riding the Sun Rail train to work here in Orlando, FL.  I was willing to give them a pass on the overcrowded conditions on the way home at night because we all knew that many people were just ridding the train during it’s free trial period to see what it was like and they just needed to get home for supper just like the rest of us working people.

Well that minor bump proved to be true and ridership this week is far less than it was last week. In fact, a friend of mine who got on the 5:28 northbound train from downtown said that there was still plenty of room and was able to find a seat at one of the tables on the second level. That is far better than the previous week when it was standing room only as the train stopped at the downtown station. This drop off in riders was expected. Hopefully though the number of riders will sustain the operation of the train. At least for the first few years the train is being supported with government dollars. But to be successful in the long run, it has to be able to support itself through riders.

Another bump (or perhaps two) were accidents that occurred during the first two weeks of operation. The first accident occurred when a truck pulling a trailer failed to completely clear the tracks at a road crossing. As the northbound train pulled around a curve immediately before the intersection, the train engineer saw the trailer hanging over the tracks and attempted to stop the train. However, even small commuter trains can take some distance to bring to a complete stop and the train did hit the trailer. Fortunately, no one was injured, not in the truck or the train. However, it did cause delays for people getting home as the accident was investigated. Ultimately, it was released that the engineer did everything he could to bring the train to a stop, but you cannot always avoid an accident caused by people who don’t release how long their extended vehicle with trailer really is.

Then only yesterday, Monday, there was another incident on the northbound train. This time a car apparently stalled while sitting on the tracks. Fortunately the driver was able to exit the vehicle for it was totaled by the train. However, the driver was still taken to the hospital to be checked as she fainted after seeing her Lexus destroyed (or maybe she just faintly because she realized how narrowly she escaped. I don’t know why the car was stalled over the tracks but I will say one thing. I’ve often seen people stop over railroad tracks during the peak of rush hour traffic when the traffic ahead of them stops for a red light. I guess they just don’t want to leave a space between them and the car in front of them (over the tracks) because they know someone will pull around them to fill in that space. Maybe it is because many of the crossing arms have malfunctioned in the past and have come down even when there was no train that some people tend to ignore the potential danger. However, I hope these two incidents will start people thinking twice about stopping over the tracks.

Of course the timing of the gate arms is another issue. There is a YouTube video that shows the gate arm at one downtown crossing coming down just a couple of seconds before the train goes by. That may be too short a time. On the other hand, I’ve also seen a train stopped at a station which sits in a block between two downtown streets and the gates on both roads remained down for the duration of the time the train was at the station, even when it was stopped to let passengers off and on. This led to significant car backups until the gates reopened. It even caused problems with some of the bus schedules.

While the timing of the gate issues are something that will undoubtedly work themselves out over the next several months, I’m more concerned about educating people about safety around railroad crossings. It would seem like it should be a simple thing, but too many people are in a hurry. Maybe the tracks should be above ground while in the downtown area. (Florida cannot really support a subway due to its high groundwater levels.) However, the decision to go the ‘cheaper’ route of using the old freight train tracks during the day has resulted in more trains crossing intersections than before and thus more delays and more chances to ‘catch’ vehicles extended over the tracks. This will be a more difficult problem to resolve. Perhaps if the current system is successful, they will consider an elevated track the next time they plan an upgrade through downtown or when they add additional lines. This would allow the trains to run more frequently and carry more passengers while not inconveniencing drivers. More frequent trains and perhaps a few more lines like an east/west line might encourage greater usage as well. For many today, getting to one of the current train stations is almost as difficult as driving from home to work in the first place. Therefore, it may take a combination of factors to give us a transportation system that people will really want.

In any case, I hope these few bumps in the tracks do not discourage riders early on so that public transportation as a combination of better bus and train service could make getting around town without a car feasible.

C’ya next time.

Just Give Me the Steps

“Just give me the steps I need to know to get my job done. I don’t really care about why those are the steps or what else you can do with the software/tool/machine. I don’t care about your videos or your in-class training sessions. Just give me the steps in a nice neat printed list that I can use and let me get out of here.” Does that sound like one of your training classes? While I hope not, that attitude toward training has become increasingly prevalent.

We provide SharePoint training to what I sometimes call ‘reluctant’ users. These are users that were told they had to come to class because they are now responsible for their department or project sites. They never built a web site before in their lives and their only familiarity with on-line web sites is when they go to MSN to check the latest news, visit Facebook or go download their e-mail. Their approach to learning how to build web sites with web parts, content editing, approval workflows and page layout issues is a cross between fear, dread, and loathing. But now they sit in your class with arms crossed just waiting for time to pass. You can tell the ones pretty quickly. They are on their phone, not to text back what they are learning to their staff, but rather to play Candy Crush or Flappy Bird. Sometimes they are just sitting in the back of the room talking to their co-captives about where they can go eat when the class breaks for lunch.

Of course, not everyone falls into that category. Some people come to training sessions excited about what they are about to learn and anxious to implement their new skills when they leave. But those few people who really do not want to be there tend to ‘poison the well’. I tend to favor explaining the concepts behind how different aspects of the software system work so that people can adapt those concepts to new situations, often in ways that I would not have anticipated since I do not intimately know all aspects of their jobs. And these shining stars exist and it is for them that people who do training get the most job satisfaction.

However, over the years (and I have been teaching computer classes since the days of the TRS-80 and Apple II) there have always been those who want some kind of magic list of all the steps they need to do, complete with illustrations, for the very specific task they need to accomplish at the moment. Perhaps I’m a bit old-fashioned, but I consider this approach more of a one-on-one mentoring or custom training. I have even seen computer books written like cookbooks with step-by-step instructions on how to solve specific problems. However, these books do not help much when your problem falls outside of the narrow scope of the examples covered. Therefore, it is my opinion that it is not the goal of a general training class to provide a cookbook style set of instructions to using a programming language or a very generic piece of software such as Word, Excel, or even SharePoint.

I do recognize that times have change and different people learn in different ways. To that extent, I tend to encourage the use of a combination of classroom style training along with written documentation, whitepapers, websites, and videos. I also recognize that no matter what approach is used for an individual training class, those individuals that really do not want to be there will always find fault in something about the way the training was conducted. One might say the material covered was too general while the next person may say that it was too complex. Someone else may complain that the pace of covering the material was too fast for them to keep up while someone else may comment that they only got to the ‘good’ stuff by the end of the day. Some people protest when new functionality is introduced by using written documentation only because they are visual learners. Yet others at in-person class training lament that they could have gotten the same information from written instructions and would have been done in half the time and then they would have something to go back to later. We have even had people complain that videos of the training they are currently attending and can watch over and over again do not help them learn how to do their specific job.

I suppose the comment that bugs me the most is when people complement us on our training generally, but then follow that up with a ‘but’, such as, “The training was great, but it did not show me the exact steps I needed for my job.” So I sat back last night and wondered whatever happened to the need to learn fundamentals first so that the person could apply what they learned to any situation. You learn the fundamentals on how to drive so that you can drive on any road. Similarly, learning the fundamentals of how to play an instrument allows a musician to pick up any music sheet and learn to play that song. Of course, you could argue that merely knowing the fundamentals of a sport will not make you an Olympic medal winner. Simply knowing how to drive will not land you the poll position at the next Daytona 500. Nor will your ability to read sheet music make you the next pop super star. However, in all cases, a firm grasp of the fundamentals were a necessary starting point for those who do succeed.

So will I change the way I approach training software? Probably not substantially. I believe that approaching your job, if it is knowledge based, requires more than just the ability to follow a set of pre-defined steps. There typically is not enough time or infrastructure to support building the style of ‘cookbooks’ lists for each knowledge-based task that you might find in manufacturing tasks. In additional providing a combination of in-person training along with printed documentation and videos for every possible alternative is not always feasible, especially not for small organizations or teams. Maybe we need to place a greater emphasis on learning the fundamentals so we can apply that knowledge to whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. Perhaps that should also factor into our hiring practices by looking for people who show that they have been adaptable to changes and new systems in the past and have a demonstrated willingness to learn and succeed.

C’ya later.

Monitoring the Media for the Public Good?

A group named Reporters Without Borders recently ranked the United States all the way down at 46th out of 180 countries in a ranking of press freedom. Doesn’t this seem a little odd to you? Wasn’t there something in the Constitution about freedom of the press? No wait, that was in the Bill of Rights! In fact, the first amendment goes something like this:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

If you just stop to think about it, there is a lot in those 44 words. I want to focus here on an even smaller portion of those 44 words related to “freedom of speech, or of the press”. It should be noted that the “press” referenced here no longer represents just newspapers or books, but has come to encompass many other types of media including more recently the Internet and blogs. But what does freedom of the press really mean? Does it mean you can say anything you want? Does it limit the opinions you can print or just guarantee the right to publish totally unbiased facts of the daily news?

A little over a third of a century ago in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Miami Herald Publishing Co v. Tornillo that the government may not force newspapers to publish that which they do not desire to publish. While it does not specifically state anything about preventing them from publishing anything that they want to (coming from the opposite direction), it might seem like a logical extension to most.

On the other hand, the government already regulates some of the content of the media through the FCC, specifically in relation to radio and television broadcasting to restrict what it deems to be “indecent” material. What is “indecent” I guess they want us to believe that they will know it when they see it. But again, some may say that the definition of “indecent” has certainly changed over the last century with content being aired today that would never have been allowed just a few decades ago.

On a more personal level, the Ninth Circuit Court has recently ruled (2014) that journalists and bloggers are one and the same when it comes to protections under the First Amendment. So where is this going and why should it be the topic of this week’s rant?

Last year the FCC quietly announced that it will be monitoring newsrooms under the guise of determining how stories are selected, how stations set priorities, and the percent of news dedicated to different topics. Now I don’t know about you, but my management training says that you cannot control something unless you can measure it. So does the ability to measure something mean that you have the intent to control it? Now to be clear, nothing was said about the FCC ‘adjusting’ the content on the media they control or what those adjustments might be. Maybe they just want to measure things for the sake of measurement. After all, everyone knows that some media outlets tend to be more right wing while others tend to more left wing in the news they present and often the way that news is presented. The fact that we can identify them by their extremes merely says to me that the system is working. It allows for multiple points of view and lets the listener make up their own mind which to believe or even how much of each point of view they want to believe. Isn’t that what we want?

If instead, we let the FCC or other government agency begin to control the media so as to force a ‘more balanced approach’, would we lose the ability to explore all points of view? Who will define this balanced approach? And even if it does start out being totally 100% balanced, can we guarantee that it will stay that way over time? If all the news you hear begins to slant to one side or the other, would our media, through government control and oversight, be guilty of guiding the thoughts of its citizens to a singular point of view? No wait! Isn’t that what we accused the press of the Soviet Union during the cold war (and maybe even a little bit today) of doing to their own people? If a person does not know what else is going on outside of the media news they are given, how would they develop a basis to decide whether their situation was good or bad? If media control was bad during the communist era why would we think that media control in any country today would be any different?

Does allowing even a little control open the door to additional controls being added later? Consider that a war on a political system does not necessarily require a shooting war if one can win over the minds of people a little at a time by shifting what they think or how they think. In fact, the changes can be so slow and subtle over time that most people are not even aware of them until it is too late. In the meantime, the changes disguise their real intent behind such grad sounding themes like ‘This new recommendation to the media will protect you and your children from hearing any news that may be offensive or might upset them.’ After all, who is going to argue against providing greater safety and protections to our children. Well, it is something to think about.

C’ya next time, …. Maybe.

When Counting the Beans Is More Important Than What the Beans Mean

It seems like today everyone wants to measure their business processes.  If it cannot be measured, it is not important.  In general that is not a bad practice because all businesses whether they are multinational corporations or Mom and Pop corner stores needs to know at least a few basics about their business to determine if they are doing well or are about to go bankrupt.  But the fact is that many newly minted MBAs focus so much on counting everything that can be counted, that they lose sight on the long term goals of the business or trends of the industry.  Often this is a lack of keeping an eye on large scale business trends and being aware of how customer tastes and purchases are changing.  Then when business drops off, they scramble to find other reasons for why the business is failing.  This is what I mean by being too concerned with counting the beans rather than what the beans mean.

Not too long ago, one of the top businesses many people tried to get into was renting movies through local brick and mortar video stores.  Demand was growing as people moved from VHS tape machines to watch their movies to DVD discs.  The number of available movies grew.  Total rentals were up.  Profits were up.  Some movies made more from DVD sales than box office sales.  What could possibly go wrong?  Then it seemed like the bottom dropped out of the market as first local Mom and Pop stores closed and then the chains began to close.  Did people stop watching movies at home.  No.  If anything people watch more movies than ever.  The difference is in the way people get their movies.  Most TV cable companies and even Satellite companies now provide movies on demand.  You can rent movies from many local libraries for free.  Some of the big online retailers like Amazon provide movies on demand.  Why get into your car to drive down to the local video store, look for a video (only to find the last copy has already been rented), bring home an alternate movie that you really did not want to see but felt you had to get to justify your drive to the store, watch the movie, and then rush back to the store just before it closes to return the movie on the last day it is due.  Stores missed the convenience factor that has taken over the market.  While counting their beans, they missed the fact that their beans were changing.

A similar argument can be made for bookstores.  At one time, the only way to reasonably get the latest best seller or a technical reference book was to go down to your local book store to buy the paper version of it.  It was not all that long ago that every mall had at least one bookstore.  Now many malls do not even have one dedicated book store.  Many small bookstores have closed shop because they could not compete with the large chains.  Then some of the large chains even started to fail.   Some tried to counter the trend by adding lounge areas where you could grab a book and read a bit of it before deciding to buy it.  Some added cafes.  Some included live music on select nights.  But sales still continued to fall.  Again the driving factor was ordering books on line could often be accomplished from the comfort of your living room chair and you could get the book delivered.  Some libraries also added home delivery of ordered books.  But I believe one of the big game changers here was the introduction of digital book readers.  Sure the early ones were bulky, heavy and limited to monochrome text and little to no graphics.  But these quickly evolved until today the quality of digital books displayed on light weight tablets and even phones rivals the quality of printed books.  Sure many people still like the feel of a real book in their hands, but as the ebook versions of popular best sellers came down in price and more technical books became available in digital form, the demand for digital books has grown.  I confess that in the past two years, I have not bought a single paper book, but I have purchased at least two dozen digital books, often at 50% of the cost of the paper versions, and I could download them to my device immediately.  Many classic books are available free and at least my public library has been ‘loaning’ digital copies of books on-line for several years now so I do not even have to go into the library anymore.

Both of these examples clearly show the demand for the end product growing yet the distribution method for these products have changed dramatically.  Some libraries understand what the change has meant and they have adapted to it.  Clearly, they understand what the beans mean.  Others who have been too busy counting the number of patrons or the average number of books borrowed or the total size of their collection have lost track of what the beans (reading books) really means to the public.

How is your business adapting.  Are they busy counting the beans in the current month, quarter, or year?  Or do they spend time trying to understand and predict where their business I going in the next year, 5 years, or even 10 years.  Are they preparing for that future or do they assume that tomorrow will be the same as today and success is simply counting their current sales, profit margin, customers, etc.  I’m sure you could look at other industries and make similar analogies.  What is happening to newspapers and magazines, professional photography, or even education?  Is the method of delivery of your product or service changing?  Do you really think you will be doing the same job in 5, 10, or 15 years?  Knowing which beans matter and which can be ignored might be a more valuable skill than merely counting those beans.  Many people have made careers counting beans or having others count their beans for them.  In the meantime, other organizations more interested in what the beans meant have surpassed them and will (if not already) threaten their existence.  Some express surprise when companies or industries fail.  Others express surprise when new companies they never heard of before succeed.  But now you know the real reason why companies succeed and fail.  After all, any simple computer (or average math student) can count your beans.  But can a computer program tell you which beans matter the most for your future or your company’s future?

Remember to come out to SQL Saturday Tampa this Saturday.  C’ya next time.

Will 2014 be a Turnaround Year or Just More of the Same?

The other day I was listening to a podcast from Mike Huckabee that talked about the recently released index that ranked 178 nations with regard to their economic freedom. The source of the report was the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal so there is probably some credibility to the report. The disturbing part of the report was not that the United States was not in first place, not second place, not even 5th place. No, the United States no longer falls even within the top ten of these 178 nations. In fact, it is now in 12th place behind Estonia. I was shocked, not that we were no longer in the top 10, but that even Estonia has surpassed us. Some of the factors that have contributed to our decline are a surprise though. Things like the fiscal soundness of our economy and the size of government compared to the total economy have clearly hurt us over the last several years. The ‘recession’ since 2008/2009 has had a devastating effect on our economy as companies shrunk their workforce and many closed their doors entirely. In the meantime, the growth in the government and their attempt to infiltrate every aspect of our lives telling us what we can or cannot do by passing hundreds of new rules and regulations has undoubtedly been more effective at hurting our economic growth rather than stimulating the necessarily growth to pull us out of that recession faster and stronger. Some people would even say that the supposedly good unemployment numbers have dropped only because so many people have dropped out of the official job market and are either depending on government handouts or are working in the underground economy where wages do not get reported or perhaps both. If we are really at around 6.5 to 7 % unemployment, that might be considered in past times as full or near full employment with that percentage representing the constant ‘friction’ of people looking for new jobs, starting new businesses, or just not looking in the first place. Yet at the same time, the government is looking to extend unemployment benefits. Why would they do that unless they knew things were worse than they are telling us or to protect the bloated bureaucracies that they have built around all the government programs to ‘help’ the poor.

A couple of indicators I’ve been watching are not the typical indicators that most people might think of. In fact, while I did not perform an exact scientific analysis, I can probably say that as a whole most people feel a little more optimistic about their own personal future than they did a few years ago. The first factor I’ll mention is the number of people visiting the theme parks here in Orlando. My unscientific study indicates that more people are coming to the parks. Not only are the parking lots fuller than they have been in years, but the number of people I have to weave around getting from one point to another has increased. Lines for the more popular attractions at these parks have grown substantially along with their wait times.

Another indicator is the amount of traffic on the roads at 6 AM. It was not all that long ago that the main roads were almost empty at 6 AM. Getting to work was almost relaxing, but not anymore. Now the main highways are full this early in the morning. While the traffic is still generally moving at highway speeds unless there is an accident, the traffic is much heavier with barely more than a 2 to 4 car lengths between vehicles. Some mornings it is even less. Where is everyone going at 6 AM if it is not to a job? Or is it that they had to take a job far from their home just to get a job and therefore leave earlier to try to beat the worst traffic? In any case, the roads are fuller.

The third indicator is the increase in the number of people in restaurants, not just on weekends, but during the workweek as well. Not too long ago, it was possible to walk into a major restaurant chain between 6 and 8 in the evening and get seated immediately. No longer. We again have wait times sometimes as much as 45 minutes at the more popular locations. And then when you finally get seated at your table and open the ‘new’ menu, you are greeted with new prices which are generally about 10% higher than just a few months ago. In a way I don’t blame them. If the restaurants are now full again and people are waiting in line to get in, you are leaving money on the table if you don’t raise your rates. That is the same philosophy of the theme parks. As long as people keep coming and the parks are full, you can raise your prices and improve your overall profit margin. If the parking lots are full, raise the cost of parking as well until your net profit stops increasing because fewer people are coming.

Does this mean that we are out of the recession? Or is the gap between those that can afford vacations, eating at restaurants, or going to sporting events and those that cannot afford to do any of those things is just widening? But as I mentioned last week, just raising the minimum wage will not solve the problem if that causes employers to higher few workers, cut worker hours, or go out of business. You cannot legislate equality, but you sure can legislate inequality. The economy is controlled not by one or two factors, but hundreds of intertwining interactive components which are difficult to model. As a result, attempts to modify the direction of the economy often leads to unexpected consequences like squeezing a water balloon in your hands.

Can we expect a Congress that cannot even pass a balanced budget and begin to pay down our debts to lead us out of a recession into prosperity rather than spend us into a deeper hole, a hole where our nation’s debt and future is held in the hands of other countries, countries that may not always have our best interests at heart? Again, such a decision to continue on this path or even to change paths might be fraught with unintended consequences. (Remember the water balloon.) I suppose I am looking for new bold leadership who can return America to the land of economic freedom that it once was, a time when the nation was prosperous. It was a time when you did not have to write or read tens of thousands of pages to understand a law. One law would serve where now ten now take its place. The laws were simple and easy to follow. People were free to start business as long as they did not hurt anyone else in the process. It was a time when politicians worked for the citizens they represented, not a time when the citizens worked to support the politicians. Will the next election cycle turn us in this direction or will it be more of the same?

C’ya next time.

Why a Minimum Wage Increase Is Like Chasing Your Tail

By now you all know about the efforts by the president to increase the minimum wage for people.  He is doing this because he thinks this will level the playing field between those who earn a lot and those who don’t.  But it is disillusioned dream on many levels.

First, if employers are forced to rIse wages on top of the already heavy burden of increased health care costs that have been mandated, many small employers, of which employ the vast majority of Americans, will be increasingly forced to cut back staff expenses.  They may do this by laying off staff, cutting their hours, bringing in more automation or even relying on more foreign labor, even if that foreign labor is in this country illegally.

But it goes deeper than that.  When the bottom rung of low or unskilled jobs command more money per hour, it puts pressure on jobs at a higher level to pay more as well.  This creates a ripple effect up through the job tiers as people with more skills, more experience, more education, and more at risk require higher salaries to justify the effort they put into getting where they are and staying there.

This applies especially to small business entrepreneurs who risk not only a large amount of their own money, the money of other family members, friends, neighbors, and others, but also much of their time and lives, especially time they could have spent with family.  Why do that except for the potential of much greater reward?  If America is to remain the land of opportunity, there must be compensatory reward for an individual’s efforts.  Don’t think for a minute that these business creators would put forth this level of effort if they merely received the same income and benefits as the unskilled workers they hire.

Why would a young adult want want to become a doctor, surgeon, engineer, lawyer or any other professional if they did not make substantially more than the unskilled burger flipper who did not go to school for 4 to 8 years (or more), paid out thousands of dollars or took on large amounts of debt to get the training and degrees they needed and sacrificed  for years after graduation to pay back that debt?

This does not go against the concept of fairness, but is the very definition of fairness.  Fairness must consider the whole, not just the salary of a person.  Salary has for the most part always represented the level of skill, the amount of effort and the degree of risk required to perform any job.  These factors are not something that can be ignored by dictating a new salary without expecting a corresponding ripple throughout the rest of the economy.

What does that mean?  Well if the lowest level jobs get an increase in salary, the jobs atr the next level up will demand a corresponding increase to justify the effort they expended to meet the requirements for that job.  And if one employer doesn’t raise that group’s salary, another one will, one who needs those higher skilled employees to achieve their goals and dreams. However, then the demand for more money ripples up to the next level to those employees who are required to have even more skills, education, and/or responsibility.  And on it goes all the way to the top because why would a person risk their money and devote their time to advance their education, some would say life, if the return was hardly more than that hourly worker?

Of course the business can counter the higher salary demands by cutting staff, reducing hours or making full-time positions part-time.  They can subcontract work out to lower salary countries.  They may even be able to raise prices of their products or services.  They may even decide to close their doors and then everyone suffers.

But in the end, the results are the same.  Those same people at the bottom of the wage pool begin to cry out for higher wages to keep up with increasing costs.  Eventually, one political group or another hears them and decides to take on their cause.  Not because they truly believe in income equality because if they did, they would lower their own salaries as a show of support.  Rather, they take on the cause to divert attention from other problems.  Maybe they are behind in the public opinion polls and figure that they can get a quick surge in their popularity by appealing to the lowest income classes with their ‘quick fix’.  And thus we have come full circle.

The real problem is that any gains by boosting the minimum wage are short term as described above and merely create a cycle.  No real productivity improvement has occurred to increase the overall value of the economy.  No new products or services have been developed.  No new markets for their products and services have been opened.  So the result is a vicious cycle.

The only way an individual can get out of that cycle is by investing in themselves to develop new skills, learn new techniques and concepts, create a new product, service or company.  You could also say that the reason the rich fall back to middle class the middle class descends to poverty occurs when they lose the drive, the incentive to make things better.  Thus society as a whole could be viewed as a pot of boiling water with some of the poor and middle class rising to the top as they get hot while others fall back down as their drive cools off.  Through all of this, it is not the artificial support of individual wages, or company bailouts that determine success, but their collective efforts to make a difference and grow the economy as a whole.

C’ya next time.

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