Simple, free collaboration using internet tools

Since joining the steering group for LocalGov Digital, I’ve been getting back into the swing of things when it comes to working remotely with people spread across the country.

In 2018 it feels like an obvious point to make, but the internet really does make this stuff easy. However, knowing how things are inside many organisations, there is still a whole lot that can be achieved by simply making open internet tools available to people to use to do their jobs.

Collaboration in LocalGov Digital is based on three main tools, all of which are free and can be set up by anyone with an email address and five minutes to spare.


Slack is the key communications channel, and is a real time text chat application which gives a group of people the ability to talk to one another in themed channels. It’s very easy to use and can be accessed on the web, or through mobile and desktop applications.

The downside with Slack is that it is ephemeral, and stuff can get lost or forgotten about. This is particularly true of the free version, which only archives a certain number of messages. It’s definitely worth storing useful stuff people have shared in a more permanent space when you spot it.

Google Drive

Google Drive is the space where more long-lived collaboration takes place. It delivers word processing, presentations and spreadsheets along with a filing system – all based in the browser.

The ability to have many people working on the same documents, whether typing in directly or adding comments and suggestions is really powerful and it dramatically reduces the need for emailing things round.

Getting the most out of it does need a bit of planning though, particularly looking at folder structures and so forth. It’s tempting to just chuck everything in a flat structure and let the search do its job, but in reality having some order really helps people find their way around.

Again, as well as being web based, there are mobile apps too, which means that folk can get involved on any reasonably modern device. Handy.


Trello is a simple web app for making lists and sharing them with people. You create a board, add some lists and then add items to the list. People can then comment on them, add due dates, add additional sub task lists, label them and so forth.

Really it’s a bunch of different features that can be used however the group collaborating decide to use them, which makes it really powerful. Using Trello, we can see at a glance how certain actions are progressing and which need a little nudge to get going again.

And guess what? As well as the web, there are mobile and desktop apps for Trello. Boom.

Thoughts on getting the most out of these tools

  • Sometimes a human API beats a computer’s one – while all the tools above can integrate with one another, sometimes it isn’t always all that helpful to do so. Often, it takes the eye and skill of a human being to link this Trello board to that Google Doc, or post that link in this Slack channel
  • Don’t assume they are instantly easy to use – compared to many fully fledged desktop applications, these things are easy to pick up. That doesn’t mean that it will happen straight away however and it’s worth working with your team to ensure they are confident in using them
  • It’s worth thinking about information security – whilst not letting it get in the way of doing good work. Not every bit of data is appropriate to be stored on these tools, particularly when you are using the free, consumer version of them, and it’s worth thinking about the nature of what you are sharing before you share it.

Photo credit: Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash

Rethinking performance management

There’s so much I want to blog about at the moment, but pretty much no time to do it. However, here’s a nice little thing we’re working on that might be of interest.

Performance management is one of those things that strikes fear into the heart of any public sector worker. Somehow, we’ve ended up building up processes, generating reports, all without much actual impact and little effect on the outcomes we want to be delivering.

Performance management is a part of the service I deliver, and Mark on my team who delivers this has been spending a ridiculous amount of time chasing colleagues across the organisation to get updates that he can copy and paste into reports, that then get printed for the senior leadership to not read, because they don’t have time.

There must be a better way!

One of the things that I love about the digital agenda is its realism. We deal with the reality of things, not what they would be like in an ideal world. In reality, nobody has time to read long performance reports, and nor do they have time to keep them updated. But it’s still really important to keep an eye on how various things are progressing.

So, what are we doing?

We started by shifting away from a document-centric approach. This is a recurring theme of a lot of my conversations at the moment and probably needs a post of its own to go into. It sounds obvious, but it’s the content of the documents that matter, not the documents themselves, and separating the two can have really transformative impact.

So, instead of a big document, we now have a Trello board. We have four main areas of performance measures to track, so each has a list on the board. Each commitment is a card on the board, and they are colour coded for easy identification: a simple traffic light style rating in terms of how they are progressing, plus a coloured label to identify which bits of the Councils they relate to.

Clicking on a card brings up a bit more detail – a list of the actions outstanding for that commitment, plus, if necessary, a little commentary on the latest that has been happening.

The purpose of this dashboard is to provide senior people (well, anyone really, but you know what I mean) with a quick overview of what is going on. Rather than dumping the detail on people by default, we give a high level perspective, which can then be dug down into greater detail if needed.

That detail is stored in Google Docs. Each commitment has its own Google Doc, with much more detailed implementation plans in them. They are linked to from inside the relevant Trello cards, allowing people to quickly access them.

Using Google Docs also means there is only one copy of these documents, and they don’t need to have someone copying and pasting information into them.

So, to summarise the benefits of this approach:

  1. No more big paper documents
  2. No more chasing of actions to be pasted into documents – it’s now up to individuals to update their Google Docs and Trello boards themselves
  3. More real time updates – no longer tied to a reporting cycle – if people have something to say, they add it when they have it, otherwise they don’t
  4. Much more manageable, in that we don’t have everything in a single document which is a pain to scroll through and find stuff
  5. Cross cutting issues which involve people in different directorates are now managed in a single place with no duplication

It’s also worth saying that this hasn’t cost us any money to do, and will help us to decommission a bit of software previously used for the purpose, which will save a few quid while providing a more useful service.

Importantly for me, it frees Mark up from a load of boring admin and means he can spend more time doing proper in-depth analysis of issues.

When we showed this to the folks at CLT (Council Leadership Team – the chief and four directors) they were delighted to move away from big document, paper based reporting and into something more real time. They now have the Trello board up on a big screen during a meeting, rather than looking down at bits of paper.

What’s also really pleasing is that this is a nice way of showing how simple, cheap digital technology can have quite a significant cultural impact within the organisation. Already many teams are using Trello to manage their work in a more visible, collaborative way.

Importantly though, when I was asked whether Trello was now the official way for people to manage work in the Councils, I answered no. It’s a way of doing it, but there are others out there that might be more appropriate depending on the work to be done. There isn’t a single solution.

We’re now working on the next stage of performance management and business intelligence in the Councils. It’s very early days, but we’re going to be trialling Tableau, which looks really cool. More on that soon.

Bits and bobs for Monday 26 January 2015

An occasional effort to link to interesting things I have seen. Not convinced about the format yet – let me know what you think.

To finish, a video. This talk from Simon Wardley on value chain mapping is insanely interesting:

Google account hell

I’m currently on a big mission to sort my online life out.

I’m simplifying as much as I can. Shutting down sites, consolidating email accounts, deleting old social media guff I never use.

One thing I have been putting off is the Great Google Nightmare.

Here’s the thing: I’ve been using Gmail since it launched as an invite only service a decade ago. My email address, has been a trusty ally over that time. It’s never let me down. I, on the other hand, have strayed.

I didn’t stray far, to be fair. Instead, when I decided I needed an email address for my work, using my own domain name, I chose Google’s service. This is all fine and dandy, except that with Google’s email service comes a Google account. Just like my trusty Gmail account. Only different. I now have two.

I want to get rid of the Google email on my domain. Sorting out the email is the easy bit, set up a forward here, some filters and labels there, and I’m done.

But what about all the documents in the Google account? The Google+ profile registered to All the apps and services I use that are tied to Apps I have purchased through the Play store with

Even my browser set up is tied to and I am struggling to see how I can easily transfer this to my vanilla Gmail account.

I’m sure I will get this all sorted over time, with a bit of irritation and some foot stamping, no doubt. But here’s the moral:

Always use a vanilla Gmail account as your main Google identity. Don’t be tempted to use anything else.

Seriously. Save yourself a load of hassle.

Bringing an old telly back to life with a Chromecast

Google-ChromecastGoogle’s Chromecast is a neat little device that plugs into the back of a television via the HDMI port, and then is supplied with power through a standards mini-USB charger that you might use with a smartphone.

It then enables you to ‘cast’ content from another device – a laptop, tablet or smartphone – onto the television, assuming the app you are using on said device supports Chromecast.

They are relatively low cost devices – just £30, and work rather effectively. If you have an Android phone, for example, you can play television programmes, movies or YouTube videos on your television set, so you are not reduced to squinting at a tiny screen.

We had an old telly which didn’t have anywhere to go in the house as we had run out of TV points. We could have bought and plugged in a DVD player, perhaps – but who on earth watches DVDs?

Instead, the Chromecast works perfectly. We can watch Netflix and BBC iPlayer (to name just two services) on the big screen, all controlled via whatever device we happen to have to hand.

I hadn’t really thought before about how streaming services like the Chromecast can be seen to “liberate” older tech like televisions from having to be where there is a cable to connect them to the aerial on the roof.

Plus it means I can now watch the World Cup in bed, which has to be a good thing, right?

Five for Friday – 4 April 2014

linksFive for Friday is WorkSmart’s weekly roundup of interesting stuff from the week’s reading.

  1. Google Chromebooks at work in the fragmented PC era
  2. How Gmail Happened: The Inside Story of Its Launch 10 Years Ago
  3. A Brief Guide To Selecting A Community Platform
  4. SharePoint, how has the caterpillar turned into a butterfly?
  5. Big Data: What is it and why should I care?
Did you know that WorkSmart has a Pinterest board where loads of cool stuff is shared?

We also now have a LinkyDink group which will automatically email you links to read everyday!

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Connect with WorkSmart

wiresAs you would expect, WorkSmart is all over the internet!

The first thing to do is to join the site. Membership is free, and means you get the regular email newsletter. In the future it will also give you access to exclusive member resources – more on that soon. You can sign up here if you haven’t already.

Next, WorkSmart is of course on Twitter, where you can get alerted to new articles published on the blog, and to interesting links as we spot and curate them. Follow @worksmarthq now.

Are you a big Facebook user? It might be that the Facebook page is the best way to keep up to date, and to have your say on the articles and other content that are published there. Like WorkSmart on Facebook here.

How about Google+? I’m not convinced either, but there is a WorkSmart page there, which also has content posted up as it gets published on the blog. Follow WorkSmart on Google+ here.

Last but not least, WorkSmart currently has two (count ’em!) boards on Pinterest. One features all the posts that are published on the blog – so if you like to get your content in Pinterest, they are all there waiting for you. The other one is where content is curated from across the web, and is called Bookmarks.

So, you really have no excuse not to keep up to date with what is happening here! It will be great to see you on our various channels.

Do you produce documents, or do you do work?

I really rather like this video interview with Rod Drury, CEO of the cloud accounting company Xero. I’ve been a happy Xero customer for a few years now – the system makes accounting comprehensible to the non-accountant, which is great!

In the interview, Rod talks about Xero’s switch from traditional Microsoft based systems to using Google’s offering, with all the social and collaborative stuff that entails. He describes how the availability of truly collaborative technology has helped to drive a culture change at Xero, around nimbleness and flexibility.

In one great line, Rod asks “do you produce documents, or do you do work?” – a question we’ve probably all asked ourselves at some point in our working lives.

Watch the interview below – or here’s a link – it’s well worth it.

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to: