Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Review: Connect!

by Andre · 3 Comments

We’ve all read studies, usually from print media, about the dangers of email, instant messaging, web surfing and social networking platforms on productivity. Whether the impact is measured in hours or dollars, it’s almost always assumed that there’s no countervailing gain from the time these tools can save compared to face-to-face meetings and phone calls. For web workers, it’s clear that measures of productivity are loaded when productivity is implicitly being defined as something that happens offline.

As a primer on the social web, Anne Truitt Zelenka’s Connect!: A Guide to a New Way of Working challenges the notion that time spent online is counterproductive. The age of connectivity means increased connection, in social terms — what the author calls “social productivity.” Increased interaction gives rise to more ideas and insights, and delivers value in ways that can be quite different that traditional knowledge work. But to realize that value, we have to adopt work styles that are more conducive to social production than “firewalled attention.” Let’s see how far this idea flies.

Chapter 1: Towards a Web Working World. Zelenka contrasts the “early web” of the late Nineties with the social web that has emerged over the current decade. The major nodes of the early web were corporations with their own constituencies of buyers and community members, with no connection of user accounts between different companies and platforms. In today’s web, blogs, social networking, social bookmarking, photo sharing service, and other platforms can be highly interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

The new working style has shifted from “busy work” to “burst work.” Since social productivity involves an exchange of information and ideas, nothing may seem to be happening for long periods until a sudden flash of insight — a burst — allows to worker to moves many leaps beyond what would have been possible with a more incremental, “busy” approach. To maximize the exchange that makes this possible, burst workers employ workstreaming: sharing hour-by-hour accomplishments and thoughts and discovered resources online. Included is a very good table of different online services that clarifies the different types of social networks: social bookmarking, social networking, professional networking, status updaters, and so on.

Chapter 2: Get Ready to Web Work. Web workers have many more options available to them than working exclusively at home or in the office. A mix of the two might be appropriate; perhaps working in a cafe might be more suitable. One interesting option the author mentions I’d like to look into is “coworking.” Coworking takes place in shared offices with cafe-like qualities. A wiki for locating coworking facilities near you is here.

The web worker also needs to work out what kind of “presence/availability” system is most suitable to his or her workflow. There are times where you’ll want your co-workers to know that you’re available, and other times where you need to be uninterruptable. Options like IM, microblogging, chat rooms, and other technologies are all considered. In this chapter, as well as the previous one, Zelenka argues for using “Office 2.0″ cloud-based apps like Zoho Office or Google Docs.

Chapter 3: Burst Your Productivity. In addition to the usual tools for task and project management, like Outlook or Backpack, the author recommends having a tool or service specifically for “Personal Relationship Management,” like LinkedIn or Highrise. Maintaining a list of people to stay in contact with may be as useful for productivity as having a list of to-dos. Social productivity takes a more organic approach to prioritizing, based on fostering authenticity through sharing. If your priorities are unclear, take some small action and let your priorities emerge from what results: “You don’t know which 20 percent of your work will lead to 80 percent of results.”

Chapter 4: Rethink Your Relationship with Email. Zelenka is no friend of email, to put it mildly: “Email is terribly useful . . . with an emphasis on terribly.” The younger generation is abandoning email for IM, text messaging and MySpace. We learn that the effort required to maintain an empty inbox is more trouble than it’s worth, that messages might be too complex for their headers to be used as a to do list, that a single email might require multiple classifications for tags or folders, and my favorite, that “other people generate claims on your time and attention” (welcome to life). In fairness, she does offer tips for configuring email in ways that might find more acceptable.

This was definitely the least useful chapter in the book for me. I find invariably that the people who complain about email overload are the ones who claim that maintaining an empty inbox requires some kind of extraordinary effort. If you open an email and make no decision on what to do with it, your mind will continue thinking about it while you’re reading the next email. If you do decide what to do with it, but don’t move it to a placeholder that maps to the new intentionality (e.g. a folder like “Reply” or “@Action”), your mind becomes its placeholder.

Chapter 5: Surf Waves of Information. Beyond Google and Wikipedia, there are plenty of other ways to gain and share knowledge. There are more specialized search engines, like Pubmed.gov and Emedicine.com for medical research. There are alternative research strategies, like “orienteering,” where you take small steps toward your goal, using what you already know and the new results you uncover to perform subsequent searches. There are tools like online notebooks, social bookmarks, and news services. What may be more important than all of these is cultivating the right attitude for dealing with information: stepping into a stream at your discretion, not drinking from the firehose. Some sensible tips are given for guarding against information overload.

Chapter 6: Connect, Communicate, Collaborate. Virtual teamwork might be more productive that face-to-face collaboration. Zelenka discusses the tools, strategies and mindset necessary to work virtually, while acknowledging a time and place for face time. Email alternatives are once again emphasized, in addition to Web 2.0 collaborative applications like Coghead, BaseCamp and FreeConference. There’s a very good table listing various contact and relationship management solutions. On the “social” side of the social web, the author includes for effective socializing. There’s also a section on “network science” that’s more sociology than actual network theory, but more practical for it.

Chapter 7: Go Mobile. Much of the material here will be familiar to road warriors. It gives advice on finding a good bag for your laptop, what accessories to take with you, options for wireless networking and security issues. The pros and cons of using a smartphone versus a “feature” (basic) phone are weighed, as well as whether you actually need mobile email or simply text messaging. The author includes some advice for making the most of face-to-face meeting, conferences and follow-ups. Again, if you’re not a seasoned business traveller, you’ll probably get something out of this chapter.

Chapter 8: Explode Your Career. Traditional careerism is waning. Climbing the corporate ladder is becoming less and less of an option. It may be time to replace the ladder with different metaphors. You might think of your life as a tree, branching out in different directions; or as a portolio, with a skill set diverse enough to mitigate risk; or as a narrative, where your current state marks a transition to a happier ending. The social web enables you to replace your current job, supplement it, or promote it by sharing your work with others, then eventually monetizing it. Moving beyond an employment situation can be stressful and risky, and Zelenka discusses a number of coping strategies for dealing with the emotional setbacks that might occur.

Chapter 9: Manage Your Money. A chapter on personal finance for the freelancer isn’t going to be sufficient — you’re going to want to get a full book on subject. But the author’s “web worker” take on money management supplements a more traditional book nicely. I really liked the sidebar on “social money management,” covering sites for peer-to-peer microlending, IOU trackers, financial goal sharing, salary comparisons and budget comparisons. Like any good web worker, Zelenka suggests migrating your cash to online banks and brokerages like ING Direct, HBSC or Charles Schwab.

More tips for independent contractors cover setting rates, invoicing, time tracking, and strategies for deal with disruptions in cash flow. “Bursty income possibilities” include stock options, product sales and ad-supported websites. Finally, the psychological factors in personal finance are discussed, such as the tenuous relationship between income and happiness. Studies show that not far beyond the subsistence level, happiness tends to remain the same.

Chapter 10: Blend Your Work and Personal Life. This is a love-it-or-hate-it idea, but an option now viable by way of the social web. When workstreaming starts to employ photo sharing, comments about what we’re currently doing, bookmarks of what we’re reading, and profiles that include our favorite movies, the web worker’s personal and professional lives become a “work-life smoothie.” As a remote worker who might otherwise get cabin fever from working at home, activities like commenting on blogs or employing social networking platforms can help you stay sane.

The author embraces this model, and recommends not isolating work and personal activities. Not only should work and personal activities be blended, we should try to experiment with combining different types of work activities. In a job market that’s continually reconstituting itself, recombination may become a key survival strategy.

Chapter 11: The Future of Web Work. Zelenka points out three trends to watch: the entry of the MySpace generation into the workforce, global economic uncertainty, and increasing discomfort with Google’s power. Generation Y (the so-called MySpace generation) will have grown up with IM, texting and social networking as a norm, which will change the complexion of how work is conducted in the near future. Global economic uncertainty, at least in this book, seems to be identified with housing market decline rather than growing problems in the energy sector. Google’s privacy policies have generating increasing concern: individual search logs are only rendered anonymous after 18 months, and cookies are only disabled after two years. Moveover, as more people come to rely on Google’s web service for document creation and storage, the company stands as a potential central point of failure in more ways than one.

Some thoughts on Connect!

Social networking is one domain of technology that I’ve struggled to understand the point of since Friendster. Being fairly, and deliberately, clueless on the subject, I really enjoyed the taxonomy of the various web services described in this book. The difference between status updaters like Twitter and professional networking like LinkedIn is easier to apprehend when all of these tools are rounded up and defined in one book.

The productivity material was hit-and-miss for me. I like the concept of “social productivity” when it’s applied to social product — blogs, scientific pursuits, design; for other domains, the concept might be more limited. Further, I perfer the type of leak-proof task management and “firewall mode” that Zelenka considers a “more regimented” approach.

Should you connect with this book?

While there were definitely parts of this book that I disagreed with, I was definitely stimulated throughout. As mentioned, it filled a lot of holes in my concept of the social web. I really enjoyed it as an information resource. If you’re new to social networking and want to know what all the fuss is about, or if your just entertaining a vision of what is would be like to live and work virtually, this is a great book to start with. If you’re already a web worker or road warrior, you might want to skim the book to see if you’re not familiar with this “new way of working.”

Tags: Books

Comments

  • VeredNo Gravatar // Jul 30, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    Please forgive me for being indifferent to questions of work-related productivity (I am already a productive person and don’t seek solutions)… BUT I love, love, LOVE the notion that people found a way to turn the web into a place of social interaction. I love that we are such social creatures that we managed to turn what could have been cold, distant technology into a platform for socializing.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Jul 30, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    I think this is a great book for people trying to figure out where to start. I’ve never had a problem with socializing on the web when it comes to commenting on blogs and forums, but for some reason I’ve been wondering where to start with the various social networking platforms. The strength of Connect! is that it classifies each platform’s intent so clearly.
    As far as the productivity material, I think the book mixes up a very clear insight (bursts of social productivity that results from a rich exchange of ideas) with some task management advice that doesn’t necessarily reinforce her core argument.

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