Search and Retrieve

I was talking to a close friend about the need to create connections at work, and also save relevant information about those connects. One thing led to another and we started talking about data structures. He wanted to see what columns I would add in my Excel sheet when I save their contact info. I told him that I stopped using Excel for such things more than a decade ago.

Let me explain why this old, linear way of thinking doesn’t work anymore.

We live in a world of abundance, not scarcity. We generate more data from more sources, more quickly, and with more frequency than ever before. However, Technology also keeps evolving at a scorching pace, and Search tools have got much, much better with time.

Think about how you use email at work. Chances are, you have multiple folders created in your Inbox, and take the time to save every email in its respective folder. But folders are a linear way of working. The same email can’t be stored in two folders, but it is possible to classify the same content in more than one way. As a result, when you save that email, you may think it belongs to the “Projects” folder, but when you try to retrieve it, you may first look for it in the “Key Clients” folder instead. Precious time is wasted in searching through folder after folder, until you eventually locate the item you are looking for.

An easier way to manage this is to simply have one Inbox folder, and use the Search tool to search and locate anything you want, from that one place! If you also use your inbox to manage your to dos (like I do), you can add a folder for items you have already processed, and have just two folders instead of many.

That second system works much better than the first since it leverages very powerful Search tools to store and retrieve your emails, without adding any cognitive load to classify them in linear (limited) ways. If your email service allows for tags (like GMail does), that also adds an additional dimension to your data, but without the limitation of folders, since the same content can be tagged in unlimited ways.

Taking the same approach to your contact list, the idea is to use powerful search tools (built into all smartphones) that can find whatever you are looking for, without thinking about how you classified that information originally.

On the phone, I don’t even use tags to categorize my contact entries any more, and instead use the Notes field to write all the keywords I think are important, while interacting with any person. The “classification” system is fluid and non-standard. It varies from person to person, since for some I may save family-related details, and for others I may save info related to their work. But that does not matter, since Search cuts through all structures and looks inside every contact entry to find the keywords I am looking for.

At work, a Global Address Book in Outlook already saves every one’s work info including location, department, contact details, etc. All I need to do is save select entries to my Outlook address book, and add some relevant content in the Notes field, to help me remember contextual details. This also has the added advantage of the contact entry being linked to the Global Address Book at work, so that all the contact info stays automatically updated.

So, no more Excel files or columns or reinventing the wheel on which attributes should be saved, or how the data should be categorized. Embrace non-linear and interconnected ways of working with data – that’s the world we live in now. Once you do, you will find that the possibilities are endless.

See Also: Making Sense of Data

When Work Is Fun!

It’s been a couple of months since my last blog post, and I’ve been busy settling into a new role at work.

As some of you may know, I recently joined Microsoft India as a part of the Industry Solutions team, to help strategic BFSI clients leverage Cloud & Enterprise solutions. Needless to say, it is a huge organization with an exciting canvas. And, it’s inspiring to be a part of something that has the potential to ‘make a dent in the universe’.

Microsoft’s mission is to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more“. I’m sure you will agree that with a mission statement like that, one cannot help but feel stoked.

Here’s a sample of how the last two weeks have transpired…

  • Got introduced to key partners at the annual Partner Leadership Conclave 2021 in an intensive two-day expo
  • Participated in the Microsoft Global Hackathon 2021 as an Business Strategy advisor, collaborating with colleagues across the globe on a ‘Hack for Society’ – the team is trying to build a solution that makes it possible to digitally donate to those in need, especially the homeless and un-banked
  • Joined the Discover Day Asia expo to learn more about how to navigate the larger, global organization
  • Attended insightful sessions by thought leaders in industry, academia, and government on how interdisciplinary research and Technology can impact society, as a part of the Microsoft Research Summit 2021
  • Participated in a Strategic Account Summit workshop focused on improving engagement with key accounts
  • Completed the requisite Training modules, and am now Microsoft Certified on Dynamics 365 (CRM) Fundamentals
  • Attended a Masterclass on Accessibility tools already built into Windows 10, Office 365 and Microsoft Edge, that can be used by folks with learning or comprehension disabilities

Of course, all this is in addition to internal catchups, review meetings, technology deep-dives and the day-today operations of the job!

Sure, you need to juggle your task lists, and attend some early morning / late night meetings to make it all work. But, that’s a small price to pay for such a rich exposure to the breadth and width of the solution landscape, don’t you think?

In any case, it’s the most fun I’ve had in years – at work or outside it.

P.S. I’ve received a lot of positive reactions and encouragement to this post! I should mention that most of the activities I’ve listed were entirely optional.

Accelerating Digital Transformation: The Agile Way

This post first appeared in ETCIO (July 2021)

‘Digital Transformation’ is quite the buzzword these days, and has only gained more traction courtesy of the global pandemic. Even if you were on the fence earlier, chances are, you now agree that Digital offers unmatched cost & efficiency advantages for both organizations & customers, alike.

The adoption of Digital typically happens due to novelty, necessity or natural affinity.

For many, the novelty of “going digital” is itself a goal worth pursuing, although this represents the least sustainable path. Necessity can play a role too, but only as long as favorable circumstances remain. Natural-affinity driven solutions, however, tend to offer the longest-lasting benefits.

Take the case of Financial Services – they have a natural affinity towards Technology, when it comes to the delivery of products and services. Customers can typically choose from a wide variety of offerings (online), establish their identity (digitally), and pay via a variety of (digital) modes of payment. The ecosystem is fast, cost-effective and helps eliminate many of the inconveniences associated with wait-times, intermediaries and physical visits to branches or outlets.

Such advantages not only apply to Banking, Financial Services and Insurance, but to a wide cross-section of industries and customer segments, as long as the solutions on offer are well-suited for online delivery or consumption.

If you have decided to embark on a journey of Digital Transformation, you will find that the adoption of Agile practices can aid significantly in accelerating the timelines involved, and building a sustainable edge. In fact, some would argue that Digital Transformation success depends on adopting an Agile approach to change.

Here’s a quick guide to reimagining processes and systems using Agile tools, that can help accelerate your Digital Transformation journey.

  • Prioritize, Re-prioritize

Start with a compelling Digital-First vision for your enterprise. Then, use your Program Management Office (PMO) to establish cross-functional Agile Squads, and provide them the training they need to familiarize themselves with the Agile framework. Once the Squads are up and running, empower them to deal with what comes next.

Prioritize and re-prioritize on a regular basis, based on your assessment of opportunities. Squads should periodically review progress with key stakeholders and regularly seek agreement on upcoming work, to ensure sync. When prioritizing, the focus should always be on elements that add value for the customer.

  • User Stories

Once the priorities have been clearly defined, the next step is to create “User Stories” – natural language descriptions of the key functionalities that the team (Squad) will ultimately develop. The advantage of a ‘User Story’ approach over a Business Requirements Document (BRD) is that user stories focus on the Customer Experience – what the person using the product or service should be able to do.

As a rule, smaller user stories are easier to plan for, develop and test. Keep in mind that everyone in the Squad should have a clear understanding of “definition of done” and the acceptance criteria.

  • Build MVPs

An MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is a product with just enough features to gain insight from actual users. One of the key principles of Agile is to test lean products at early stages by involving all the stakeholders. This MVP-approach of Product Development helps drastically cut-down time to market.

  • Sprints & Scrums

Sprints are at the very heart of the Agile philosophy, and getting it right is a key determinant of success. If you are new to Agile, start with a 2-week Sprint cycle, always starting on the same day of the week (say, every Tuesday), across all Squads.

Sprint Planning sessions and Daily Scrums, when conducted regularly, help Squads update on their progress, discuss & resolve bottlenecks, showcase achievements to stakeholders, and seek feedback to identify improvement opportunities. Rinse and repeat until it becomes the way any project is tackled.

  • Retrospectives

Having an Agile mindset means trying, failing, learning, keeping what works, adapting. So, Squads need to regularly reflect on what they are doing, and how they can improve on it.

Retrospectives should ideally be carried out at the Squad level, but are also encouraged at the Program (PMO) level, especially after the launch of any critical initiative. Multiple Squads collaborating at frequent intervals via a ‘Scrum of Scrum’ is another great tool to help tackle cross-squad dependencies required to deliver on enterprise objectives.

The Agile Manifesto clearly outlines guiding principles that put a premium on individuals and interactions over processes and tools, as well as focus on the ability to respond to change.

In an age where Technology and Digital are practically par for the course, Agile practices allow organizations to remain nimble and respond to ever-changing market situations by building small, collaborating fast, failing early and scaling quickly.

Now, isn’t that an edge worth striving for?