Herding cats

Well, life before cell phones was like herding cats too. I am not one of those Luddites who romanticizes the age before we all had laptops and cell phones. As a person who sometimes gets lost while driving (despite the GPS) or doesn’t always plan for getting stuck in traffic, I’ve found that the ability to communicate on the fly has saved me from critically annoying my near and dear.

Back when I was an undergrad, we were still in Web 1.0. It seemed like we mainly used it for email and instant messaging. I was a student worker in the School of Education at Marquette University, mostly as an office assistant and sometimes as a library assistant. Basically, we did the work that the full-time secretaries/executive assistants/professors didn’t have time for. Sometimes there were stacks of projects waiting in our wire basket, and sometimes there were notes that said, “See me. –Susan”. Sometimes, projects got claimed by another student worker on a previous shift and the professor didn’t want to take the time to re-train another student worker.

So on the days where there weren’t projects in the basket, you would stalk Susan or whoever at their office door, trying to catch them between appointments or meetings or whatever. And when you caught them, they typically didn’t have time for the interruption and only gave you part of the instructions and then you were back again in 15 minutes for more stalking or with a question. Of course, someone that busy typically isn’t very warm toward being interrupted, but what choice did you have? If you sat at the student worker desk and did your own homework too long you’d get reprimanded for that too!

A few years later, I got myself into a similar predicament as I moonlighted as a Technology Secretary for a school district right before I started grad school the first time. I had a zillion projects going on at the same time and no real sense of what was priority. When my classes started up, they got me a sub until they found someone full-time to replace me and it was just like my student worker experience all over again. I’m sure my sub looked at me like I was the worst cat-herder she’d ever met.

The description of the University of Houston Digital Services Department’s use of Google Calendar and Blogger in R. Nicole Westbrook’s article, “Online Management System: Wielding Web 2.0 Tools to Collaboratively Manage and Track Projects” would have been a god-send to my office worker experience!

Rather than interrupting staff work to get a worker started on a project each time someone arrives for a shift, supervisors can create all assignments for a day at one time and respond to questions posted on the blog at their convenience. Creating blog posts in advance also benefits students. With pre-posted assignments, students can immediately read their assignment for the day without waiting for supervisors who might be returning late from a meeting or might not be in the office at all that day. Managers also have the freedom to create a large volume of posts as far in advance as is convenient. Therefore, when supervisors travel, they can create posts before leaving town and then monitor status posts and questions remotely so that progress on projects can continue in their absence.

What a nice use of digital tools to keep everyone busy and on-task and communicating! I really would’ve appreciated the opportunity to have a blog to post questions/progress on, instead of stalking a professor’s door. That is exactly what I was looking for back then.

Westbrook described one weakness of Google Calendar:

Unfortunately, Google Calendar does not currently have an archive or export feature and shifts are only stored for a finite period of time before they are purged from the calendar permanently. Although UHDS staff does not have an ideal solution to this problem as of yet, an effort is made to conduct project reviews in a timely manner in order to capture shift information elsewhere before it is unavailable.

While Google Calendar may not export or archive (I don’t think), I’ve never seen it purge. I can still look at the first event I entered into my own Google calendar on August 30, 2006. But then again, this does not guarantee permanence and there are plenty of Web 2.0 services that have been discontinued without much notice and there you are, without a back-up.

Of course, I realize that being impressed with the use of Google apps as a inter-office communication tool probably means that my programming chops are pretty much non-existent. Drupal and WordPress were not even on my radar until I took this class. The last time I dappled with HTML was with Microsoft FrontPage 2003 and it seems that we’ve moved far beyond that. I think I could [maybe] figure out this content management system (CMS) stuff, given I had a meaningful project to use it on and an up-to-date tech guide like Jones and Farrington’s Using WordPress as a library content management system(I seriously was not kissing up, Kyle. You just happen to be the co-author and my instructor.)

When you are faced with a problem like the University of Michigan Libraries’ website, as described in K. J. Varnum’s introduction to “Drupal in Libraries,” published in The Tech Set, 2012 (p. 2-3):

There was no standardization between the HTML parts of the site and the dynamically generated portions–not even within the static pages or dynamic pages. This was the result of having different developers and authors building their own pieces of the site, independently, over the course of almost two decades… From the user perspective, the library’s site had dozens of graphic identities for different parts of the library, many of which bore little resemblance to the homepage. Constituent libraries, service points, departments, and information pages had radically different designs. There was almost no consistent navigation across the site; many pages did not link to the main library page. Those that did used different logos or graphics, and the links were placed on different parts of the webpage. This complicated user interface made it very difficult for a site visitor to move from one library to another or from a library to a particular resource. The site was an exercise in frustration for our users and our staff… We arrived at this state of affairs much of you may have: by allowing the web to grow organically over years without finding the time or energy to bring it together.

it seems pretty obvious that there has to be a better way. These CMSs are the way to go. Go figure, another tech tool has found a slick improvement to a tedious process. The question is, is it better to continue herding cats yourself or do you employ the professional cat-herder? At least the cat-herder knows how to manage the chaos. However, some of us may be appointed to be the professional cat-herder ourselves someday, so it’s probably in our interest to starting putting on the cat-herder gear now (i.e. mess around with WordPress and Drupal, in this example.)

5 Responses

  1. Kyle July 24, 2012 / 7:53 am

    Actually, the beauty of WordPress, and to some extent, Drupal is that “programming chops” are not a required skill. You can do quite a lot with little knowledge of the underlying architecture.

    I think it’s quite good that you’re viewing blog posts and Google calendar in a different light than how we first considered them at the beginning of class. It goes back to the affordances chat we had. If we can strip down the tool to its affordances we can build it back up in different ways for a variety of uses.

  2. hennebe July 24, 2012 / 7:58 am

    Maybe not programming chops per se, but whatever the name is for the skill that this tools require that I do not yet have.

    Good point on the affordances. Now we’re thinking like digital natives!

    • Kyle July 24, 2012 / 8:08 am

      I think it’s a matter of comfort and familiarity with the platform. Nothing but experience, instruction, and reading up on the CMS can give you those skills, no matter how technologically literate you are.

  3. amerry July 24, 2012 / 8:54 am

    I liked what you said: “I think I could [maybe] figure out this content management system (CMS) stuff, given I had a meaningful project to use it on and an up-to-date tech guide.”
    I feel the same way – my problem is that I always need to have the meaningful project first. I am not usually one to start playing around with stuff just for the heck of it. But I think if I had something I really wanted to create, I could make WordPress or Drupal work too.

  4. Rachael Page July 28, 2012 / 12:37 pm

    I’m going to have to agree with you and Anna. Learning more about WordPress or Drupal needs a project to go with it. I think it’s possible to “explore” it all you want, but not to learn much until you have a concrete project on which to apply it.

    I also think that getting back to the affordances of a tool is a really great point. There are ways to manage content on a smaller scale than WP or Drupal, and you have to ask yourself what the tool was designed to do, what you want it to do, and if there are other options.

    I can think of so many jobs I’ve had where some sort of communication system–ANY sort of communication system–would have resulted in increased productivity and happier workers, for sure. Of course, these things weren’t an option at the time, but even a notebook and a pencil would have worked wonders!

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