Monday 13 December 2010

Surely something wrong here?

I spent a good hour trying to figure out why a deceptively simple-looking device in Excel to colour some rows green and others red to indicate which teams were top and bottom respectively in a table didn't do what it said on the box. It's called conditional formatting and my 12-year old son said he could do it fine in Excel2003 but not Excel2010. I had hardly ever used conditional formatting at all before but eventually worked out how to write the formula needed. (For those intrigued, you had to type something like =h3>m3 which, for some reason, just didn't come naturally!)

The task was all about some team scores in a range of activities. They had to be added up and then the list rows coloured to show the top and bottom teams. A macro was also needed to do some sorting which he managed effortlessly. I remember that macros usually took me a couple of goes as I would click something either at the start or the end which stopped it working or landed up on a blank sheet. Not for the youngster, though - right first time.

After solving the = business my only real contribution was to show him how to make the sheet look cool by changing colours, using some different fonts and hiding virtually everything except the displayed data. He had also quite happily protected the sheet and left unlocked just those cells that a user might change and included some validation rules to ensure someone's favourite team didn't get a sneaky huge score added in.

Today, at a Further Education College, I had cause to look at some assignments that were being issued to students. The topic was related to business information systems and required students to suggest and illustrate methods to display data in a pretty similar way to my son's task.


Except there was no requirement that they could do validation. No requirement for any automatic colouring of cells or smartening of the sheet appearance. Arial, possibly one of the worst-looking spreadsheet fonts apart from Comic Sans, rules OK, apparently, unless you have Office 2007 or later. Not a hint of macros either.

These students are 17, 18, some going on 20. Most of them do not seem particularly dumb, some even give the impression of being pretty geeky and can do things like evade the clutches of the internet filtering system and get extremely high scores in the helicopter game. But not only did they look at me with those vacant expressions that make you wonder whether you've asked them to explain the difference between ought and should and would or explain how the date of Easter Sunday is calculated when I mentioned validation, macros and conditional formatting, many seemed to find the simple task before them a challenge.

These are Level 3 National Diploma Computing students, for heaven's sake! OK, they can do some binary sums that my 2nd year schoolboy doesn't know about but he is so far advanced in comparison on what I call the ICT skills that could be useful in an office environment it's weird. Yes, he's pretty bright but what he's doing at school - in what I call 2nd year (Year 8 I think in new eduspeak) - is what the whole class is expected to achieve, whether they like spreadsheets or not.

I wondered how on earth my daughter, 14, had managed to cope with that as I don't remember tears or dramatic messages on Facebook pleading for help in 2008. Apparently she just did it and hoped for the best and, whilst not enjoying it much and not exactly shining bright on the formulae front, she knew what we were talking about, at least, and had I offered tickets to Matt Cardle in Concert she would have been able to help her little brother in my absence.

Now, the group of National Diploma students are largely similar to most preceding years I can recall. I've never actually taught this topic but it seems that the criteria for passing at Level 3 fall way short of the school's learning outcomes. What on earth is going on? I know standards have slipped but, taken in conjunction with generally appalling written English and research skills which comprise solely Google and Wikipedia it seems we're about to release yet another qualified yet totally unqualified bunch of otherwise pleasant enough people into the world of work.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Wikileaks: disclaimer

I can see that I'll shall have to add a disclaimer along the following lines to tweets, e-mail, document footers, presentation slides, blog posts, Facebook and LinkedIn updates, wiki pages, sites and, yes, definitely, Technorati, American Idol and XFactor articles!

The contents of this communication may or may not have been written by me and even if it was it may not reflect what I actually think as I have have missed a crucial not in a sentence or accidentally jumbled up the words. My computers do not all require a new log-in when idle and any one of a range of passing children, girlfriends, clients, colleagues or pets may have used the keyboard in my absence. There are also lots of people with my name and I am never too sure which one is me so treat any text as potentially totally meaningless. I am also not very well off so suing would be quite pointless.

A 140 character version is available on request.

I shall also start talking to people more.

Friday 3 December 2010

Reason 543 Why You MUST Stop Site Blocking: Your Employees Can't Solve Their Problems On Their Own

I couldn't have put this better myself. So I won't. Here's an excellent article by Michelle Martin's The Bamboo Project. The link takes you to the original article which I have simply reproduced below. Of course, it's probably blocked by your institution :/

Yesterday was a typical day for me as a knowledge worker--lots of unrelated problems to solve, ranging from troubleshooting an issue with a Wordpress blog I was setting up for a client to gathering information on employment statistics for people with disabilities. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in having this kind of wide-ranging work to do. Even the specialists among us have found their job duties broadening in this tight economy.

For me, solving these problems turned out to be relatively easy. I work for myself and don't have to worry about site blocking, so was able to easily access and search the blogs, social networks, videos and forums that gave me the answers I needed. If necessary, I would also have been able to access my own networks through social media.

Unfortunately for the vast majority of front line workers at the organizations I work with, this would not have been the case. For them, many of these sites are blocked. If "blog" is in the title or URL, they can't go there. If the information is on a social network or forum, they can't visit it. Forget YouTube and its vast array of tutorials. Even many basic websites are blocked.

At the same time, their managers will complain that staff don't solve their own problems, that they aren't innovative or creative in their work. Well of course they aren't--they are denied basic access to the people and information that might actually help them get their jobs done! They are forced to rely on people within their own organizations--many of whom don't have the answer either--and on those websites the powers that be deem to be "acceptable."

When I do trainings and presentations, participants will frequently ask me how I "know so much." It's simple. No one is blocking my access to the web, so when I have a question, I can get an answer. I'm empowered to get information and solve problems on my own. If you want people to do their best work, they need the same access.
Well said! Not only do I see the Access Denied sign almost every day at work but the screen also tells me my attempt has been logged and if I'd bothered to read the rest of the small print it's probably also been passed to HR to add to my file and someone will be talking to me about retraining and mind adjustment in due course. I am so tempted to type in some really bad site addresses and don't know how I've resisted that to date! To be fair, IT technicians do usually free sites up for me when I ask them but I'm usually in the middle of trying to get some answers and waiting for however long it takes them to do that isn't an option.

People wonder why I do so much work at home.