7 Methods for Group Communications

In the beginning, the most popular way for groups to communicate was simply "in person". But with the advent of technology, even as early as two millennia ago, man has devised new ways for groups to communicate without actually being together in the same room.

IRC (Internet Relay Chat)

Back when the internet was young and 28.8 baud modems were all the rage, Internet Relay Chat was the way for web-heads to communicate online. VOIP was still the internet equivalent of HAM radio ("I spoke with someone in Australia today!"), and ICQ was still a few years out. Created by Jarkko "WiZ" Oikarinen in late August of 1988, Oikarinen’s design was inspired by Jeff Kell’s Bitnet Relay, which had been designed as a way for researchers to chat on Bitnet mostly over mainframe servers. IRC’s slash commands were inspired by Bitnet Relay and they persist to this day in many other chat mediums. IRC’s leap into the public eye came when it was used by the citizens of Kuwait to contact the outside world during the Iraqi invasion of the early 90’s. While many today now utilize more modern means for internet person to person communication, when it comes to text based group chat, IRC is still king.

IM(Instant Messaging)

Instant messaging had its start in the 1970’s when it was developed to allow two uni x users to chat if they were both logged into the same server. The technology would then evolve to function on closed networks and then finally the internet. The first instant messaging program to enter the public eye was the "On-Line Messages" feature of "Quantum Link" for Commodore computers in the late 80’s. In 1991 "Quantum Link" would change its name to "America Online". Despite this, however, it would be a different company that would beat AOL to the modern (graphic user interface) IM market. An Israeli program known as ICQ would hit the market in 1996, followed by AOL Instant Messenger in 1997. Since then a number of other heavy hitters have joined the fray. Yahoo and Microsoft hold a heavy share of the market, and Google has recently come out with its own instant messaging service known as GTalk. Recently, these companies have begun to incorporate IRC chat room type functionality into their IM clients for group conversations. Unlike IRC though, these conversations are restricted to the user’s buddy list. This alone could be what keeps IRC as the leader in the chat room venue.

Smoke Signals

Laugh all you want, but when the electromagnetic pulse of the apocalypse hits wiping out all electronics, you’ll be glade you had a way to you’re your neighboring walled-in villages of the oncoming uber-mutant invasion. Hey, it could happen. As a technology, smoke signals were created by both the Chinese and Native Americans. The technique involved using a blanket to cover a fire then quickly removing the blanket to produce a large puff of smoke. Smoke signal codes were never standardized as a drawback of the technique was one’s enemies could see the smoke signals as well. Because of this, codes were agreed upon before hand by the individual senders and receivers. In China, smoke signals were used along the Great Wall to communicate between towers. Calls for reinforcements and warnings of enemy movement were vital for the wall to serve its purpose. Although modern technology has rendered the smoke signal all but obsolete, with recent events such as Hurricane Katrina still in mind, it’s easy to imagine a modern instance where smoke signals could be used for groups to communicate a call for help.

ConferenceCalls

The origin of conference calls can viably be seen as rooted in party line technology used in the first half of the twentieth century. Instead of each home having a private line, groups of houses would share a single line. The unavoidable perk/drawback of this was the ability for these neighbors to speak to each other simply by picking up their phone and chatting on their shared line. Technology in this case would go full circle as phones would move on to individual private lines, then turn around to once again add a feature to let multiple parties once again speak together in one communal phone conversation. Initially, the easiest way to do this was for a home to possess two phone lines, and a phone that would allow linking a call on both of these lines together. Today, the equipment is now mostly handled by the phone company and conference calling has become a feature of the phone service itself. For conference calls involving a multitude of people though, a conference calling service must be used, either through your phone company or a third party vendor. Such calls can involve the party line type functionality in which all participants can speak with each other, or a layout where only the host may speak, and the others only listen.

Ventrilo/Teamspeak

Group voice communication is a veritable requirement for any gamer who plays multiplayer online games. Ventrilo and Team Speak (competing programs) are a cross between VOIP, party line functionality, and IRC. In essence it is IRC that uses voice communication instead of text. With these services, a host server is established, which users can then log into using a client. Once logged into the server, the user may a join a chat channel and speak to the group of users within that channel as if it were a party line. The service is primarily used by gamers for gaining an efficiency advantage in their competitive games. If one team needs to type text to communicate, while the other team merely needs to speak, the advantage becomes obvious. This advantage has become such a commonplace necessity that "World of Warcraft ", the world’s best-selling MMORPG, has recently integrated this functionality into the game itself. While still primarily the realm of gamers, it is only a matter of time though before programs like these enter the public spotlight, as IRC did in the early 90’s.

CB (Citizens Band Radio)

For truckers, CB radios have been the chat room of the interstate for over 40 years. Invented by Alfred J. Gross, who also invented walkie-talkies, pagers, and cordless phones, CB radios first appeared in the late forties after World War II. What gave CB radios the edge was low price and ease of use offered by its hardware. For the first time, one didn’t need to be a specialist to chat with people over the radio. Similar to cutting edge technologies today, governing bodies at first tried to establish laws to regulate the new medium, but with users widely ignoring these regulations, most of these laws were eventually dropped. As with communication over the internet, a genre of slang has formed for CB radio use. Terms such as "bear" for police officers and derivatives of FCC recommended "10 codes" such as 10-4 are still used today. As can be expected though, CB radio’s popularity has waned in recent years obviously due to newer technologies such as mobile phones and the internet itself. Looking at the full story of CB radios however, it’s easy to consider that group communication over the internet is nothing more than just a little bit of history repeating.

Text Messaging

On December 3rd 1992, the very first commercial text message ever was sent in Great Britain from a personal computer to a phone on the Vodaphone network. Soon after, in 1993, the very first phone to phone text message was sent by a engineering student at Nokia in Finland. Today in Europe, 85% of all mobile phone customers utilize text messaging. In the United States that number is 40% but quickly growing. While the ability to send a short message of text from one user to another can be seen as a great convenience, it is in group communication that text messaging absolutely shines. Text messaging has been used to mobilize everything from urban militias, to instant protest mobs. Some executives in Hollywood have even blamed text messaging for supposed "box office slumps", since audience members can now spread word before the movie has even finished as to whether or not the movie is worth seeing. On the positive side, text messaging has been utilized in rescue efforts, and for virtual "town hall meetings" when members of a community have found themselves scattered by a natural disaster. With usage steadily on the rise, one can only imagine what the world’s most popular use of mobile group communication will be able to accomplish in the future. Government elections are a definite possibility.

While inventions such as the wheel, metal alloy, and the harnessing of fire are often mentioned as mile markers in our technology, it’s interesting to note that all along this time man has strived to improve his capability for group communication. If the technology continues on its current course, virtual telepathy may be the ultimate goal. Perhaps though, the greatest breakthrough has already happened: the ability to now be part of a limitless group while, at the same time, still maintaining our individual solidarity.

There Are Times When a Phone Call is Better than Email

Sometimes it is not a good idea to email a message, it is better to pick up the phone and chat.

We've all received an email message that we simply wished we wouldn't have gotten, one where we've been chewed out or chastised for something whether we deserved it or not. In some cases the criticism that has been sent in the email message would have been received in a much more constructive manner if instead it would have been given by phone.

Here's when it is best to pick up the phone and chat and not to email:

  1. If you have to discipline and employee, although email is faster and you have a written documentation of the situation, a verbal conversation is much better. A written confirmation of the call can be sent by email after the conversation.
  2. If you have a difficulty with a client, a long winded response by email should definitely be replaced by a quick phone call to clear up the gray areas. In most cases prompt action in a misunderstanding with a client will resolve a problem quickly before it grows into a huge difficulty or nasty misunderstanding.
  3. Training issues are best done by phone or even better via web conferencing. You have a much better chance of having an employee understand the directions if they see you perform the action once online while they watch. To send long instructions via email can cause some employees to scan the information and not to follow the instructions step by step as they do not understand the importance. Once you have verbally explained the instructions revisions or repairs may be minor or non-existent. 

You probably have others that you can add to this list as well, but the key is to understand that although we all lean heavily on email as a major form of business communication that sometimes teleconferencing is by far better than email.

Quick Software Tricks that Help You Create Brochures, Business Cards and Even Barcodes.

Chances are you haven't explored the full breadth of your software capabilities. Microsoft Word and desktop publishing software like Publisher, InDesign, and Pagemaker all have built-in templates for everything from business cards to brochures. PowerPoint, a great tool for presentations and teleconferences, also has stored templates, and allows you to import design elements and backgrounds.

Microsoft provides free, fun downloadable templates for parties, dinners, and holiday themes at office.microsoft.com/en-us/templates/default.aspx

Here is a Microsoft link for a business plan template:
www.microsoft.com/mac/resources/templates.aspx?pid=templates

Here is a Microsoft link for great resumes:
office.microsoft.com/en-ca/templates/default.aspx

Another resource you can use is on Office Depot's online Business Center.
http://www.officedepot.com/promo.do?file=/guides/papertemplates/papertemplates_od.jsp

There you will even find templates for balloons, bumper stickers, index dividers, media, post cards, tent cards, binders, greeting cards, tickets, and tri-fold brochures. These are a great place to start, allowing you to customize the design with your stored logo.

Avery labels (www.avery.com) also provides printable templates and downloadable easy-to-use Design Pro software. You can access all sorts of clipart images. There is also a tool for curved text. There is easy photo editing software. And something that you rarely find without special software, the ability to serial numbering and create bar coding. There is also a feature that makes mail merge easy.

There is no time like the present to get started with these projects. Search online for templates before you begin. It will help guide you, ensure there are no key omissions, save you time, and ensure a professional looking piece.

Office 2007 Client Friendly Tips

If you are still using Office 2003 or an earlier Office product then you may not know that the new Office 2007 application uses a new file format that cannot be opened by earlier Office products. You may have had a client or prospect send you a document that you could not open in your version of Word, PowerPoint or Excel that ended with an X like a .docx, .pptx or .xlsx file.

Don't send your customer a note asking them to resend the file requiring them to resave it in the old Office format, just download the Office 2007 file compatibility pack from Microsoft.

You can download this compatibility pack free from Microsoft.

The new Office 2007 file format uses XML to keep file sizes incredibly small and to allow for future application interaction. Changing to the new XML file structure is a sweeping change and a controversial one as important changes always are. This compatibility pack allows users of Office 2000, Office XP, or Office 2003 to open edit, and even save files in the new XML format allowing for easy file transfer and exchange with customers already using Office 2007.

So if you aren't ready to upgrade your Office products to 2007, with the compatibility pack no one will know that you are still using Office 2000 or Office 2003.

Air Pollution: Facts and Things You Can Do.

The amount of pollution in the atmosphere is increasing; there is no doubt about it. One way you can help reduce air pollution is to try and use less fossil fuel, limit your use of aerosols, as well as monitor your paper and energy consumption.

The air pollution caused by the use of fossil fuels like carbon, petroleum, and oil shale are impacting many of our metropolitan areas causing an increase in the incidence of asthma in children and adults alike. Many major metropolitan cities have adapted to these changes by requiring increasing amounts of ethanol in fuels as well as establishing an air quality index indicator. These air quality index indicators are broadcast on television, the radio, and featured prominently in the newspaper to encourage city residents to minimize travel, carpool, use mass transit, and even change the time when they fuel their car or mow their grass. Air quality in these metropolitan areas is impacted not only by the high amount of cars on the road but the time of year, heat index, and cloud cover.

Any significant decrease of travel in these times can be beneficial for children, asthmatics, seniors, and others who are pollution sensitive. By teleconferencing you lessen your own personal impact on your regions air pollution. You can help make a difference in the quality of the air in your own city if you make an effort to cut the amount of travel you absolutely have to make. One small step magnified by others making that same small step amounts to a significant step.

Conference Calling and Frequent Flyer Miles: All Is Not Lost

There are a lot of generic things to look for when making a decision on a conference call service provider, such as: Do they offer the right package of amenities for the type of call you want to conduct? Do they have a good reputation for customer service? Can they handle the number of calls you require? And, are they priced competitively in terms of the services you need?

Given all things being equal, people wanting to hold conference calls can now look at other things that give them additional value for their money when searching for just the right company to service all their conference calling needs.

Although I know of no one who decries the decrease in amount of time they have to spend on the road due to the convenience and cost-effectiveness of teleconferences, I do hear people bemoaning the loss of all those frequent flyer miles they used to be able to use to upgrade to first class or to get free tickets for other employees or family members.

AccuConference is one company that is doing something about this issue. When you use AccuConference as your conference calling service provider, you can receive American Airlines Miles that match mile for dollar what you spend.

So when you decide to teleconference, as opposed to jumping on an airplane, grabbing a taxi or rental car, staying in a hotel, having your meeting and then getting back home, you can still build up those free travel miles without ever having to set foot on an airplane, unless you really want to do so.

Cutting Edge Technology with a Human Touch

Fifteen years ago video conferencing was in its infancy. Despite the semi static transmissions and multi-second delays in audio, it was still a great liberator that provided tremendous convenience and cost-containment for training, sales meetings, inter-office meetings, and more. Teleconferencing has since come into its own, and is so now so cost effective and easy to use that it has moved from workplace to family applications.

Long distance phone charges were a big hurdle for military families as recently as the mid 1990s when sailors were deployed at sea for 6 to 12 months. Security was a paramount concern. Batch transmissions of email messages were a ‘hot’ innovation before the Internet made secure transmissions possible.

Today most soldiers enjoy the benefits of regular communications with their families via phone and email. This lessens the separation anxiety. But it is still hard, especially for young children who don’t see their deployed mom or dad for six to 12 months at a time.

As an illustration of how far we’ve come, recently 50 soldiers from the 108th Air Refueling Wing departed McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey on September 15, 2007 with donated video conferencing equipment. This equipment enables them to chronicle their experiences and stay in touch with their families in high touch, high tech way. That really is the beauty of video capabilities. The old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words rings true today more than ever.

We hope that other businesses around the country will donate video equipment to local military units so they can visually keep in touch and feel that human connection.

The Four Stages of Online Team Interactions: Results from Academia

Because distance learning and teleconferencing and videoconferencing are becoming so commonplace these days, and because people find it harder to foster the kinds of interactions they get when they are face-to-face, university researchers are looking into the dynamics of online interpersonal interactions in team working environments to see if they can understand what is going on and make the experience more effective.

Brian Hoyt an Ohio University professor studied how teams interact in the online environment and found out there are four distinct and progressive stages of interactions: socialization, presentation, interaction, and closure. In his study, he found out that the initial socialization stage was incredibly important and should never be skipped. What he also found out was that people running the online teams generally wanted to skip this stage and plunge right into the meeting content. This is a mistake!

It is crucial to have introductions, have people express their interest or expectations, and perhaps even participate in an icebreaker before beginning. This is not wasted time, as some might think. Hoyt and his colleagues found out that when the socialization stage was present, participants were more engaged and the chat and work sessions were more dynamic then when it was skipped.

So keep that in mind when trying to build a team from a dispersed group of people, err on the side of socialization, at least initially. Your team will be more productive and more energized if you let a little personality get through.

Emotional Energy. Word of Mouth. Hype.

All things every business wishes for itself and the products it sells.

Whether you are a small business or a huge enterprise, you are always trying to build up the emotional excitement of your product.  It just seems there are some products and industries where this comes a little more naturally.  Heroes on the sportsfield or battlefield create tremoundous loyatly and emotional excitement.  On such example is the hero from the game series Halo, Master Chief.   Halo is a video game for the XBOX made by Bungie Studios.

Here at AccuConference, we don't just look at the marketing aspects of how Microsoft and Bungie are promoting the newest installment to the series (Halo 3) in order to gain more marketing perspective.  We also decide to sit back, relax and enjoy the wave of hype and excitement before diving headfirst into the fictional world of Halo on September 25th.

September 25th is the day Halo 3 will be released, and there are some of us here at AccuConference who will be diving in and playing online.

Work Hard.  Play Hard.  Play Halo 3 Harder.

See you online!

Communications Etiquette: Challenges of Changing Technology

Beware of the communications faux pas that occur when a new technology or form of communication takes hold and goes mainstream in the business world.  Sometimes things that were accepted when the new form was being developed and moved forward, which generally happens in a more casual atmosphere, don't work when the tool becomes common in use in more formal settings.

Let's use text messaging as an example.  Some of the common text abbreviations like LOL (which could mean "laugh out loud” or “lots of love") just don't work, and could be considered offensive, in a business setting.  The classic example is to never say anything in text message or email for that matter that you would not say to someone's face, whether it is the person you are emailing or the person who you are talking about in the email.  This is because emails are a written record with your byline attached to them. These notes can be sent or forwarded purposefully or by mistake to others whom you might not want to know what you think about them.

Below are some good general rules for e-communication etiquette in the office.

  1. Use Instant Messaging and text messages only for short requests or immediate responses.
  2. Use email sparingly and don't expect people to respond right away.
  3. Use the phone for building rapport or to discuss delicate matters
  4. If you are going on travel and cannot be reached, leave phone and email answering messages that note this to anyone who might try to contact you.
  5. Do not use humor, sarcasm, or anything that might be considered flirtatious at work.  It might be misinterpreted and cause trouble.
  6. Do not use “emoticons” like smiley faces :) or frowny faces :( or other graphics in your emails, they make you look unprofessional.
  7. Keep a record of important decisions reached over the phone or via IM and print out a copy and file any important emails or messages.
  8. Don't say anything in an email or digital communication that you would not want to have read out loud in a staff meeting.