Asking the Right Questions
At this point in the semester, it’s easy to look at the task load (student project presentations held at the customers’ locations; document deposits and graduation; assignment and course grading) and ask, “Why did I do this to myself?” Of course, that’s not really the right question to ask. Every semester has some elements like this, and no matter how one schedules one’s own work, there are always potential surprises and overloads—because it’s a busy time for everyone else. So, let me not ask that question.
One of the things I did to myself was in the teaching realm. For the senior design projects, teams are expected to make final presentations of their work. In contrast to other faculty who schedule the presentations on campus as an academic activity, I encouraged the teams to schedule the presentations with the customer, at the customer’s site. With 19 teams, this means a lot of presentations outside of greater Lafayette, and several cases of multiple teams presenting at the same time in different cities. (If you know how to be in Hammond, Kokomo, and Lebanon at the same time, or get from one to the other in 15 minutes or less, please let me know.) Today was the first day of presentations, and a pleasant experience occurred. After two different team presentations (in different towns, for customers in different industries), spirited discussions ensued—not just between the team and the customer, but between different members of the customer group who represented different divisions, units, or work groups. You mean we haven’t fixed that problem yet? Can we get more communication between those groups? When can we implement that new device technology? Does changing or rerouting that form work to meet your information needs? Of course, it’s one thing for me to say that I have a research interest and published papers on information alignment in production systems and an information clutch to improve knowledge sharing. It’s quite different to have the project customers (doctors, nurses, purchasing managers, financial officers) to tie these concepts directly to their ongoing operations and what they should have done, or can do, about their organization. Reading my paper isn’t necessarily what they should be doing. Interacting with the students was what they should be doing. The organizations learn. The students learn. If I pay attention and listen well, I learn what will be the next research questions to ask and projects to study—not from literature reviews, but from captured practice and expressed pain and demonstrated knowledge gaps.
Members of the GROUPER Lab also talked about asking the right questions yesterday, but in a much less structured setting—our end-of-semester social event and potluck. (These events are now known as G4, or “GROUPER group get-together gathering”. No, I did not make that up.) We were treated to a number of surprises and unexpected treats, about the lives of GROUPERs outside of, or prior to, their life in the lab. Jake casually described the renovations to his house—not renovations they “had done,” but he and his wife had done them themselves. Yeah, we built the bunk beds. We just got this new counter top. Having the heated floor on in the morning is really pleasant in the winter. Yeah, she painted those portraits. Oh, yeah, I was in the marching band. (This is at a Big Ten university, where, of course, marching band is pretty serious stuff.)
That was only part of the evening’s lesson. Jeremi had been a cheerleader, and demonstrated a few of her favorites. Omar talked about daily life, social media, and 10 year old checkpoint monitors in Alexandria, Egypt during Arab Spring, and the various people he knows who are helping to shape the transitions there. In comparison to the various large families experienced by all of the other members of the lab, Liang told stories about “one-child” childhood, in Xi’an – oh yeah, where the terra cotta soldiers are. Of course, I didn’t know about most of this. Why not? “You didn’t ask.” Well, no, I guess I didn’t. Lab meetings are for project schedules for upcoming research projects, and task timelines for conference and journal papers, and professional development advising regarding jobs and networking and identifying research topics. As the students said last night, the G4s are good for a different type of learning, and a different kind of exploration. It seems clear that the lab does something different during G4, and something that, although it doesn’t directly advance the professional activity or research impact factor of GROUPER, helps improve the coherence and mutual respect and awareness of what the members of the lab can do. Laughter and food helps, too.
In how many countries could we have G4 parties, now and the next 10 years? (I guess that makes them G5: Global GROUPER Group Get-together Gatherings.) Where will GROUPERs be, and what will they be able to influence and affect, over that time? Those sound like great questions to consider… experientially, and not just academically.