grouperlab

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Category: Information alignment

Weekend Balance #1: Learning the Right Things

Approximately 5:30 Friday (yesterday) evening, I told my unit chief that I was headed out for the evening and weekend.  That was not only okay, it was expected; I’d been heading into work 11 hours earlier to work on a very active set of reports from the day’s activity in Japan, which I summarized and sent out to our colleagues.  (Ah, the joy of nearly 24 hour coverage due to time zone differences: the Japanese Embassy in Tokyo starts to wind down about the same time that the first folks in Washington are getting on the Metro to start their work day.)  He surprised me by encouraging me not to think about work for a couple of days as I went to a concert and planned for a quiet time at home.  Well, those who know me will recognize an immediate disconnect: Barrett to not think about work for whole days at a time?

Well, that is a challenge these days, for multiple reasons.  It’s actually something that we discussed in a couple of our (distributed, online) lab meetings last fall, about finding appropriate forms of balance and mechanisms for taking care of one’s internal resources.  Now, it would have rung hollow if I were to take 3-4 hours on Christmas Day to write up a blog entry on work-life balance.  (Don’t worry.  I spent much of the day with a roaring fire, computer games, and lots of cookies.)

When I woke up this (Saturday) morning, I was looking forward to coming out to the kitchen to a waiting blanket of snow, to make some tea and settle in for a quiet day… of typing up notes and responding to Purdue emails and designing new projects.  That is a day off?  Well, it is a day away from reading media reports of Japan – Korea tensions or considering meeting preparations for trilateral engagement.   But on the other hand, the truth is that I have somehow set myself to try to manage two full-time jobs.  How does that really work?

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McPherson Square, with the first snow of the season: a good day for learning.

One of the first recognitions is the difference between what I want and what is, and if there is a gap between the two, what do I want / choose to do about it?  The truth is, I specifically chose the Jefferson Science Fellowship opportunity as a unique experience to expose me to activity and opportunity that I could not get in my past patterns at Purdue, with a few grad students and departmental responsibilities and a few obligations to the state of Indiana.  Those aren’t bad things, but there was a gap that needed to be addressed.  (When I return to Purdue, there will be another gap, because for me to return to exactly the set of activities I left this past August would be a waste of this experience, no matter how familiar, or comfortable, or well-prepared I am for them.)

I am seeing this recognition in another context when I think about the experiences of my students.  To be here, in Washington DC, is more than anything an experience of learning.  And sometimes, learning takes up all of my time: it is one of my primary job tasks.  Learning is also a task that takes focus, and discipline, and patience.  I’m not just talking about the process of collecting a bunch of facts for later regurgitation, which is what most students think of in the context of taking a class for a grade.  I mean a deeper learning, about context and discernment and recognizing what aspect of this pattern is important, and real, and valuable for me to integrate into a larger whole.

Well, that can be a process of life discipline, which then applies to everything.  Learning is about noticing how I balance on one leg during morning exercise, or how well I could run through the cold last night to catch the bus or rail, or… how I improve the management of the lab.

It’s often been suggested that I have a casual approach to managing the lab.  Actually, this is not true.  I could insist on clocked hours, minimum amounts of in-person time in the lab, weekly reports, and any number of other rules.  Some people actually have de-selected the lab because I don’t have lots of those rules.  As I experience this year as an immersion in this bureaucracy, I recognize that it’s not that students don’t learn anything if I impose such rules; however, it’s clear that they can easily learn the wrong things.  Did you reflect on the task, or simply put in the time?  Did you embrace the difficulty as a form of instruction, or simply as a burden?  Do you examine the situation as a system with gaps in design or execution of objective functions, or just complain about how “they” don’t care about (fill in the blank with whatever you feel is important from your local perspective)?  Do you even think about what the various objective functions are?

As a result, I now have a much deeper appreciation of what choices are being made when one of the members of the lab considers taking on a full time job at various stages of her/his graduate professional progression.  These are not trivial decisions, and there are various reasons why someone may need to choose to work at a job during one’s graduate career.  And I’m not casual in my feelings about this.  But I need the student to learn the right lessons, and I have learned (with both students, and children, and other organizational participants) that the right lesson comes from a well-designed combination of the teacher, the student, and the lesson (there is an interesting book on this called The Seven Laws of Teaching, originally published in 1884.  Read widely, question deeply.)

One of the lessons is that getting a PhD is about learning to think about questions, and developing answers, that others have not done so.  If you can’t work your way all the way through your own dissertation topic and method and analysis and interpretation, you really don’t deserve the PhD.  Yes, your advisor can help you, but if you need your advisor to give you all of the steps, then it’s not your PhD.  (Thanks, I already have my own, and I don’t feel the need for another.)  Another lesson is that very few people outside of academia, or those who do not have a PhD already, really understand what that first lesson is about.  There is just a different way of thinking and working going on.  Not bad, not good, just different.  So, if you’re used to approaching the world with one set of priorities and tools, and you move to another place where people don’t approach the world that way, you’re going to have to shift back and forth… and most people don’t shift back and forth among ways of thinking that well.

On the other hand, given how much I think about rules and lessons and managing and studying humans for a living, if there is a rule or insight or lesson I try to share, it’s usually not just for the sake of the rule.  (See above.)  That’s not casual either.   If there is a disagreement between myself and a student on a dissertation topic, or methodological approach, or insight available from a course, there is a possibility that the student is right and is operating based on information not available to me.  (In other words, they are good and working in an alternative domain.)  However, one observation of learning the right vs. wrong lesson is when I see students trying to fulfill the letter of a rule, but miss the spirit; or try to avoid the rule because it’s not ideal or fun or convenient (or “fair”?); or argue with me about how my accumulated experience is not relevant for a particular case.  Again, there may be reasons why any of those is correct.  But, to be honest, that’s not likely, and what concerns me more is, what lesson is the student learning or trying to execute?

So, as I move forward through 2017, there are lots more lessons to learn, and quite a few gaps to examine and determine how I might want to resolve them.  I admit that I am nowhere near content with my resolution of how to perform both Purdue vs J Desk jobs ideally.  (One lesson is, I really want to do this J Desk job really well, because that is the priority and opportunity available to, and surrounding, me now.  I care about the Purdue version / job, but it’s hard for me to do that full time too, and still care for my health and sleep and eat properly.  So it slips in priority right now… but I know that’s only for a year, not for an indefinite shift as a career.  That’s a lesson also for the students.)

Lessons are, in fact, about resolving gaps—not just gaps of factual knowledge, but gaps of how experience can affect interaction with the world.  I continue to explore how to find the right gaps, and resolve them in good and effective ways, to solve the right problems.  That’s a fairly comforting and happy thought for me as an engineer.  And although we didn’t get as much snow as I might have hoped, I can improve my recognition of what gaps were most important for me to close today.

 

 

Huddle Up!

(Also known as “Notes on a train,” otherwise described as the experiences of being on the Amtrak Northeast Corridor commuter rail system finishing a work task while watching the cities roll past.)

 

Although it is the middle of football season, my first thought these days when I hear the word “huddle” is not of grass-stained uniforms or winning touchdown drives, but of men and women in suits in an office or conference room with pads of paper.  They are, in fact, one of the primary ways that State Department offices keep themselves organized and updated.  I find these huddles fascinating for that reason; both the similarities and the differences compared to GROUPER meetings are critically important to me.  Yes, the leader wants to hear from everyone, and there can be moments of banter and amusing references to recent activities (including those grass-stained uniforms).  However, what differs is also important, especially as I consider what I’m learning now and what I will bring back to Purdue next year.

 

A primary difference: why is it that a weekly 9-12 person huddle at State can take as little as 20-40 minutes, or that in a schedule-fluxing day, a five-person huddle can be completed in 14 minutes?  I had a sense that the reason had something to do with the experience, expertise, and professionalism of the team members.  At first, I thought it was that these teams were not getting involved in the messiness of the scrum activity of recognizing and responding to problems; I was informed, though, that this was not correct.  Yes, there are problems, and one purpose of the huddle is to inform the leader[1] when there is a situation that needs to be “escalated” in ways that only the leader has access or resources to accomplish.  It’s not the formal structure of an agenda: most huddles I’ve attended only have advanced communication at the level of “9:15 Huddle”.

 

No, the professionalism takes a very different form: one of preparation.  I have begun to notice that, on each pad of paper, there was a set of bullet points set off and highlighted about specific topics.  In each case, these bullet points seem to evolve into “what do I want my person to know about this topic, and what is the BLUF (bottom line up front) that I can share in 10-20 seconds?”  (Lest you dismiss this style of work as old-fashioned just because it’s on paper, keep in mind that some of our meetings are held in rooms where electronic devices are not permitted.)  The leader may ask about a particular topic, or provide additional “top-down” updates, but this upward-flowing expertise is of vital importance.

 

Those who have spent time in GROUPER know that I directly address the distinctions of people, products, and projects in my interactions.  Huddles aren’t professional development focused on people, although one may hear about when someone will be out or unavailable or otherwise tasked.  There is a recognition of ongoing projects, with timelines ranging from days to months.  But there is substantial focus on products: things due this week, or tomorrow, or maybe even in a couple of hours.  (Remind me to write about “paper” sometime soon.)  Huddles usually don’t get moved due to such deadlines, although they may be shortened.  That also seems to be a fundamental aspect of the professionalism—a strong sense of, and respect for, both time and advance information as critical resources for effective recognition and response to dynamic events.

 

So, whether we are working to 2-3 day deadlines for paper, or highlighting preparation for international efforts requiring 4 months of preparation, it’s not just the product deadline cycle that drives efficiencies in huddles.  I can’t generate the type of experience that a consular officer gets when trying to evacuate citizens after an earthquake or during political instability.  But I do think there is a fundamental difference between “what do I need from my person” and “what does my person need from me” that is of significant importance here.  Good huddles tend to focus on the latter?  Stay tuned.


[1] Actually, the term “leader” is rarely used at State.  I hear “principal” a lot, and I will admit that I have a certain reluctance to t calling someone my “boss”.  So, let me use “person” as a very generic term of a member / leader in greater authority and responsibility in the huddle.

Superposition

With a flourish and frenzy of activity, the cycle has completed itself and begun once more.  This week, of course, was particularly hectic.  On Tuesday, we in GROUPER were pleased to celebrate Liang’s successful defense of her dissertation (now to finish the writing!), and after a 2-hour lab meeting, I went home and got some pleasure reading in.  Wednesday was a travel day, with challenges of unstable weather leading to one canceled flight, and ground stops due to ramp closures at both the start and finish of the second leg of the trip.  Hours late, but with the air cooled from the rain, I finally finished the trip and got home for a good night’s sleep.

 

“Hold it.  You were at home, then you got stuck during thunderstorms, and finished the trip, and went home?  Did you not get to your destination?  Was your trip canceled?”

 

Even as I write this entry, there is a type of surrealism about this week.  I’m sitting in one of the chairs I have had for over five years, with Amber on my lap, looking at her cat tree and food and a bunch of other items I clearly recognize.  The window still faces east, but the image is different: instead of an empty parking lot across the street, I see a tall tree and an office building.  In other words, the shift has now occurred.  Amber and I have moved to Washington, DC to start my position as a Jefferson Science Fellow.  My first day is next Monday, and I have begun enjoying the exploration of the neighborhoods of McPherson Square and Thomas Circle, and picking up coffee and pastry and fruit at the White House Street Market.

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Amber exploring the new window view

My world is changing significantly, and yet some things remain consistent.  I am still an engineering faculty member, but I am thinking about a completely different set of issues this August compared to last August.  Our lab meeting addressed a very interesting topic based on students’ recent experiences, and one that I will be considering very hard in the coming months.  Academia, government, and industry are considered vastly different places, and representing wildly divergent career paths for those with PhDs.  And yet, we’re taught (and have first hand experience) that a variety of people all craft their actions, decisions, and processing of information based on perceived risks, costs, and outcome benefits.  There’s only one challenge.  The benefits that drive most industry teams (profit—hey, I hear the new Aston Martins are really nice) don’t come into play at all for most academic or government folks, and the primary risk keeping academic folks up at night (someone already published my idea in that journal I love!) don’t seem to bother industry or government people much.  A government employee may complain bitterly about the costs of having to work 5-10 hours of overtime one week; many academics and industry research folks take a 60-70 hour average work week as pretty much standard.

 

You may notice that the website (http://www.grouperlab.org) looks very different than a few months ago; that took us a while to work through.  Elliott, our wonder-undergrad, did a pretty thorough redesign and architecture job, but what was more important was not just the scripting language or tab sequences.  We went back to a very basic question: who comes to our lab’s website?  Three different types of groups (yes, it’s that “use case” thing) want distinct types of information, at varying grain sizes.  Even our own GROUPER alums represent different types of interaction profiles.  We’ve got government employees seeing how our work can inform improvements for federal agencies.  GROUPERs are also rising up the ranks in industry, and may be in a position to hire a new or recent grad (in this sense, GROUPER is definitely a distinct and valued brand).  With the lab’s traditional gender mix (somewhere approaching 2/3 female), it’s not surprising that a number of alumnae list their primary function right now as “Mom”.  I see no reason to hide that, or feel guilty or ashamed to highlight such life pathways.  If everything is a system, and GROUPERs look at information everywhere, can’t those skills be applied to everything from medical information use for family members, to understanding the daily experiences of neurodiversity, to getting a front-row seat to the miracles of how humans develop broad processes of learning and skill development sets in ways that still challenge our most sophisticated machine learning algorithms.

 

Over the next few months, the GROUPER blog will be more active again, but it won’t be focusing as much just on our current lab research.  We’re still researching, of course, but we have other stories to tell, and other forms of impact and effect to consider for how we get, share, and use the information we’ve been gathering and lessons we’ve been learning.  Thanks for visiting us again after our quiet period.  Hey, it gets busy learning how to be in multiple places at once.

 

Move ’em Out!

In another context, this entry might be seen as “hijacking” the normal GROUPER blog. However, this is a very compatible issue, based on an activity that I have been asked to lead as a member of the Executive Council of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES). This activity is an experimental initiative called “Scout the Future”.   So, why do we want to go on a scouting expedition? HFES is a fairly small professional society, with about 5000 members. However, our impact expands throughout the range of home and work environments, including everything from safety improvements in transportation, products, devices, and workplaces, to enhancing our understanding of perception, cognition, biomechanics and decisions in the full range of home, play, and work throughout the lifecycle. That’s a lot. How do we get our voice out, and communicate with the larger world in a proactive way?

 

Over the past few years, this has been an important and critical concern (“existential” in the sense of our self definition and worry about the future of the HFES itself), especially as we consider the evolution of the discipline to a world of younger professionals who are working in industry contexts of apps and services and products (rather than primarily academics working with government grants and large-scale system developments). How do we adapt ourselves to such an environment? Well, this question came up during a strategic planning exercise just before the 2013 HFES Annual Meeting in San Diego. Frequently, a response to such questions is to set up a task force of very senior people who are charged to figure out the future of the organization and what to do with it. (In fact, that is what HFES has done.) However, there is other research and industry perspectives that suggests that such approaches are not great at identifying or tracking new and disruptive technologies or social trends. Also, examples such as the Lockheed Skunk Works suggest that taking a group of people outside of formal organizational structures may be an effective way of enabling radical innovations. So, I suggested the concept of a scouting expedition…

 

What if we did something else?

 

My “something else” is based on an imagined scouting expedition, not unlike the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore and map the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase Territory and understand the lands between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. As an exploration into the unknown, what and who and how much did Lewis and Clark want? Lots of provisions, of course—weapons, sample containers, pencils and paper, items for trade, salt for preserving food… and expertise. The right amount of a diverse set of experts, who could work well together. Not five people: too much material to carry, and too hard for all the expertise required to be available in such a small group. Not five hundred: that’s a bureaucratic organization, with poor lines of communication and unclear distributions of responsibilities. The Corps of Discovery, as the group was described, was about three dozen folks, and they were chosen well. Given the risks and dangers of scouting an unknown expanse with the limited capabilities of the first decade of the 19th Century, the Corps returned intact, with unparalleled growth in understanding of the continent of North America.

 

Now, when we talk about addressing Global Grand Challenges, or increasing the relevance of human factors in the cyber age, there is a similar expanse of unknown facing us. However, unlike the charge to map the physical wilderness of a continent, this challenge is one of mapping a philosophical territory known as the future. It’s said that humans are bad at making predictions, especially about the future. In fact, I think that’s one of the most significant mistakes we can make, to try to predict specific outcomes. We tend to overestimate technology trends, and underestimate or misread social change. We don’t recognize the impact of “black swans”. We try too hard to guess right in the details, and we get some major factors wrong in the grand picture. No one in the Corps of Discovery woke up one morning and said, “the area on the other side of that river looks like a good place for wheat farming. Let’s tell someone to build a city there… call it Rapid City”. There was no task force to determine the creation of a National Lab, or the potato lobby, or blue football fields, in that place we’ll designate as Idaho. You map the territory, create a good set of observations about how different it might be from expectations, and draw good pictures and tell good stories. (“No, really. We waited all day for the herd of bison to finish going by. You couldn’t see the ground, or hear anything else. You may want to pay attention to that.”)

 

On that train of graphite and glitter,

Undersea by rail!

Ninety minutes from New York to Paris:

By ’76 we’ll be A-OK….

 

Just machines that make great decisions,

Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.

We’ll be clean when that work is done:

Eternally free, yes, and eternally young.

   From “What a Beautiful World / IGY”, by Don Fagen (putting actual predictions from 1957-58 to music)

 

What happened to those wonderful predictions? No undersea rail: drastically harder than expected. The only aircraft that could do the trip at that speed ceased operations over cost per seat and environmental concerns. No automated decision making. Would we have been better off with it, even if it were possible? People aren’t purely rational, and thus how would a rational machine handle a missile crisis? Revolutions in Africa and Asia? How would such a machine distinguish between Idi Amin and Nelson Mandela, or between a Shah and an Ayatollah?

 

I don’t want to make those mistakes. But I do want to do something better in terms of exploration and scouting, with those who are better in touch with the future… because they are helping to create it. (Yes, another quote: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” by Alan Kay, who gave us the computer mouse.)

 

Those of you who have spent time with me know that I like to “scan and connect”. The more I find to scan and connect, the better I do. But this isn’t just for me. It’s about creating a network of ideas and elements and people who move the edge of what’s possible in discussing the society. I posted in the first entry of the GROUPER Blog why the lab wouldn’t be tweeting anytime soon. The timing, activity level, and distribution were wrong. But now, there is an HFES Social Networking expert to help us, and a HFES LinkedIn community of discussions. So, let’s try it. I now have a Twitter account: @BSC_HFES_Scout.

 

BSC Scout

BSC in Scout Mode

 

Communication and Documentation (longer, connection-enhanced version)

Communication and Documentation

 

[I am feeling a bit like Chuck Lorre, the producer for several extremely popular television series, including the The Big Bang Theory (TBBT).  Chuck has “vanity cards” which appear very briefly at the end of each episode of the shows.  These vanity cards express Chuck’s perspectives, insights, and fevered rants on a variety of topics, and basically act like a blog.  Since I record TBBT quite extensively (any similarities I have to Sheldon Cooper will be, and have been, hotly contested), I have gotten good at pausing the recording to read the card.  Every once in a while, the card makes some reference to censoring, but with a website address to indicate where you can read the uncensored version of the card.  When I first created the “Communication and Documentation” entry for the Indiana Space Grant Consortium Director’s Blog / Notes, it was pointed out that it was long and tangential and wouldn’t appeal to some of the readers.  Well, in Chuck Lorre fashion, I edited the blog entry for that audience, but here’s the full version.  Why?  It’s GROUPER—so, it’s because I can.  And those of you in GROUPER will recognize Karim and know why Shannon and Weaver are important.  So there.  –BSC]

 

“Document your code!”

 

This is a lesson I remember from my first computer programming course as a college frosh, now more than 30 years ago.  The language was FORTRAN, and the computer was a PDP 11/44[*] but the lessons were the same.  If you didn’t provide enough comments in your code for the instructor to understand what your logic was intended to accomplish, or what the variables meant, or what that subroutine was for, you got points off.  The essential message was not subtle: no matter how good a job you think you did, you haven’t done the whole job unless you’ve effectively documented it.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve had substantial reminders of the importance of those lessons of communication and documentation.

 

Since the Affiliates’ Meeting in April, the INSGC staff have been trying to upgrade our processes and activities, and bringing onboard a new set of student interns for the summer.  Part of this comes from our Affiliates’ survey of communications with the Central Office.  Although the overall responses were excellent (from the perspective of demonstrating to NASA that we take our performance seriously and assess it regularly), there were some areas of concern (from the perspective of continuous improvement and achieving a model of excellence).   It’s clear that we could use our website to better advantage, and thus that is a priority for us this summer.  Angie has reported a much more timely and useful set of responses to our requests for reporting, due in part to our more clear presentations of what, when, and why we need those reports to meet our NASA grant reporting and documentation obligations.  Wow… we can get that much more just by being more explicit about what we’re looking for, and how we need to use it?

 

Effective communication is a tricky thing.  Some people like their documentation “spiced up” a little bit; others just want the immediate facts, in order, with an agenda of what will be covered and how many minutes are associated to each fact.   I just had two conversations this weekend highlighting these challenges.  On Friday, I had dinner with one of my former students, who recently started a new job at a major hospital as a quality engineering and improvement manager.  He noted that some of the physicians and others at the hospital were frustrated with some of his meetings, because they couldn’t see how, or whether, there was a point to the meeting and what they were supposed to recognize and respond to that point.  (Interesting: that was, almost verbatim, one of the comments from our Affiliates’ survey.)  He said that those people would have found our research lab meetings intolerable, but he then took the feedback as an indication to simply write down what he already had in his head and give it a more formal structure as a meeting agenda.   I have had to learn the same lesson in our INSGC Central meetings and those with Dawn and Angie—it’s the agenda that helps focus time and understanding, and improves advanced preparation.

 

What level of communication works for you?  A friend of mine commented on my software commenting style over the weekend, because I was the only person they’d known who actually used “emotion” and eloquent language structures in their code [†]comments.  On the one hand, there is a big world of language out there, and it’s nice to be able to use it well and communicate richly.  On the other hand, one doesn’t want to turn into Dennis Miller as the color commentator for Monday Night Football, making snarky or esoteric literary references that even your colleagues don’t understand, when all they wanted to say was that it was good that the guy in the blue uniform tackled that guy in the white uniform.  Do people find your style amusing and intelligent, or obscure and elitist?  This is an important question when you’re trying to do public outreach and engagement for the general population.  There are lots of different audiences (faculty and students who receive awards, administrators who want to know effectiveness of campus cost sharing, people who stop you on the street and ask you questions about airspace utilization), and I want to learn how to connect with them all.

 

Is this where I mention that one of our primary ways of regular communication with our affiliates, partners, and friends is the INSGC Director’s Blog?  I try to put together a new blog entry every month or so, and use it to communicate some of our strategic concerns and general oversight topics.  Great, right?  Except that Dawn told me a few days ago that people don’t look at the blog entries.  (That is the point of website analytics—is anyone actually receiving the message you’re sending?)  Well, if we never updated the blog, that would be the expectation.  Or, if it was assumed that nothing important ever showed up there.  But what if I said that the best way to see what we’re planning for (and why) will show up first, or best, or most explicitly, in that Director’s Blog?  Would that get more visits?  Perhaps, but the goal of the blog is not more visits.  It’s to communicate more effectively with our constituents.

 

According to information theory (as developed by Bell Laboratory researcher Claude Shannon and MIT professor Norbert Weiner), communication includes a sender, a transmission channel, and a receiver.  There have to be several effective elements of good communication:  the sender has to send a message that is meaningful to the receiver; the channel must be able to support that message; there has to be a minimum of noise or signal loss to distort the message; there has to be enough redundancy of the message so that the receiver understands the intent of the message even if some of it gets lost.  (This seems very tangential to the point of anything else relevant for Space Grant Directors.  However, it’s actually part of my research background and training.  For me, the analysis of communication effectiveness is a social and technical engineering problem, and not just a management or persuasion issue.  Remember, the message is based in part on the context of the sender as well as the context of the receiver.  I’m trying to explain more of my context in a more explicit way.  Any resemblance to Dennis Miller’s football color commentary is accidental.)

 

So, what next?  Over the rest of the summer, expect additional upgrades to our communications: not just in the use of the available technologies, but in our strategies, messages, and references.  This is a critical point in Space Grant evolution, and I believe that one of the ways that INSGC will succeed in the future is to be a powerful and effective source of communication and documentation of STEM engagement in the State of Indiana.

 

 


[*] The specifics here are only to suggest that I have been a geek for a very long time.  Some of you may fondly remember coding in FORTRAN, or even what a PDP is.  If you don’t, just think of it as part of that quaint long-ago time when there were pay phones that people used coins to operate when they weren’t at home to access their permanently wired landline phone.

[†] Yes, these are the sorts of friends I spend my time with.  We talk about styles of software comments, and mathematical models of information exchange in company meetings, and the use of multi-dimensional graphs to understand social dynamics.  Don’t judge.  It works for us.

Broad, Deep and Wide

Early Friday afternoon, I was riding back to the airport on the Metro Yellow Line in Washington, DC.  Somewhere between L’Enfant Plaza and Crystal City stops, an older man looks at me and asks, “Are you a Boilermaker?”

“Yes, I’m on the faculty there.”

Much to my surprise, he reaches out to shake my hand.  “I graduated from there… a long time ago.”  He smiled as he got up, and then got off at his stop.  I proceeded to look around at my bags, and noticed how he figured it out: my business card luggage tag was visible, with the Purdue University logo clearly showing.  I was glad to know that seeing such a reference to his alma mater was a source of pleasure for this gentleman, and I do take those moments to reflect on the nature of the experience.   As it turns out, it was the third interaction in less than 24 hours where someone sought me out for interaction due to the Purdue reference.

In the hotel lobby Thursday evening, I was introduced to the MS advisor of the IE Undergraduate Coordinator, Patrick Brunese.  There was no mention of football, though Pat went to the University of Alabama.  (You may recall that their football team won a particular football game earlier this week.)  Instead, we talked about Pat’s interest in undergraduate IE education, and my attendance at the Industrial and Systems Engineering Research Conference.  (I do intend to attend at least part of the conference, but I do have the challenge of also wanting to attend my daughter’s university graduation.)  This morning, I had a discussion with a young faculty member who had heard of the interdisciplinary opportunities and sustained reputation of Purdue Engineering.  When I mentioned the current effort of the College to increase the faculty size by 30% in the next five years, and the fact that she could find interested colleagues in Biomedical, Electrical, and Industrial Engineering (along with opportunities in the College of Science), she was hooked, and even grateful to me for taking the time to speak with her about it.  I replied that I remember what it felt like to be “young, hungry, and grateful,” and wanted to provide whatever advice and mentorship I could.

I admit that when I was at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico earlier this week, there was some sports talk.  But I was there for a formal talk and project work, including discussions regarding monitoring and procedure checking / validation tasks, and processes of distributed knowledge coordination and knowledge sharing.

These are examples of a more focused connection, and part of the level of Purdue recognition that focuses on our engineering reputation.  There are over 400,000 Purdue alumni, 80,000 Engineering alumni, and over 8,000 IE alumni… pretty large numbers overall.  But it’s not just number, or breadth of reach: we seem to be overrepresented in various circles (such as NASA or NSF, Sandia National Labs, or the “C-suites” of various companies) where I might interact. So, I continue a practice I learned long ago, and maintain the habits and rituals associated with Purdue representation (business cards, Block P pins, “Hail Purdue” mentions during formal presentations).  We’re widely visible, and widely influential, as a university and engineering program.  Why is this important for the GROUPER blog?

When we are doing our work, people notice, and take some notice of (and if they’re Purdue folks, maybe some pride in) it.  They expect a Purdue person to be very good. As I say to the undergrads, the reputation that people know about and want to benefit from is borne on the shoulders of the history of past work and recognition.  In my formal Sandia presentation, I talked about some of the prior GROUPER work in information alignment, root cause analysis, and event response.  There were some very busy periods of note-taking, and challenging questions that not just addressed straightforward aspects of human error and performance shaping factors, but also more fundamental queries about the nature of complex system development, analysis, and evaluation.  And of course, on every slide, there was the Purdue College of Engineering logo, the “Rethink IE” logo, and the GROUPER “data fish” logo.

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Over the coming semester, we plan to increase our rate of posting—not just my various commentaries (once per month still seems the right rate for me), but to have other opportunities to highlight what is happening in the lab from a variety of sources.  The goal is not actually just to broaden our discussion, but to address issues in a more focused way, from a variety of perspectives.  Let’s see how that works.

Summer Drives

Welcome back.

I don’t know if I have gotten used to it yet, even as I begin my 12th year on the Purdue campus.  Tomorrow is August 31, and we’re now finishing our second week of classes.  (My daughter, who is at the University of Wisconsin (where I was faculty before here), starts a week from today.  Just that difference in mentality regarding when the “Fall” semester starts seems to have a significant effect on cognitive, emotional, and social patterns of awareness and activity.  (In fact, this idea was one of the contributing elements at the foundation of our research on information alignment and information clutch factors affecting task coordination in organizations.)  The ramp up of demand may or may not match your increase in readiness for that demand, and if you’re not careful, that could cause falling into a task deficit “hole” that is extremely hard to climb out of later in the busy semester.  (Ah, yes, that would be my undergraduate controls course, talking about feedback systems and response dynamics to input functions.)

Every once in a while, my mind takes one of these enjoyable side trips, and it can lead to interesting research insights.  Members of the lab sometimes go along with me on these trips, which often involve discussions of mathematical definitions and relationships, as well as empirical or analytical planning and research designs.  For instance… let’s talk about what dispersion means, and how it applies to production systems.  Hey, does digital signal processing help us manipulate the timing and synchronization of entire files, rather than simple waveforms?  Can we link student advising questions to convolution functions that describe knowledge transfer?

A real advantage of the beginning of this academic year is that most of GROUPER is back intact.  Almost everyone was gone at some point: Natalie was in Germany (at Alcoa); Omar was in Egypt (finishing a Master’s at Alexandria and getting married); Jeremi was in Washington (at NSF); Kelly was in Cincinnati (at P&G) Jake was in San Diego (at SPAWAR); Liang even got to return to Xi’an China to see her family.  We’ve graduated two students since the Spring Equinox. Jeff Onken defended his dissertation (although he was already working at Northrup Grumman) and completed a final presentation to his committee.  Melvis Chafac completed her Hong Kong-based Master’s research writeups, and was off to MIT a few weeks ago after campus and conference presentations.   Now, we’re back in lab meetings, telling stories and sharing / renewing the culture of the lab.  (“Good idea / Bad idea” seems to be the best description of these culture shaping stories.)  Even though there’s no one new, the reasons for the stories still exist.

Things get much busier after this week.  I’ve taken on new responsibilities, both on campus and in the larger community.  (Yes, we’ll tell you; however, I’d like to wait for the official updates.)  I think I won’t be going much of anywhere this weekend—football season starts, but we’re also awaiting the arrival of a guest named Isaac.  Not great weather for a drive… unless of course you’re talking about a series of running plays from the Purdue offense.

Delays and Synchrony

In our first post, we talked about how our research inspired us to start a GROUPER Blog to provide you with updates more frequently than our journal and conference publications.  We anticipate that the various projects going on in the world are moving faster than the year-long or half-year-long publication cycle permits us to get updates out to the designers.  In the previous post, Dr. Caldwell discussed the idea of people’s perception of waiting.  In this post, we will combine these two ideas with a discussion of waiting during information sharing.  We have talked about aligning the update frequencies of the design and our research output, and we have talked about what people feel when they wait.  Today, we will present our perspectives of a second timing concept, delay.

Delay, lag, latency, and lateness are all words that describe the fact that information does not arrive instantaneously to its intended receiver.  We can go into detail about why this is always true in another post, but to keep things brief we will limit today’s discussion to obvious cases of delay.  Consider cases where e-mails are sent across the Internet, voice mails are left for our family members, satellite news video feeds are transmitted up to orbit and back down on the other side of the world, and memos and documents are shared between team members.  All of these cases experience some large or small amount of delay between when the sender generates information and when the receiver gets that information.

When there is delay, people have to compensate so that they can still do their job well.  The degree to which they have to compensate depends on the medium of communication.  GROUPER classifies communication media two ways:  synchronous media and asynchronous media.  Synchronous media are those in which the sender and receiver wait for each other to send messages and receive messages.  Telephone conversations, chat-room messages, television and radio, and face-to-face communication are all synchronous.  The receiver can sometimes process the message as the sender is generating it, as in the case of a face-to-face message or telephone conversation.  Other times, the receiver must wait for the sender to compose and send the message, as in the chat-room message, but the receiver is still listening and waiting for the message.

In contrast, asynchronous media are those in which the senders do not wait for the receivers to get their message and respond.  This is because the senders can expect the delay in the communication to be longer than they are willing to sit there and wait.  E-mail, voice mail, postal mail, memos and documentation, and blogs are all asynchronous.  When dealing with asynchronous media, the sender can send a message and forget about it, moving on to other tasks.  The receiver can work on her tasks and forget about the sender until she decides to check for, or the medium notifies her of, a new message.

This is not going to turn into a physics / philosophy discussion about whether two events can actually be truly simultaneous.  Our focus is on whether the delay between events is meaningful compared to the time involved in the task requiring the information flow.  This depends on the task itself, and not just the total amount of delay.  If I’m listening to a stereo CD, or watching a video with audio track, a few tens of milliseconds makes a huge difference in my perceptual system’s experience of synchronous behavior.  However, if I send out documents before going on a week-long vacation “off the grid,” it doesn’t matter to me whether the responses take an hour or six days.  The GROUPER emphasis is on whether delay interrupts one’s cycles of task performance, with time spent waiting rather than doing.

On occasion, we experience a shift in the media, for example when sending an e-mail at work, we might receive a very quick reply.  We then reply quickly ourselves, and, for a short period, the e-mail medium becomes more like an instant-message (synchronous) medium.  However, GROUPER still classifies e-mail as asynchronous in general because at any moment the two communicators may leave the communication without the other being aware of it.  We’ve experienced both the unexpected reply to a late-night email, and the frustration and change in expectation when we realize that work time for us is either sleep or holiday time for someone else, and that is why they’re not available.

Neither synchronous media nor asynchronous media is always better than the other, but each have specific situations in which they are better and should be used.  For example, if the goal of the news channel is to deliver news to viewers faster than their competitors can, then they will want to forgo the option of editing the satellite news feeds from the reporter on-location and tolerate the delay in the live feed.  If the goal is to provide a company-wide notice of a new corporate policy, it may be best to not interrupt daily tasks, but to leave an e-mail for all employees for when they have a moment to really absorb it—and not require them to drop their tools and listen, for example.

The challenge that GROUPER has identified with regard to synchronous and asynchronous media is that, when communication has enough delay, it is not only disruptively long, but the receiver must nevertheless wait for the message to come through the medium before he can continue his work.  The receiver can also unknowingly continue to work in the environment with information that is either incorrect or incomplete.  For example, telemedicine can be both synchronous and asynchronous.  Telemedicine, or distance medicine, involves the use of technology to enable patients to communicate with their physicians and physicians to communicate with other healthcare professionals.  Telemedicine is synchronous when a patient communicates with his physician in real time via videoconferencing.  All of the information shared between the two parties is both timely and accurate and does not hinder the physician’s capacity to make informed decisions regarding the patient’s care—unless the patient is withholding certain information.  (See Vallette et al. (2011) for more information.)  Telemedicine can also be asynchronous, for example when two physicians, a primary care physician and a specialist, are communicating regarding a patient’s care and using email-like store-and-forward technology in order to share the patient’s medical history documents.  While using this technology allows the specialist to view the documents on her own time, the patient might come into the primary care physician’s office with an emergency, and the specialist might not see any change in the patient’s medical documents in time for the patient’s next visit.  Then she might make a diagnosis based on outdated information.  The specialist would never intend, of course, to make a misdiagnosis, but, unfortunately, in this case she may not know the whole story because of the nonroutine visit by the patient.  Without respect for the medical-document medium as an asynchronous medium, the specialist is more likely to forget that she may not always have the most up-to-date information.

Further reading:

Caldwell, B. S. (2008).  Knowledge sharing and expertise coordination of event response in organizations.  Applied Ergonomics 39, pp 427-438.

Vallette, M. A., Chafac, M. N., Benedict, A. J. & Caldwell, B. S. (2011). Reducing barriers to knowledge sharing among healthcare professionals and patients. Proceedings of the Industrial Engineering Research Conference. Reno, Nevada: Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc.

Information Alignment

Since this is the first post to the GROUPER Blog, there is no better time to talk about its purpose.  In GROUPER, we talk every day about information:  its delivery to people so they can make decisions and how they share it with others so they can make better decisions together.  And so, GROUPER’s motto is “Studying how people get, share, and use information well.”

Lately, we have stressed the timing of that getting, sharing, and using information.  The importance of the timing of information is not all in the speed with which the receiver gets her information.  While speed is important, the frequency of her receiving information is often more important.  This update frequency is important whenever the receiver needs the information to do her own work—more often than not.

All people do their work in cycles, some long, some short.  A cycle in this case can be as long as a year if you are talking about project cycles or as short as a quarter-minute if you are talking about the discussion in a meeting.  The most recognizable and universal cycle is a work shift, which is a cycle of somewhere around eight hours.

In GROUPER, the concept of a work cycle is important, because we recognize that when a person receives information—such as directions from a supervisor, an outline of the day’s needed work, or a set of engineering requirements—he can usually start working right away according to that information.  By the time he needs more information to continue working, enough time has gone by that the information that he needs might be ready and waiting for him to request or retrieve it.  Another worker has the task of producing this information—directions, an outline, or requirements.  It is her job to produce information in time for those who need it.  She, in turn, needs information from somewhere else to do her job.  Even the highest-ranking managers need to communicate with others to make decisions in order to pass down information.  Therefore, all employees require information from someone else to do their job.  When workers get the needed information from others at or near the same time that they need it (that is, when their work cycle ends), those two workers are said to be in alignment.  GROUPERs specifically call it information alignment.

Consider a situation in which Ashley needs information from Prof. Caldwell to start working.  Once she receives that information, she might be able to work for five days autonomously before needing more information.  If Prof. Caldwell produces an email with the information that Ashley needs before those five days elapse, then Ashley can continue working seamlessly, and they are in alignment.

Now consider the set of scholars, practitioners and companies in the world that are interested in the work that GROUPER does.  If they are to work seamlessly across their work cycles, they need to work in roughly the half- or full-year-long cycles that GROUPER takes to produce successive journal and conference papers on our research topics.  We anticipate that this is too long, and that we need to produce commentary or reflective material on our research topics with a faster update frequency than currently possible by the peer-reviewed platforms offered by our favorite scholarly organizations.  On the other hand, we don’t plan on giving you tweet-style updates every few hours.  You don’t care what we’re having for lunch, and we don’t want to spend so much time tweeting that we never have time for our real work.  The best update frequency for our partners, customers, and potential collaborators is probably on the order of days or weeks—between the micro-scale of the tweet, and the macro-scale of the peer-reviewed paper.  Thus, this blog serves to help us align ourselves better with you.