grouperlab

Get, share, and use information well

Category: Purdue

Filling in the Blanks

How can it be that it’s been nearly 18 months since my last blog entry?  Well, I could wax philosophic, and point out that the path to such an outcome is like the path to other, more positive outcomes.  It’s an accumulation of daily habits, and a series of perhaps small, but sometimes very distinct, decisions.  So, a bit of a review of what’s been happening, and what lessons can be drawn from both the period of silence and what has filled that silence.

 

I’m a big fan of waiting for a big, dramatic highlight to emphasize in an announcement.  Back in November, 2014, I was applying for a campus-level directorship position; I was pretty excited about the opportunity, and the ways that I could use my skills to connect research, and STEM engagement, and educational improvements at K-12 and university levels.  I thought I was going to get the position.  I didn’t.  In retrospect, it’s not necessarily that I was a bad candidate for the job, but a bad match for the view (by others) of what the job needed.  This is actually an important distinction, and I am convinced that I had never actually seen the idea of not being selected for a position in that light before.   Well, a few weeks of anticipation were followed by days of anger and frustration, which in turned into a more circumspect view of job searches and candidate interviews no longer just being about showing that someone is “good enough” to be considered.  Imagine that all of the finalists may be “good enough,” in some generic sense, but every complex job is a combination of factors on a very large vector of possible criteria (utility), where different people involved in the selection (stakeholders) have different ideas of the importance (weights) of the criteria, and decide what “best” looks like (stakeholders maximizing their objective function according to their multi-attribute utility weighting).  I was a really good candidate for one version of the job.  I wasn’t the best candidate for another version of the job.  That doesn’t make me a good or bad candidate overall, and certainly not a bad person.  An important lesson to learn, but not one I was ready to write about in Spring 2015.

 

The lab was going through a significant shift in 2014-15, both conceptually and physically.  We spent the first half of calendar 2015 in Wang Hall, learning how to conduct a different type of meeting with a different configuration of students (three new, first year grad students with only four or five continuing students).  We’re back in Grissom Hall as of August 2015, but the only thing about the building that’s stayed the same on the inside is the walls and bricks and windows framing the building’s outer boundary.  And we’ve had to learn an even more interesting set of dynamics: we are now at a point where much of the lab’s activity officially qualifies as a distributed enterprise.  Dissertation-writing students are working in industry, and other doctoral students are doing co-ops, internships, and other work in multiple time zones.  Lab meetings and 1:1 individual interactions are more likely to occur in Google Hangouts than Grissom 335 (my new office) or the GROUPER dedicated lab space (which doesn’t exist).  So, we have had to learn new lessons about information alignment and distributed knowledge sharing.  That’s a topic for another entry, coming soon.

 

Believe it or not, the lesson learned about being a good candidate vs. a matching candidate for the job had to be taught to me again in 2015.  This time, the position was a campus administrative post, and again, I thought I was a very good match for a visionary leadership role in a broadly influential and interdisciplinary approach to the future of the campus.  Great, right?  Except that this objective function was apparently not aligned with the utility vector of critical stakeholders.    This is neither good nor bad, in itself.  (Remember what you just told them, Barrett.)  I do believe that the transition from anger to acknowledgement happened faster this time, and to be honest, it’s a lesson that does need a very strong reinforcement over multiple administrations for me to actually learn the meaning well.

 

Oh, there’s some outcome productivity in terms of field visits, and journal papers, and GROUPER degree completions.  However, I wouldn’t suggest scheduling MS thesis defenses by multiple students on consecutive days.  We succeeded last summer, and now the number of GROUPER MS thesis grads exceeds 30.  But I’m not likely to try that again soon—it’s a lot of reading, and a MS thesis is often as much a test and oral exam for the advisor as for the student.

 

In the end, I’m better off for it, and I think we in the lab have learned a number of very important and valuable lessons.  It can be dangerous if someone gets too much in the habit of doing without considering, or acting without accepting that both “success” and “failure” can be a benefit or blessing.  One of the challenging, and yet extremely beneficial, outcomes is that the two interviews required me to very explicitly consider the question of how to manage the lab, and in essence, examine what was an appropriate “carrying capacity” of GROUPER at this stage of my career.  (I’m probably more active than ever before, with GROUPER work and GROUPERs in 2015 supported by five federal agencies—AHRQ, FAA, NASA, NSF, VA; it’s not yet the “riding into the sunset” that I had previously considered.)  We’ve been practicing skills that I see in increasing frequency in industry, but not as much in academia—how to become easy and fluent with a team operating across geography, knowledge domain, and a variety of external constraints to be focused and robust to a variety of communication channel capabilities.

 

More coming soon.  I’m expecting a big announcement in a week or so.  No, really.

 

Brand Loyalty

After two days at the IIE Annual Conference in Montréal, I was heading to Atlanta early Tuesday morning for the FAA PEGASAS Center of Excellence Annual Meeting. The FAA meeting is for briefing our program managers about our recent progress and technical results; the IIE meeting is about much more. It’s about catching up with old colleagues, prior students, and interesting ideas. I found myself presenting some of Liang’s work in a technical session chaired by one of my academic grandchildren (one of Sandra Garrett’s advisees at Clemson), and becoming an impromptu moderator at Siobhan’s presentation. But, in a dinner discussion with Siobhan and Jake, and two students from Clemson, we also discussed what seems to be another big element of the IIE Meeting: the polo shirts.

 

I have spoken and written before about GROUPER as brand, as an iconic representation and embodiment of the lab and our topics and style of applied human factors engineering and human-systems integration research / development. We have GROUPER pins, but sometimes I wonder if we need a GROUPER logo shirt. It’s always a good idea to talk to people when you get creative ideas, because I heard some interesting views over dinner. Let’s be clear: IIE Meetings are in part about branding, and presenting and highlighting particular brand is important for many of the attendees. Far from being immune, Purdue IE is one of the prime examples of blatant name recognition and placement. Since 2011, we have sponsored the badge holders for the conference, which means it looks like everyone at IIE is from Purdue. (The badge holders are actually quite nice for those of us who really are from Purdue, as they work well for carrying passports and travel documents. The name-themed, school-color holders are perhaps not quite so enjoyable for those from Ohio State or North Carolina State—whose logo has been emblazoned on hotel key cards longer than we’ve done the badge holders.) We are the home of “Rethink IE,” which is a call to consider the evolution of the profession. But there seems to be something else, and something that is not always seen as good, in pushing one’s brand too far.

 

Because I had to go directly to the FAA briefing after I get off the plane, I decided to wear my Purdue Industrial Engineering polo shirt this morning.   I also wore it at the Saturday night reception. Yes, I wore black and gold colors, and my GROUPER and Rethink IE pins (both pinned to the badge holder, on the other days of the conference. But a number of students at the IIE meeting do something I have never seen anywhere else in my conference experience. Several times I have found myself walking down the hall to a technical session, only to see a cluster of identically-clad students. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not going to fixate on particular rivalries or comparisons. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the scarlet shirts with the O and buckeye leaves (Ohio State), or the white shirts with the Puerto Rican flag (University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez), or white shirts with a red stylized boar (Arkansas).   They are proud and pleased to represent their “team” in a coherent and unitary manner. (And, as I have previously written, I get it when you talk about who’s your team.)

 

Several of the comments over dinner expressed wonder and potential worry over this form of team representation. Would it be seen as a positive sign of camaraderie to have all of the lab appear in identical shirts, or would it be considered a demonstration of excessive conformity? Both Siobhan and Liang are working in the area of healthcare (which we describe as PERCH), but even though they both have the same advisor, they’re not using the same approaches or even addressing the same types of methods. This summer, we’re also making progress on DOLPHIN and CORAL elements of information visualization and sonification (Jake’s presentation at the IIE meeting). What I didn’t expect to hear is that this is something of a recruiting advantage for a subset of people, especially those who have a set of diverse interests and unique perspectives on the changing world of humans, engineering systems, and coordinated / distributed information and expertise in teams. While the lab has grown to a size and capability that active recruiting is not a priority for us, several of our current students started out as interesting conference conversations. GROUPER is not just a recognized brand in our community, but one to which our current students and alumni/ae are very loyal. Ours is not just a university level brand highlighting Purdue, but a unique brand at the level of the individual laboratory. What increases the value of the brand is exciting and transformative research, with excellent and compelling presentations, and not just fancy polo shirts worn in unison. We do have the logos on the slides, and we do wear our GROUPER pins with pride. (However, if you really want a polo shirt anyway, do let me know.)

 

Who’s Your Team?

(After a recent entry entitled, They Got Game, you might think that this is turning just into a sports blog.  I promise: neither that entry nor this one is only, or even primarily, about sports.)

 

After a glut of sporting festivity, the college football bowl season and first round of NFL playoffs are now history.  (Because of the winter storm and “polar vortex” that deposited 10 in / 25 cm of snow, followed by temperatures of -22F / -30C, my satellite receiver has been offline since midday Sunday.  Supposedly, there was a fairly entertaining football game on Monday evening.  I hope someone enjoyed it.)  People who know me know that I’m a fairly intense sports fan, and I have followed both college and professional football (and college women’s basketball) for most of my life.  I have also lived in a number of locations and developed attachments to quite a few teams.  (I’m going to assume that at least a few current or alumni GROUPERs were pretty pleased with the outcomes of the Rose and Orange Bowls.)  So, it’s not surprising when I’m asked, Who’s your team?

 

This was an interesting philosophical question put to me by a close friend while we were watching one or another of the various games.  It became a philosophical question when it was pointed out to me that I was getting more upset at the commentary by the announcers than who was actually winning on the field.  It’s understandable to be disappointed when the team you’re rooting for is losing.  However, my friend pointed out that I was annoyed even when I wasn’t cheering specifically for one of the two teams playing on the field.  Suddenly, I realized that this might not just be about sports.  Fortunately, my friend and I prefer very analytical discussions, so we started to analyze it.  When I have a team that I feel an affiliation to (I consider them a version of “us”), I want them to win.  (If I don’t have an affiliation to the other team, I am perfectly thrilled to have “us” win by a large margin, in what might otherwise be seen as a poor matching of teams.)  But more importantly, I want the game to be exciting and entertaining.  I want the officiating to be consistent, appropriate, and responsive to the rules as they are currently in place.  (Like many fans, I comment about the officiating.  However, I also will frequently observe the penalty and announce both the penalty and penalized player, before the referee does so.  Did I mention I’ve been an intense fan for a long time?)  I don’t like it when the official misses calls.  But I will frequently accept that “we” had a bad play instead of always assuming a “bad ref” when a penalty is called against “us”.  Why is this?  If I want the referees to do their job appropriately (without bias or favoritism), I feel obliged to acknowledge and “own” our errors as well.    I respect good announcers who point out important elements of the game play.  However, I found myself profoundly upset when an announcer would shift from one bias to another just based on the most recent event, using general references that they’ve heard as “it’s generally known” or “everybody thinks that”… (Using trite catchphrases, especially with wrong or mixed metaphors, will always draw specific ire from me.)

 

This suggests that there is another level of affiliation going on; this other affiliation applies both to the active participation in research at GROUPER and the spectator role for a football game.  It’s not just about sportsmanship, although that’s part of it.  Let’s call it the search for The Better Rule, Well Applied (BRWA).  As you know, academics have their rankings, the equivalent of the Coaches’ Top 25 poll.  The analogy is pretty strong: the rankings for the top US IE graduate programs are voted on by the department heads of those IE programs.  So, I can be excited or upset that Purdue is #10.  But wait.  Let’s look at MIT, ranked #3.  I have an affiliation with MIT, so I should see them as “us,” right?  They don’t have any degree program called Industrial Engineering.  How about Stanford or Cornell?  Great universities.  But there are more people in human factors in Purdue IE than at the corresponding programs (again, not all IE) in those three universities combined.  They don’t do IE human factors.  This issue challenges how we might use the rankings.  I’m actually less concerned about our actual ranking than the distortion.  Hence, this is an issue of BRWA, not just whether we’re better than the (logically nonexistent) competition at a specific other department.

 

Over the past several years, I’ve had a number of students trying to pick their dissertation topics.  Some of the topics were exotic; others were relatively mundane.  However, I am concerned at how often a topic is considered unworthy because there’s not enough funding in that area.  “Well, you need to compete for, and obtain, competitive grant funding.  You need to show your colleagues at the highly ranked programs how much money you’re bringing in, and place your students at those programs.”  But hold on, my BRWA affiliation screams.  The program at XYZ university doesn’t, and won’t, have an opening in human factors.  My student would rather work in (and is better suited towards) industry or government than a research academic position.  Isn’t graduate training about seeking out creative and innovative solutions that push the frontiers of knowledge and understanding?  Isn’t the PhD supposed to be about supporting the student’s career development, more than mine—in other words, preparing them for what suits them, and appropriately emphasizing their strengths towards their best fitting pathway?

 

Sometimes, it feels like it is playing a different sport.  Some football folks talk about “winning at all costs”; others talk about integrity and sportsmanship.  They’re supposedly playing the same game, but in reality, they’re not.  In sports, and in research, maybe I’m not just playing for “winning”.  It feels like I’m playing for Truth.  In the lab, what sport are we playing?  Which “Game” do we need to bring?  My sport seems to be University (knowledge, understanding, career preparation), and I want to be a starter—or even captain—on the special GROUPER squad on the BRWA team.  Our team colors include Consent and Connection. …

 

This may not even be recognizable to other people.  It could sound like I’m rooting for the Montana team in the NFL playoffs.  (Um, not only is there no professional football team in state of Montana, there is no NFL team in any US state that borders on Montana.  Alberta and Saskatchewan have Canadian Football League (CFL) teams.  The CFL championship was played last November.)  How do you recruit for a team in a sport that others might not even see as the right sport to be playing?  Again, this is an interesting philosophical point.  For instance, why is the team BRWA, instead of GROUPER?  GROUPER can’t answer all questions, about all subjects—we specialize in human factors and systems engineering, and you need more than that to do well in University.  These questions aren’t irrelevant to working at Purdue in IE, even if they seem to be ignoring “reality”.  If we don’t ask the question, or consider the options, we never make our team or our sport better.

 

(By the way, the 2013 CFL Grey Cup Most Valuable Player was Kory Sheets, who was a running back for Purdue.)

Updating Documentation

Now that there are a few new members of the lab, it’s time to pay attention once more to making explicit some of our expectations and shared experiences.  It’s interesting to watch, and to test, how stories or catch phrases easily become part of a local culture… only to be met by blank stares when a new person experiences it.

“What’s the best dissertation?”  “The one *you* can do in a reasonable amount of time.”

“Is that a title of a song on the album?”

” Delta Pain” (which is a title of a song on the album)

All of these represent elements of tacit knowledge, in that they are shared and understood by people who were in the lab when the event occurred, or maybe in an individual meeting with me, and have learned to experience and internalize the informal lessons of the lab in a particular way.  That’s great for an individual mentoring interaction, but not really good for organizing the productivity of getting a population of students to finish high quality thesis and dissertation documents.  Thus, we have to do some of these things with more explicit intent, and a more focused and determined documentation of elements of the lab’s culture.

Since the beginning of the Spring 2013 semester, we’ve been working on this in the creation and updating of four distinct documents:  A Master’s Thesis outline; a Dissertation prelim outline (oh, even that’s tacit, or at least implicit: the proposal document written in order to describe one’s dissertation so that one can be advanced to candidacy); a Doctoral Dissertation outline… and most recently, a semester-by-semester timeline for progress towards degree completion.  These seem to be very helpful for students, and help to summarize and integrate and transmit my experience in a fairly efficient way.  And why not?  I’ve supervised over 30 MS theses and 12 PhD dissertations, and sat on committees for another 25 or more graduate documents.  Most students, on the other hand, only do this once.  (I did have one of my students complete a second MS with me after finishing a first one elsewhere; no GROUPERs have ever tried to do multiple PhD dissertations.)  Rather than make everything trial and error, or suggest that there is no pattern that leads to increased probability of success, some people (among those are many engineers) would like to have a sense of the path, the rule, the “game plan” of how this graduate experience is supposed to play out.

Does this mean that there is a fixed and rigid procedure that everyone must follow?  Of course not, for several reasons.  One is that GROUPERs are different people, with different skills.  They don’t want to work in the same stream, or using the same data collection or analysis tools, or ask the same sorts of questions.  Fortunately, I’ve worked in a bunch of areas, so my tolerance for procedure variability is fairly high–I can advise a variety of dissertations, because I have done a variety of projects in different areas and methodologies.  (Some people may think of this concept as akin to Ashby’s discussion of “Requisite Variety”; no strict quantification here is implied.)  So, the level of consistency is not at the detailed level of “you must design a three-level, two-dimensional Analysis of Variance studying the influence of…” Everyone is expected to be able to answer, “Why would anyone want to read this thesis / dissertation?”  or “Why do we care about the question, or the work you did to answer it?”

It may also be relevant that one of the recent dissertations now making its way to conclusion is specifically addressing the question of procedure reliability and complexity.  A very often-repeated task, with few new or challenging elements, can have a standard procedure that is rarely, if ever, inappropriate for completing the task as designed.  If you’re developing a brand new task that has never been tried before, it’s highly unlikely that you can write a perfect procedure on exactly how to do it.  Most procedures are somewhere in between, even if we assume the procedure is always right.  At what level should we expect a new procedure to capture all of the experience that we gain in the development of a new system?

As time goes on, all of these documents will need to be updated–not necessarily because we were wrong, but because our knowledge evolves.  (OK, I was explicitly wrong on this item. I forgot to include a version of the well-known advice: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them.  Then tell them.  Then tell them what you told them.”  In other words, the last section of the introduction chapter should include an outline of the organization of the remainder of the thesis / dissertation.)  Even the working of the updating process is a helpful way of sharing the experiences and telling the stories of the lab.  And when we’re done, current and future generations of GROUPERs can know that I won’t get upset if they haven’t taken 15 credits or completed their plan of study or research proposal by the end of their first semester in the program.  Really.

 

I know, you’re wanting the links to these documents.  They’re still under construction.  Check back when they’re done and posted.

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.

rethinkIE_black

groupereng

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.