Get, share, and use information well

Category: Time perception

Inertial Damping

I have been thinking a lot about damping lately.  To be specific, inertial damping.  You know, that aspect of your hybrid electric car’s regenerative braking system that recharges your batteries while you stop?  Or the gyroscopic properties of a bicycle wheel that keeps you moving forward instead of falling over when you turn?  Yeah, that stuff.  People think about that all the time, don’t they?  No?

This is what happens when a geek starts talking about their internal thought processes, and especially since I recently talked about postcards from the future, maybe I do need to explain my terms.  Apparently, one of the first things I need to do is to explain that I am not talking about “inertial dampening,” which, as far as I can tell, is a science fiction plot device highly likely to get yourself into a fight with physicists for dissing their man Newton.    That’s not my focus today.  I’m trying to take a real physics and engineering term, and see how application of that term in a complex human setting helps me design, analyze, or improve sociotechnical systems in a more effective way… because that’s something that engineers do.

Actually, I started thinking about damping a lot based on a question that someone asked me at the end of the Jefferson Science Fellowship (JSF) lecture I gave on January 24.  (For reference, the point of this lecture is to summarize the general area of work that each Fellow does, both for the policy audience of the State Department and Agency for International Development, and for the scientific audience of the National Academies.)  I spoke about information flow and distributed expertise (because that’s something I do), including the challenges of appropriate coordination during event response for either physical (civil unrest, natural disaster) or cyber-physical (network or security operations) events.  I got quite a few questions, as well as invitations for additional discussions with various groups across the State Dept.  This was a very good feeling, in that it gave me the sense that some people could finally hear some of what I have been trying to study and communicate for years.

However, that does come with a price: when one of those people asks a question, can I give an answer that they understand and know what to do with it?  In essence, that was the challenge when someone asked me a damping question.  (They didn’t really ask it as a damping question, but since I am likely to see lots of things as connected feedback control systems, it’s not surprising that I heard it as one.)

If you have a large bureaucratic organization which lives on sending lots of messages to lots of people for their opinion and approval (aka “clearance”), don’t you run the risk of taking too long to respond to emerging, critical timeline events?

That’s a very reasonable question.  And it takes me immediately to thoughts about damping.  Imagine your new event as some sort of input function.  However, the event isn’t always purely evident immediately, and it doesn’t just go from off to on instantaneously.  There might be multiple events that may or may not be related to each other.  You want your response (output function) to match the demands of the input function.  The engineering version of this problem is one of “critical damping”.  If your damping ratio is too high (over 1), your response to the new event is very slow.  Although you may never over-respond to the event, it takes you a long time to actually respond to the event, and in fact, you may fail to do what needs to be done within the deadlines (people need fresh water and shelter and warmth within a matter of hours to days, or they die).  We tend to assume that faster is always better.  However, there is a limit / problem with that, which we now understand from the world of social media.  Someone can respond *too quickly* with *too little* information, and be unable to tell the difference between the actual event that needs to be responded, and some distractor or misinformation.  (Remember, I’m not trying to be political here, but since the lecture was just a few days after the Inauguration, I may have made a reference to a social media event or two.)  This would be an example of having a damping ratio that is too low (close to 0), which is a different problem.  (You might ask what is the inertial property here.  Well, I have talked in the past about knowledge as “little inertial balls of expertise,” in the sense that expertise allows you to devote energy to efficient processing of the world and move to where you need to go in the future.)  People going off on their first impression without checking sources or others’ understanding would be an “underdamped” response (damping ratio too low), which can be just as bad (but in a different way ) than a bureaucratic, “overdamped” response (damping ratio too high) that takes too long and doesn’t want to risk or challenge anything for fear of being wrong.

In essence, an effective inertial damper takes energy that comes at you, with bounces and noise and possible confusion that you don’t want to respond too much to, and turn it into energy that works for you in a time frame that makes for the tasks you need to do.  That sounds great, and it’s a very interesting problem to work on.  Perhaps the additional challenge is, How do I apply this to my own life?  As much as I enjoy a string of fist-pumping, high-fiving successes in a non-athletic context,   there is the challenge of appropriately damped responses when shifting from State Dept. to Purdue stuff.  Reminder to Barrett: it’s not good to try to do two full-time jobs simultaneously for long periods, and I am feeling now the stress of trying to complete a large number of Purdue (or Indiana Space Grant) activities after spending all day working on Japan Desk activities.  In fact, that stress might be better described as hysteresis, rather than damping.  (Discuss.)  More accurately, damping is the ability to take the frustration of emails and news feed updates and channel that energy into productive work, such as a book chapter, or journal manuscript, or even a blog entry.   Like this one.

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.

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.


Timing is Everything

Although it doesn’t always feel like it here in the lab, things are actually going very well.  The work calendar is quite full, and the project to-do lists continue to grow—not just in the number of items, but in the number of projects which require to-do items.  Three different Institutional Review Board (IRB) applications, with three different students.  Four research projects active, with two or three more coming on line.  The “March Madness” travel schedule I had last year is even worse: the lab has now officially declared it “Winter Madness” (from January 24 until March 14, there is only one week where I am not in an airport on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday of that weekend—and on March 21-24, I will be driving back from Chicago on Friday, and flying again on Monday).


Last Thursday, though, I was able to appreciate what some good timing could achieve.  A day earlier, I had escaped from the ice and snow storm that paralyzed the Southeast US: leaving out of western Virginia early Wednesday morning, on a rebooked flight through Detroit (all flights through Atlanta had been cancelled as of Monday evening).  I was only a few hours later arriving home than originally scheduled, even with delays and flight diversions (let’s hear it for multiple daily nonstops from Detroit to Indianapolis!).  Thursday was bright, clear, and even relatively “warm” (about 5F that morning, with a high temperature of approximately 30F) for a drive down to Bloomington, IN for a research meeting.  That research meeting was in support of one of our new grants, a project with the Purdue Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS) to look at sensemaking, distributed expertise, and information presentation in cyberinfrastructure network operations centers.  The meeting was unexpectedly effective in highlighting both people to talk to and additional directions for the research to pursue.  A positive attitude to go down on the one nice day where my schedule permitted the trip was better than putting the trip off for later (given “Winter Madness” and the frequency of airspace-paralyzing storms, I am not thrilled about trying to create new one-day visits anytime before April).  At the end of the day, I even received one more treat derived from an awareness of good timing.  As I left the office, the nearly full moon was visible to the east, while the International Space Station was a fast-moving evening star traveling from northwest to northeast.  (No, I don’t have the orbital tracks memorized, but there are NASA websites and software apps for that.)  Yeah, that was some good timing.


Timing is a fairly popular subject of GROUPER research, even if there’s only been a couple of blog entries highlighting time pressure (and only one on time perception).  But the topic is never far from our mind.  In our direct research investigations, we talk about the sense of time pressure as the ratio of time required to complete a task to the time available to complete it (TR / TA), with time pressure increasing as you run out of time to finish faster than you run out of task to complete.  We worry about the challenge of the age and “freshness” of data when making decisions about the current state of a dynamic world (and what you need to do based on that state).  We consider how experts trade other resources for time, including the decision to create an interim solution (“safe mode”) to stabilize a degrading system to allow for more time to consider a better, more stable recovery and repair.  But how does that play out in the lab’s daily activities, other than a posting an ongoing (and continuing growing) list of deadlines?


Fortunately, we have been working on a set of very promising solutions (processes, really).  As I go through my travel schedule, the students get a strong sense of the “windows of opportunity” (time periods of available work capacity) where I can respond to a task request or help them make progress towards an external deadline.  A few months ago, I described some of my thought process in working in a distributed way on these tasks; I think in terms of a set of scaled answers to the student’s question.  In essence, my thought process and general formulation goes like this:


Student:  Dr. C., I need you to do xyz by time TD.


(If (TD – Now) is under 12 hours, I tend to get really upset.  Don’t do that.)


BSC:  What do I need in order to do xyz?


Student:  You need A, B, and Q.


(If I don’t have A, B, or Q, and the student doesn’t provide it at the time of the request, I tend to get really upset, Don’t do that.)


Then I usually try to provide one of a set of answers, ranging from:


  1. NO.
  2. Not by TD; the best I can do is Talt.
  3. I can do xyz’ by TD.
  4. I can do that, but can’t start until TS.
  5. Yes, working
  6. DONE.


What I didn’t expect was how providing this type of information to the students could actually change the style of interactions in lab.  It’s not that I declared some specific required email format, or that I would refuse to read emails that did not conform to that format.  But, within a week or two, I started noticing emails with subject lines including the words:





The body of the emails would specify details like:


Estimated time to complete: xxx

Date / time needed:  dd mmm yy hh:mm


So, rather than simply complying with a command, the students now understand my motivations, and my constraints, and my strategies for organizing my time.  I also pointed out that I try to set aside windows of time in advance for everyone—not just in the weekly 1:1 meetings (which, I confess, is much harder to achieve during the Winter Madness travel), but when I expect tasks towards external deadlines.  Knowing in advance how much time to set aside helps me with schedules, and allows for slipping in new tasks on an emergency or opportunistic basis.  It’s all part of a goal of “Better Information Now” that we have worked with in our projects with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the United Space Alliance.  Sometimes, it works very well, and sometimes it still needs adjustment and improvement.  But at least, we’re making progress.


It’s about time.



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.

What are we waiting for?

Prof. Caldwell (BC) here….

One potential value of a blog like this is its grain size.  Ideas that are too small for a journal paper or full grant proposal, but still of some potential interest for later use, can be just the right size for a 1100 word blog entry.  Just a couple of references, the outline of a project or concept for further development, and a tease for those who might find GROUPER an appealing place to study, collaborate, or support.  Here’s the first of those items.

Last Monday, I was in Chicago (after a weekend of graduation parties for two new PhDs, Ashley and Karim) to submit a visa request for a trip to China.  When I arrive at the Chinese Consulate at about 9:45, there is a room full of people sitting and waiting, a line of people standing and waiting, and five windows of clerks.  Since I’m there for a visa, rather than something else, I select a ticket for that type of service, and sit down.  How long am I going to have to wait, and will it matter that the Consulate closes at 12 noon for lunch?

Other IE researchers sitting in this waiting room might start thinking about queueing models and arrival distributions, but my friend and I began to discuss the perception of waiting and the sense of time pressure.  This field of human perception research dates back to the laboratories of Wilhelm Wundt and William James (not to be confused with author brother Henry James) in the 19th Century, and the concept of the “perceptual now”.   In this model, one’s sense of time passage is tied to two processes—a sampling of an internal clock, and processing of one’s own task activities (physical or mental).  The more you are doing during a period of external (“objective”), the fewer samples of the internal clock one takes, and the larger the list of things done between sampling cycles.  The theory suggests that the sense of having the time “filled” leads to a lower sense of boredom, and less perceived time passage.  Conversely, with less to do, there are more opportunities to sample the internal clock, and less activity that is perceived as filling that period between samples.

Prior work in the lab has studied not only the issue of time perception, but of time pressure.  Instead of conceiving time pressure as just the amount of time until a deadline arrives, we have considered pressure as a ratio of time required for a task (Tr) to the time available (Ta) to complete it.  Waiting is a challenge, though, because there is both the time required to do the thing you came to do (file the visa paperwork), and the time waiting to get to the window to do the thing you came to do.  Thus, we have a compound task of passive waiting and active doing, both with their own Tr / Ta ratio and a composite ratio.

So, while I am working this out, I notice that time has passed, and the number called is closer to my number.  OK, the queueing folks have something to say here—I’m trying to estimate the average service time for my type of service.  But, I’m also noticing that by having something else to do, one source of stress (time perception) is reduced.  Because this is a Chinese Consulate, I also think about tai chi and meditation activities.  This leads to a consideration of four different ways that one could deal with the wait, and four different experiences of the passage of time:

  • Pause:  a quiet state, without attending to time (sleep or meditation)
  • Hold:  passive waiting, low activity / limited attention to other tasks (“watching the clock”)
  • Distract:  using the waiting time to do other tasks, not attending to time
  • Do:  Active involvement in the task one intended to do.

Time pressure, in terms of the Tr / Ta ratio, now looks like the sum of wait time (which is an estimate of the average service time * the number of people in front of me) + my service time, divided by the time from now until noon.  (Yes, I’m skipping over a lot.  If you want more, get in touch with us.)  It’s looking better, because some people are not there, and average service time is going down—but it’s getting closer to noon.

The sense of time pressure is another element of the psychological effect of the Tr / Ta ratio, but this has multiple factors including individual personality, cost of missing the deadline, “hardness” of the deadline (is 12:00 really 12:00:00, or a few minutes after 12, or something else?) , and prior experience.  There seem to be four stages of this sense of time pressure affecting the experience of waiting (especially when it’s hard to attend to something else):

  • Comfortable
  • Pressured
  • Panicked
  • Resigned

The lab has done some work in determining where the transitions are between these stages, but there is a lot tied to the complex interaction of person, situation, context, and experience.  There are different strategies to help the experience of a user dealing with pressure-laden delays.  I tend to like the distraction and pause responses, as well as ensuring that backup plans and additional flexibility keep pressured from morphing into panicked.  That’s for me, though, from the user’s perspective.  Some of our papers also discuss strategies from the provider’s perspective.

In the end, I got to the visa window at about 11:50, and only took about four minutes to provide the required forms.  I could talk more about the nature of service quality, but that’s for another time and venue (I will be working on a contribution to an edited volume on intercultural service systems later this spring).   I got a pickup slip indicating when I should return for the passport and visa—that Friday—and what to do—stand in the pickup line.  If I had gotten to the window with the documents by 11:00, I could possibly have gotten rush service and picked up the visa by 2:00 that afternoon.  However, there was no sense of pressure there, since I didn’t know about that earlier deadline and thus made no effort to arrive at the consulate early enough to meet that deadline.  (Hmmm… there’s no pressure from a deadline you’re not aware exists; one can create artificial internal deadlines where no external deadline or performance impact exists.)  All in all, a pretty good morning’s experience.

Oh, and why am I going to China?  Giving lectures on human factors and systems engineering for the development of a university program in industrial engineering.  How fitting.

For further reading:

Caldwell, B. S., and Wang, E. (2009). Delays and User Performance in Human-Computer-Network Interaction Tasks.  Human Factors, 51 (6), pp 813-830.

Caldwell, B. S., and Garrett, S.K.  (2010).  Coordination of Event Detection and Task Management in Time-Critical Settings.  In Mosier, K., and Fischer, U. (Eds.,) Informed by Knowledge: Expert Behavior in Complex Settings, ch. 22.  Florence, KY: Psychology Press / Taylor & Francis.

James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: H. Holt and Co.

Svenson, O., & Maule, A. J. (Eds.). (1993). Time Pressure and Stress in Human Judgment and Decision Making. New York: Plenum Press.