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:
- Not by TD; the best I can do is Talt.
- I can do xyz’ by TD.
- I can do that, but can’t start until TS.
- Yes, working
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:
ACTION REQUIRED / REQUESTED, or
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.
June 4, 2014
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.)