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.)
February 29, 2016
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.