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.
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.