grouperlab

Get, share, and use information well

Tag: tacit knowledge

Back to School

The Labor Day holiday weekend is drawing to a close, and I have finished up my second week of the Fellowship.  Even though the start dates of the semester and my tenure here in DC were the same, I have gotten to notice how much the routines differ between the two environments.  Unlike my academic routine that can adapt and adjust based on the day of the week and the differences between class and no-class, committee and research schedules, things feel distinct here.  There is a bus I catch, most days, between 8:14 and 8:40.  On Wednesdays, there will usually be lunch with the other Fellows.  There are Monday and Thursday morning “huddle” meetings.

 

However, that is not what I notice the most from the past two weeks.  I admit that I have developed a particular appreciation for my manager.  Each day, there is a specific new thing I have to learn.  How do I send a particular type of email?  What is the formatting for this kind of documentation?  Who do I contact for this activity?  Of course, he’s seen this all before, but it’s my first time.  And it’s not like I have had 3-4 weeks of easing into the situation.  I’ve already worked on international memoranda, and meetings between embassy staff and local representatives, and sat in on planning discussions with the offices of some folks whose name might appear on someone’s bumper sticker.  (But notably, the importance of the office is communicated by an acronym, or even a single letter; the people whose names are used are names I don’t recognize, and even those names go with acronyms.)  The most appropriate phrase for this experience is one that I learned during my first few weeks as an undergrad at MIT: “Drinking from the firehose.”

 

In that environment, where I’m supposed to come up to speed quickly, it seems like a luxury to have someone check in with me as many as 3-5 times per day to help me with one task or another.  In truth, some of the help sessions seem a bit remedial, teaching me things I do already know.  But he doesn’t know that.  And more importantly, I don’t always know when something I think I know how to do isn’t exactly how this organization does it.  So, I find myself learning to be more patient when being taught, and listening all the way through the lesson.  I even have a guiding document for goals to achieve over the next month or so—distinct from a to-do list of tasks, and an in-process list of assignments.

 

One of the things that surprises me most about this firehose experience is a new-found empathy and appreciation for the situations that confront new students in the lab.  We’ve been working on SoS and PoSE conceptualizations of ICT use in the SHARK and DOLPHIN and PERCH* streams for years—why are you nodding blankly at me?  Of course.  I’ve been doing it for years.  You just got here.  I just used a bunch of acronyms—shorthand for me, incomprehensible jargon for you.  Even when we get to time for a thesis outline, or a prelim draft, or a set of PhD defense slides, it does take some reminders to recognize that two dozen years of practice and 75 or more iterations don’t get transmitted easily to someone who is experiencing it all new and in an intense, nervous state.

 

I would like to hope that this lesson comes back to Purdue with me next Fall.  For a new student, or new faculty member, each new item can be part of an overwhelming onslaught of novelty and complexity.  Maybe it won’t stay that way for long, but it feels like that now.  In the senior capstone design course I teach, I remind the students to take the time to capture those initial moments of novelty and first attempts at processing and decision making, because it will be really hard to recall those feelings (and assumptions, and senses of confusion) again later.  I can tell them that, but it was a long time since I have felt that at the level I feel it now.  It’s good to be reminded of what the first few, chaotic weeks of new experience feel like.

 

IMG_3685

Photo of Little Kern Golden Trout by Middleton and Liitschwager (1988), hanging in the C Street entrance lobby of the National Academies.

 

 

*Acronym decluttering:

SoS: Systems-of-Systems. or a description of complex systems engineering settings where individual components of an overarching system represent complex systems in their own right (such as individual aircraft, with pilots and co-pilots, in the airspace over Washington, DC while Marine One is traveling across town).

PoSE: Perspectives on Systems Engineering.  This is a course that I developed to teach about four distinct traditions of systems engineering, ranging across systems thinking, cybernetics, component-whole relations, and project management.  Only in its second iteration as a hybrid distance / on-campus course, it is one of the most subscribed courses in Engineering Professional Education (and I’m not even teaching it this semester).

ICT: Information and Communications Technology.  When I first started as a faculty member, most computers had line-by-line display screens in single colors of amber or green; email and word processors and bulletin board chat groups were the most sophisticated information exchange tools available.  Even with all of the changes in capability, it’s still important to recognize that the point of these technologies were, and are, for humans to communicate.

SHARK, DOLPHIN, PERCH:  These are designations of project areas within the research lab, referring to knowledge sharing architectures, information flow delays, and applications to healthcare delivery improvement, respectively.  Check them out at https://engineering.purdue.edu/GrouperLab/streams/.

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.

Expert Blind Spot, Distributed Expertise, and Knowledge Sharing

Oftentimes the term “expert blind spot” is used to describe instances in which an expert’s understanding of a content area overshadows their knowledge of how to teach it. This isn’t exactly how it is being used in this context, but its usage is not much of a stretch here. Jeremi asked Dr. Caldwell, “How do you advise such a dynamic lab of students who all have varied interests and are at different stages in their programs? How do you do it?” Although a few ideas were faintly mentioned, what became apparent was that Dr. Caldwell was unaware of elements of his style that made him an expert-advisor. Jeremi didn’t stop at that answer; she probed other GROUPERs and found that the expertise on his advising style was distributed among his advisees. Now that we have begun to characterize it, we thought we would do some knowledge sharing. Our hope is that this information is not only beneficial to Dr. Caldwell, but also to others interested in advising (or mentoring, in general), and to those wondering what it’s like to have Dr. Caldwell as an advisor.

 

 

Kelly:

As an undergraduate coming into a graduate’s domain, the GROUPER lab, I felt very intimidated and insecure. Would I meet their expectations? Would they tell me I was the worst undergrad on the planet? All these worries and more swarmed my head, but that’s where Dr. Caldwell calmed my nerves. He assured me that I would fit right in and they wouldn’t expect me to perform at a graduate level. I could move at a pace that I wanted and was not going to be pressured to meet this deadline or that. That is what I love about being an undergrad advised by Dr. Caldwell: he is realistic about my abilities. Other advisers could have looked at me my first week being in the lab and said “You have to write this paper by this date and you better know how to write a fantastic research paper”. But, Dr. Caldwell had realistic expectations and in our 1-on-1 meetings, he has always been concerned about me, rather than a paper deadline. He has let me know that I am not required to find a topic right away, and he knows that I am busy with my coursework. He has guided me to finding a topic and was genuinely interested in what I wanted to get out of this experience and what I was going to enjoy writing about. There shouldn’t be pressure being an undergrad in a graduate lab, and Dr. Caldwell has definitely kept it that way. In the group setting, being in this research lab is my first group experience of the sort. I had been on teams before for projects, but this is by far the most positive one. Although we do get off task sometimes, the lab is very goal-oriented, and when we do get off task, it usually has a life lesson or reason attached to it. Everyone in the lab looks out for one another; there is no competition for papers, topics, or Dr. Caldwell’s attention. He treats everyone with the same level of respect and attentiveness and has never made the lab feel competitive in any nature. It is a very supportive environment and Dr. Caldwell, inside and outside the lab, is an extremely supportive adviser, especially to undergraduates.

 

 

MAV:

As explained in previous GROUPER blog entries and from browsing the GROUPER website, there are many ways in which Dr. Caldwell distinguishes the GROUPER lab from others. These include lab meetings that are filled with humor and light-hearted sarcasm and outside activities such as the G4s. Although Dr. Caldwell does a great job of advising his lab a whole, he does a superb job of advising his students as individuals. Let’s look at an example: me. Entering into a doctoral program, I knew that I had a specific style of advising that would work for me; any deviation from this style would be disastrous. Dr. Caldwell always e-mails me in a timely manner, follows through on tasks, allows for task-oriented discussions (as I do better with a list of tasks and deadlines instead of being let loose in the “forest”), and meets with me regularly. However, even though I believed that there were a certain set of standards I needed for myself, Dr. Caldwell added another guideline I wasn’t aware I needed in order to be a successful student: it’s ok for me to take a break, to step away from research, especially when I’m causing myself to become overly-stressed (and usually it’s for no apparent reason other than just me being a perfectionist). It almost seems to be counter-intuitive: why would my advisor ever want me to stop working on my research, even for a day, let alone several days? Causing me to spiral downwards on my research (again, for no good reason) would not do me any good and, thus, cause me to become less productive and maybe even have a grudge against my research. Ultimately, Dr. Caldwell wants all of his students to be successful (hence, the large list of GROUPER alumni). Dr. Caldwell has been advising students for years and he probably knows what’s best for me, even if I don’t know it myself. Having Dr. Caldwell as an advisor lets me know that both my research interests and personal sanity are being monitored for their well-being.

 

 

Omar:

As a new student, I was not sure on what topic to start working on for my doctoral thesis.  This was making me so nervous, especially since every time I pick a topic, I have a tendency to keep changing my mind.  I am amazed at how Dr Caldwell reacts to my changes.  A typical adviser would not like his student to discuss with him a certain idea over and over then simply drop it for another idea that looks more appealing to the student.  However, my professor always stresses how important it is to pick a topic that fits my interests and what I want to do in the future.  He discusses with me my future plans to be able to help decide what to do with my Ph.D. studies. 

The way he reacted to my hesitation over the 1st few months relieved all pressure that I might have had.  It added a lot to my self confidence and kept me focused to do more reading and exploring more ideas in order to be able to pick the research that suits me the best.  It is great if a student knows exactly what he wants to work on from day one.  But, trying to quickly settle is not the right thing to do. And that’s what I appreciate about my experience with Dr Caldwell on how he managed to help through the journey of picking the best fit for me.

Another very successful approach Dr Caldwell sticks to, that in my opinion helps all students in the lab, is weekly lab meeting.  In that meeting, I get a chance as well as my lab mates, to talk about my ideas whether I am still in beginning, middle or finalizing the research.  Feedback from academic students of the same interest with presence of a leading faculty member in the domain is found to be very helpful. 

 

 

Jeremi:

Mentoring and success drive Dr. Caldwell’s advising style. Dr. Caldwell places a very high premium on mentoring: he gives his time to meet with us individually and collectively on a weekly basis (with the exception of when he’s traveling, of course). Any outsider peeking into his life as a professor would say that hosting one-on-one meetings with five (or more) students every week –in addition to holding office hours for your class– is pretty remarkable! It is through our 1-1 meetings that it becomes apparent how deeply interested Dr. Caldwell is in exploring our ideas and discovering what topics interest us. In fact, he is beyond interested: he gets excited about exploring new ideas with us! Unbeknownst to us, somehow in the midst what seems like a pure exploration of ideas, he gathers information about what we are passionate about and our career goals. With these two pieces of information, he helps us settle on topics with which we will be satisfied. With this approach, his students excel. As we succeed, he succeeds.

His conception of mentoring extends to peer mentoring. Weekly lab meetings are designed in a way that we share updates on our respective projects; and through this exchange, we learn from one another about the milestones ahead. At times, Dr. Caldwell asks probing questions (that he already knows the answer to) such that others may benefit. Additionally, this informal exchange inevitably facilitates the development of our “elevator pitch” such that when we are away from the lab, we can respond succinctly and intelligently to questions people ask about what research we are working on. This is a specific example of how he transforms, what seems like, casual interactions into teachable moments.

I will quickly add a few others things that characterize his style. One, he is extremely well-read and as a result, is able to make fascinating connections because ideas that may seem unrelated on the surface. In Dr. C’s words, he’s able to “scan and connect.” Continuing with this idea, he also does what we call “management by wandering” which means emailing articles he comes across that may be interesting or relevant for us. Secondly, in meetings that involve committee members, he plays an interesting role, balancing between being coach and gatekeeper (through the milestone). At times, he uses an adaptation of the Socratic approach to get the student to share information/ explanations that he thinks would be helpful for the rest of the committee or to re-phrase committee members’ questions in a way that clarifies the question other members are asking. Third, he includes us in the strategic elements of his research enterprise. For example, our input is solicited when brainstorming ideas about the immediate goals and long-term visions for GROUPER, as well as some of the characteristics prospective GROUPERs should posses. Lastly, he’s real! He has a family, a home he invites us to once per semester, enjoys playing video games from time to time, thinks about next steps in his career… you know… facets of life that make people “real”- Dr. Caldwell has them. And this is not to say that other advisors don’t, but he’s personable enough to share elements of personality with us. As a student aspiring to make my mark on the world someday, I sometimes wonder about the possibility of work consuming life. It’s nice to see a model that demonstrates that you can have life outside of work, and those two ideas do not have to be in opposition to one another. Of course, Dr. Caldwell’s model is not perfect, but at least it shows that it is possible.