Get, share, and use information well

Tag: context

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.



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

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.


Brand Loyalty

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.)


They Got Game

You’ve probably seen the highlight film.  If you happened to see the play live, you cheered (if they were on your team), or groaned—even then, you might have to admit it was a memorable play.  The game winning grand slam.  (Yes, I’ve got Red Sox gear, and Phillies gear, at home.)  The clutch goal in the 85th or 90th minute.  (Extra style points for headers or bicycle kicks.)  Or maybe the 90+ yard touchdown run.  (Just to show that I root for Purdue, as well as for Wisconsin.)


I’ve got to witness several of these plays this past Fall, either in the stadium or on live TV.   Even the thought of the play brings a smile to my face. These are peak experiences for athletes, and sometimes even for their fans.  Big plays on big stages, they say.  “Big-time Players make big-time plays.”  But, how do you compare those peak experiences to those of others in other domains?  Do academics have the equivalent of a highlight reel?  Especially those who are in academia, there is a sense of life in the research university as a different tier of performance and competition.  Getting promoted in a US News top-10 ranked program is seen as a major highlight.  Being selected as a Principal Investigator (PI) for a new grant from a major government agency can be a hallmark of one’s career.  Academics even use the metaphors of sports to describe such events.  Home run.  Slam dunk.  Major League.


For a few days this month, that’s how I felt regarding my own research activity right now.  After weeks, or months, or in some cases years of effort, some ideas have been coming to fruition.  At Space Grant, we submitted a proposal to the NSF to provide research experiences for teachers to use the Purdue’s HUB technology infrastructure to develop software models to teach STEM concepts to K-12 students in Evansville, Ft. Wayne, and Indianapolis—and highlight some of these software models in the local science museums there.  I was asked to lead a FAA project to help with improving the quality and safety of weather information provided to pilots during severe weather conditions.   And best of all… A NASA research project that I have dreamed about for months, to help with information flow and task coordination for human-robotic collaboration to do planetary science for lunar and martian moon surfaces—how cool is that?  And my team was selected for such a project, within the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute!  Time to practice my fist pumping, shoulder brushing, touchdown dance?


Not so fast.  It is, of course, November.  This year, “Surviving November” (one of the GROUPER “song titles”) for me has included doctoral prelim exams, grading statistics exams, and evaluating team project summaries in both the statistics course and the capstone design course.  The task lists, and the email inbox, both grow—sometimes faster than I can recognize that I have more tasks to do over the next day, or week.  This is when it’s tough.  Why did I sign up for this?  Why do I put myself under this pressure?  And, in a question that I have asked several of my colleagues… Why am I still trying to get tenure?


The answer to that question is both viciously insidious, and beautifully clear.  I’ve been working like this for the past 30 years.  I have lots of ideas, and am rarely satisfied with the standard way of doing things (or having people tell me there’s only one proper or correct way to do it).  In 1983, it was becoming convinced that it was easier to get two undergraduate degrees rather than one.  In 1993, I had to learn that I couldn’t put every cool idea into a single paper that could get me tenure immediately.  But I did like the idea of studying the effects of time delay on tolerance for group interactions using this new technology called the web browser, or examining how to evaluate different options for that new digital voice mail technology being considered for state government.  In 2003, it was believing that I could do more with Indiana Space Grant, and maybe we should try to write a proposal for an upgrade, less than 12 months after doing a complete overhaul of the program and award structure.  So really, what’s been happening is that I have been rewarded and reinforced for being this way.  Intermittent reinforcement works the best, as the operant conditioning psychologists have long known.  If you want to make sure a behavior sticks around for a very long time, reinforce it.  But only do so a fraction of the time—maybe 15% or so.  On a semi-random basis.  (That sounds like grant proposal writing.)  In baseball or in funded research, what do you call a person who has an overall success rate of 40%?  A member of the Hall of Fame.


It’s a tough world, and it’s a devastating level of competition that can emotionally and physically hurt.  There’s no need to make it harder than it is, or to be erratic and cruel just to show the students how hard it can be.  Can it be sufficient to just say, “We’re not going to tolerate less than excellence today”?  That attitude doesn’t start with the award, and it doesn’t end with the award either.  Every day is a struggle, but not necessarily against a competitor.  Maybe it’s against one’s own doubt or insecurity.  Perhaps it is just the need to push back the veil and curtain of ignorance.  And sometimes, it’s just the desire to do just a little bit better than last time, or see if one can do just as well as last time.


I don’t want to be on the sidelines.  I want to participate.  Even if I’m tired tonight, I want to be able to function tomorrow.  And tomorrow, the game starts anew.

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.