Category Archives: Information Technology

Eight Reasons Why Your Collaboration System Is Failing

At the beginning of this year, I swore off using Slack. My resolution amazed my friends who extolled the virtues of Slack. Slack isn’t the collaboration app proclaimed to be the “next big thing’” I remember back in the early 90′s when computer-supported work applications were all the rage (remember when “Lotus Notes” was first rolled out). Organizations threw a lot of money and resources at early collaboration systems, but many were failures from the beginning.

The failure of many new collaboration systems to catch on was perplexing because software packages for individuals and organizations were doing well. What was it about developing software for groups that made it so different from developing software for individuals and organizations?

In 1994, Dr. Grudin published an article that answered that question with the simple observation that groups were just different from individuals and organizations. How they are different is explained in his eight challenges for developers:

People collaborating in front of a laptop.

Who Does the Work and Who Gets the Benefits? Ideally the labor in operating and maintaining the groupware application must be roughly equal among the group members. This ideal division of labor is rarely the case. Consider a project management application where the team members must update it regularly with progress reports, performance data, and other data. A good deal of the team member’s team is compiling information and feeding the system while the project manager must spend a minimal amount of time reading reports the system generates. The team member sees only a burden from the software and soon avoids doing this extra work which leads to poor reports causing the Project Manager to quit relying on the system for information. Soon, no one is using software.

Critical Mass of Users. The collaboration software field is filled with many platforms for collaboration. Many offer similar features, and each has an enthusiastic community of supporters. In large government agencies you can see several collaboration systems in various pockets of the organization that don’t communicate outside of their pocket. Ironically the systems that exist to promote collaboration often promote organizational silos as the groups argue that their system is the best solution.

Social, Political, and Motivational Factors. Dr. Grudin gives a great example of this challenge when he describes the failure of meeting management software. It assigned meeting rooms based on priority but quickly became useless because no one wanted to admit that their meeting was anything but “high priority.” As Dr. Grudin explains, collaboration software can only model a rational workplace, but actual workplaces are much more complicated due to organizational culture.

Exception Handling. We rarely work the exact way described in our work processes. Collaboration software built only based on the documented office procedures is too rigid and not able to handle the flexibility required frequently at work. Just think of how often you don’t have a typical day at work and have to improvise a workable solution. Now, imagine trying to program that into software.

Decreasing Communication and Coordination Load. Organizations search for ways to reduce the communication and coordination needed to do the job. How often have you said that you could get more done if you were not interrupted so often? Of these interruptions, how many were due to email, phone calls, a colleague stopping by to talk, etc.? Sometimes you can over-collaborate, and this often results from poorly designed groupware.

Hard to Evaluate Groupware. It is challenging to test groupware because the group dynamics are so hard to replicate. It can take several weeks of careful observation to understood how a group works, and software designers don’t have the time or expertise to evaluate how their software will aid in collaboration. Often the groupware vendor blames this on inadequate user training and will continue the same software with better tutorials and help aids but never realizing that the fundamental problem is that people don’t like collaborating the way the system is forcing them to collaborate.

Intuitive Decision Making. Because of the nature of our work, we often must decide based on little evidence, and thus we rely heavily on our intuition. Groupware applications rarely support intuitive decision making but force users to input significant data so a fully reasoned decision can be made. Often, we do not have the necessary data, and a quick decision must be made. Thus, we abandon the groupware application to use a simple spreadsheet or other individual application to support our intuition.

Managing Acceptance of the Groupware. Too often, I have seen a collaboration solution launched where the users are expected to adapt themselves to how the software works rather than the software adapting to the way the group works. A collaboration system at my work is universally despised because it practically handcuffs a group of users to a cumbersome and protracted painful process. I’ve only used the system once, but that was enough for me to avoid ever having even to click on the program icon.

Despite these principles being 25 years old I still see the same mistakes being repeated in today’s collaboration tools. I also see where companies have put these principles into practice and have made excellent collaboration software that has endured and grown in popularity. I suspect that Google engineers must have memorized these principles when they developed their Google Docs system.

I leave a final exercise for the reader: how many of these principles does SharePoint violate (if any)? Or does SharePoint violate new principles of collaboration software?

Community Learning Coaches

A PROPOSAL TO HELP EDUCATION IN RURAL POPULATION AREAS BY SOLVING THE ADJUNCT FACULTY CRISIS

Several of the Democratic Presidential candidates are advocating some variation of free college. Either paying for the first year of college or tuition-free attendance at the local community college, the idea is to make college affordable for low-income families. Sounds like an effective solution to helping rural populations gain the skills to compete in the coming Fourth Industrial Age economy.

Free college is not the best answer. Opposing free college may sound strange from someone with a Ph.D., three master’s degrees, and who has taught college courses for nearly twenty years. But, it is my experiences as both a college student and professor that led me to think of another solution.

Several buildings in a rural field.

The Problems with the Free College Solution:

1. A traditional college education will take too much time – A fulltime student will need at least two years to obtain an associate degree and four years for a bachelor’s degree. There are part-time options, but that will only extend the length of time needed for the degree. Students – especially adult students – will need to sacrifice years of prime earning opportunities until they are skilled for the workplace.

2. Students must leave their communities to attend college – Community colleges are probably more available to low-income students than state universities and colleges. For many rural areas, there are “education deserts” in which students will need to commute to their classes.

There are online options, but this depends on the availability of broadband. In many rural areas, the broadband Internet may not be available. The lack of broadband Internet also exacerbates the education deserts problem.

3. Universities are not designed to train people for workplace skills they need now – Community colleges and trade schools are the best equipped to teach students technical skills. Universities and colleges specialize in liberal arts education. A liberal arts education is valuable for teaching critical thinking skills and preparing students for leading people and organizations. However, a liberal arts education takes longer to acquire than most technical skills.

Your typical college professor is rewarded by his or her research productivity. Tenured professors are rewarded for the number of research articles published, and research grants acquired. Teaching is not as valued and even discouraged if teaching interferes with the professor’s research output.

The adjunct faculty perform most of the undergraduate teaching for colleges and universities. The number of adjunct faculty hired over the last fifteen years has risen dramatically. Seventy-five percent of college professors are non-tenured. A recent article in The Atlantic describes the shocking reality of adjunct teaching.

“To be a perennial adjunct professor is to hear the constant tone of higher education’s death knell. The story is well known—the long hours, the heavy workload, the insufficient pay—as academia relies on adjunct professors, non-tenured faculty members, who are often paid pennies on the dollar to do the same work required of their tenured colleagues.”

It was after reading this article and reflecting on my own experiences as an adjunct faculty member I came up with the following proposal. I am still working out the details, so what follows are broad sketches of my idea.

The Community Learning Coaches (CLC) Proposal

1. Determine which rural communities need help in reskilling the population for new jobs. The new skills can be how to run an additive manufacturing business, a vertical farm, a renewable energy plant, or similar Industry 4.0 job.

2. Create a training center with state-of-the-art classrooms, satellite Internet broadband, and an Internet café. These centers will be in targeted rural communities for easy access by the population.

3. From among the adjunct faculty population, hire “community learning coaches” to live in the towns and run the training centers. The CLCs will determine the educational needs of the local people, create courses, deliver training, and coach students into self-learning experiences. The CLCs will be given room and board along with a decent wage as they work to help the local population increase their opportunities in the new economy.

4. The CLCs will be trained in the latest training techniques to help the local students rapidly improve their knowledge, skills, and abilities. The CLCs will be supported by a national network of educational experts linked through online communities.

My proposal solves several problems at once — first, CLCs help to prepare rural communities to thrive in the new Industry 4.0 economy. Second, CLCs help to alleviate the issues that adjuncts face in the current university teaching situations. Third, universities and colleges can continue to concentrate on their primary mission of research. Diverting the money that would have paid expensive college tuitions to build community training centers staffed by CLCs seems to be a better use of federal tax funds.

U.S. Congress Finds One solution to It’s Information Problem

The U.S. Congress’ Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has created the United States Legislative Markup (USLM) to standardize the format for drafting, viewing, and publishing legislation.

Open book with a page of text

Importantly, this standardization means that rule of law nations can help each other far more effectively. It means that –at long last– democratic values might be able to beat the trolls, out compete data mercenaries and diminish the information weaponization that is paralyzing democracy worldwide. This global democratic resilience will be especially important when we arrive at machine learning, artificial intelligence and algorithms. Will we build an auditable public good system? One that can visualize and help forecast implications of policy? One that is able to identify misinformation and financial conflicts of interest in the data supply chain? Or, will this new openness become yet another opportunity to commodify, privatize and capture democratic functions?

https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/technology/448265-your-interoperable-democracy

The USLM is a great step toward tackling the increasing data overload of Congress and the federal government as a whole.

Crystal Agencies – Watching Data Flow Through Federal Agencies

In my recent column for the PA Times, I wrote about how federal agencies can use the latest data visualization tools to fulfill the data, accountability, and transparency initiatives of the President’s Management Agenda (PMA).

From the PMA: “Data, accountability, and transparency initiatives must provide the tools to deliver visibly better results to the public while improving accountability to taxpayers for sound fiscal stewardship and mission results.”

To aid in implementing the PMA, the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) launched a challenge to stand up the Government Effectiveness Advanced Research (GEAR) Center. “Today’s digital economy has transformed how citizens interact with government. By leveraging technology and innovation, the GEAR Center will ensure our government connects to cutting-edge thinking and real-world solutions,” stated OMB’s Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert.

a collection of clear crystals

Back when I worked at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), I had the idea of using the internal data assets of federal agencies to create digital twins of the agencies. The advantage of a digital twin is that we could test out policies on the twin before implementing the policy on the actual agency.

To get to digital twin stage, agencies first need to build their capacity to visualize data flows in their organization. According to Phil Simon, author of The Visual Organization: Data Visualization, Big Data, and the Quest for Better Decisions, organizations go through four-levels of data visualizations. The first level is creating static visualizations of the organization’s small data sets. The organization then moves to the second level of creating interactive visualizations of small data sets. The third level is creating static visualizations of big data sets. The final and fourth level is creating interactions for the big data set visualizations.

Phil Simon recommends that organizations begin with small data sets to sharpen their skills with data visualization planning and tools. I’ve seen examples of this when several federal agencies used Tableau (a proprietary data visualization tool) to work with their small data sets from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). The FEVS is a survey of federal employees to gauge their perceptions on their leadership, engagement in their work, and their work climate. The ability to program interactivity into the FEVS data produced insights into the data that would not have been apparent in the static visualizations.

The FEVS is a relatively small data set compared to the big data sets that federal agencies possess. However, the tools for collecting, analyzing, and visualizing big data have advanced significantly in the last decade. Most of the modern tools require little training to produce sophisticated visualizations. As the federal agencies move to the cloud, it becomes easier to connect different data sets to build more comprehensive big data sets with novel visualizations. The more data sets connected and visualized, the more transparent the agency’s data assets and flows.