Saturday, October 11, 2008

Will we ever be able to tickle a robot?

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in an auditorium at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland to listen to Professor Robert Provine, a neuroscientist from the University of Maryland give a talk that has been advertised with the following title: "Tickle and Beyond".

The auditorium wasn't full but it was a very good crowd considering that it was a Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. I'm there because it's 3:30pm and I'm essentially done with what I had to do this week and I'm curious about what "tickle" has to do with NASA. In addition, the talk is part of a Scientific Colloquium and while I've been able to attend some of the Engineering Colloquia and the Systems Engineering Colloquia, I wanted to see what a Scientific Colloquium was like. I am of course neither a scientist nor an engineer, therefore I walk into these talks anticipating that I won't really understand more than 20-30% of what is being said. Still, I'm usually getting something out of it.

What did I learn this time?
1. Chimps can be tickled and they can laugh but they don't laugh like humans. The reason they can't laugh like humans is related to the reason they can't talk: They can't control their breathing like we do.
2. Tickle is a neurological phenomenon but it's also a social phenomenon. Strangers aren't likely to tickle you. It's not something you can control. It's spontaneous.
3. You can't tickle yourself. That has to do with the fact that we have a sense of selfhood. We know the difference between self and other. Robots are limited in that they don't have a sense of self. They don't know the difference between touching something and being touched.

More around this.....

Dr. Robert Provine, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Levels of Understanding

I was sitting in a series of meetings yesterday and getting frustrated with the extent to which I was failing to understand what was being discussed -- the mix of 5,000 acronyms and highly technical engineering "stuff" got to me [and pausing the discussions to ask a question was not an option]. So I switched gear and instead of trying to understand the meaning of what was being said, I tried to focus on the bigger picture. Who are the people in the room? Why are they there? What is the broader purpose of the meeting? What is really going on?

I don't think I did more than scratch the surface in terms of understanding what was going on but at least my level of frustration was lowered to a manageable level. Getting out of the meeting was obviously another option but I had been asked/told to sit through it and so I was under pressure to actually try my best to make the most of it.

So, here are some reflections which have nothing to do with what was actually said during the meeting:
1. If I don't understand something, how many other people in the room are not understanding it?
2. If I am there because I have been told to be there and I don't have any incentive to ask for clarifications or actually say anything in the meeting, how many people in the room are in the same boat?
3. The only time I've ever experienced writer's block is when I am sitting in a meeting attempting to take note, my brain is unable to process what is being said and I have nothing to write except "I don't get this".
4. As soon as I realized I was not going to get much out of the meeting, I started to think about how many other things -- more productive things -- I could be doing if I wasn't stuck in this meeting. That made it even more difficult to concentrate on what was being said.
5. At one point, a project I knew something about was being discussed. Suddenly, some of what was being said made sense. Simply put, I had some context for that discussion. I had no point of reference for the other issues being discussed and therefore no way of making connections to any prior knowledge. The people in the room (those who understood what was being discussed) had a long history of communicating around the issues being discussed.
6. Let's imagine a new staff in the room who happens to have technical expertise in the area being discussed. How much more than me is he/she understanding? Quite a lot, but without the prior conversations and context knowledge, he/she isn't grasping everything either.

Lesson: When trying to communicate something to a person you don't know very well, be aware of the fact that the person doesn't necessarily share your frame of reference and might have very little incentives to tell you that they're not grasping what you're talking about....

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Case Studies

The Office of the Chief Knowledge Officer (OCKO) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center - where I work - makes extensive use of case studies to facilitate knowledge sharing across missions. These are case studies developed by the OCKO team based on real missions, including some that have not yet launched. The case studies tend to focus on project management rather than technical issues. The technologies and engineering challenges may be complex, and the science questions being asked may be difficult to understand for the average person, but the project management challenges are not that simple either.

The case studies have also been initially written with a specific audience in mind (project managers and their deputies) and with a specific purpose in mind (for use in the context of facilitated workshops). A "case" can be presented in different versions depending on the time allocated in the workshop and the purpose of the use of that case. For example, a short version of a case (one page) can be used as a teaser to introduce a group to case studies before they are presented with a longer case.

In the past few days, I've also come to realize that the younger generation of engineers and future NASA project managers would also greatly benefit from these case studies. Whereas the discussion question for groups of project managers tends to be "What would you do as the PM for this project?", the discussion question for future PMs needs to be adjusted to their current roles. I'm not sure whether the entire case study would need to be rewritten. I've also come to realize that there are dangers in rewriting case studies. The more they are rewritten to suit a particular purpose, the greater the danger of straying away from the real story. The best approach might be to keep the case unchanged but to adjust the facilitation and trigger question that starts the discussions around the case.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Uncluttering Your Mind

There's something to NIKE's "just do it!" slogan that has always appealed to me. Today, I signed up for a fiction writing class. I had been thinking about doing this for so long -- yet not doing anything about it except checking out the same options over and over again -- that I eventually became annoyed by the repetitive nature of my own thinking processes. There is a danger in over-analyzing everything and feeling the need to rationalize decisions.

I learned something really useful a while ago in a time management class and through the Getting Things Done book by David Allen. When you create a "to do" list, you are essentially uncluttering your mind, freeing space for more productive thoughts. If you keep a personal or professional journal, writing down some thoughts on a regular basis can be a very useful way of processing your experiences and moving on with an uncluttered mind.

Signing up for a fiction writing class may sound like a very simple and mundane action but it has a huge uncluttering effect. To all the procrastinators out there.... go unclutter your mind!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Accelerated Learning

I wrote about rapid onboarding a couple of months ago. Rather than seeing it as the organization's responsibility, I was looking at it from the perspective of the employee. As an employee, what can you do to shorten the length of time it takes you to be fully integrated within your team and to add value to the organization.

Based on my experience of the past few months, I'm tempted to express some caution with this approach and to articulate some hypotheses.

Unless the organization is equally in a hurry to get you on board and fully committed to helping you out, don't rush. Whether a rapid onboarding approach is appropriate (and successful) or not may depend on factors totally out of your control as a new employee. Such factors may include 1) the extent to which you have regular access to your supervisor/management for feedback and guidance; 2) the extent of disagreement / conflict around your position.

Becoming part of a team or organizational unit has a lot to do with establishing relationships. This can't be rushed too much and if there is disagreement or conflict around your position, it may take even more time. If the environment is less than ideal, it should still be possible to focus on learning the culture, the jargon, the processes, and staying away from actually "doing" anything (especially anything that might be perceived as stepping in other people's territories), at least until things settle and you've had a chance to see more clearly what is going on and you're better able to interpret subtle cues and signals.

I'm assuming this isn't such an issue when someone is hired with a clear mandate to lead a team. Then you probably can't afford to wait and see. If you're in charge, learn quickly and act like a leader. If there is confusion about who is in charge and roles and responsibilities, then being in a rush to do things and to add value is probably not where the emphasis should be.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Propinquity... among other influence factors

Propinquity -- my new word of the day -- has to do with proximity. The "propinquity effect" refers to the impact of proximity -- or physical distance -- on human relationships. This has a clear impact on team building and efforts at fostering collaboration within organizations. How do geographically dispersed, mobile and sometimes entirely virtual teams and organizations succeed when the propinquity effect would suggest that they are bound to fail?

I came across the word "propinquity" in Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. Interestingly, I picked it up thinking that it would be a typical business / management book with lots of anecdotes and stories from the U.S. Corporate sector and the reality was quite different. It is full of examples from the social sector. All of the international examples (Grameen Bank, Soul City, Guinea worm) were familiar to me. The book doesn't mention the term social marketing but many of the examples are clearly related to social marketing concepts. It does refer to social capital.

After reading both Made to Stick and Influencer, I realized that most books published these days -- or perhaps it's only those that are successful -- have a very similar structure. They're structured around six key concepts or success strategies. Case Studies (examples) are used throughout and each core case is referred to multiple times, across chapters.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Curse of Knowledge

Timing is everything. Had I been reading "Made to Stick" six months ago, I would probably not be reacting to it the way I am now. "Made to Stick" is about what distinguishes a sticky idea from an unsticky one. The concept of stickiness had already been discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in "The Tipping Point," and I found the two books to be highly related and equally insightful.

There are lots of interesting insights in "Made to Stick" but I am going to focus here on what they refer to as the "curse of knowledge." The idea is that once you know something, it is quite impossible to imagine not knowing it. Good teachers know how to do it but most of us have some difficulty in explaining what we know to others simply because we tend to assume that the other person knows/ understands certain things when they in fact do not.

[This is clearly going to be an ongoing issue, very related to my last post.]

I took a position a month ago with NASA. It's a knowledge management position and I'm not expected to turn into a scientist or engineer any time soon. I expect, however, that to be effective in my position, I do need to have some understanding of the core concepts, methodologies and processes that define how NASA does business.

Yet I am confronted almost daily with highly skilled technical professionals who speak an alien language. When they used words like risk management, reliability, systems engineering, safety, --- not to mention the millions of acronyms thrown around -- there is a strong assumption that everyone in the room has a common understanding of what these terms refer to.

Let's take the word "sustainability" as an example. Coming from a "development background" -- a term which incidentally would mean nothing to someone working at NASA or would be misunderstood as having something to do with engineering design or software development -- the term "sustainability" means a whole bunch of things and can't easily be separated from the developing country / development project context I have always associated it with. Of course, for an environmentalist, the term "sustainability" conjures a whole different set of images. So, when a NASA engineer talks about sustainability, how can I unlearn what it has always meant to me?

I'm told that risk management and knowledge management are closely related. Obviously I'm going to have to figure out what risk management is all about because that's not a prevalent concept in international development work. I had come across the concept when exploring project management methodology, especially project management around IT projects but the international development community doesn't talk about risks.

I was a monitoring and evaluation specialist in my previous position. That doesn't mean anything to a NASA scientist or engineer, so I have to try to figure out what the closest equivalent is in their world. It turns out that it might be the risk manager. The risk manager identifies and analyzes risks, transforms risk information into planning decisions, tracks risks, controls risks and communicates and documents risks. The monitoring and evaluation specialist translates project objectives and activities into indicators, identifies approaches for collecting data for these indicators and plans activities to monitor progress towards the achievement of project goals, and at the end of the project, helps determine the extent to which project objectives were achieved. Both the risk manager and the monitoring and evaluation specialist are focusing on following the project life cycle to ensure that the project stays on track, avoids possible obstacles, and achieves its objectives. One focuses on identifying and avoiding obstacles, the other focuses on documenting the extent to which the project is making progress. One is proactive, the other is reactive. Is the glass half full or half empty? When you are dealing with very high risk and high cost projects, then perhaps it makes sense to focus on minimizing risks.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Importance of Context, First and Second Readings

In his blog, Knowledge Jolt with Jack, Jack Vinson wrote "I was reading something today that just clicked for me. Context provides a frame of reference to what you are reading or hearing. The better I understand the particular frame of reference (context), the better I can understand what this information or knowledge means." (Knowledge Jolt with Jack, May 12, 2008)

I had a similar thought this week, only slightly reversed. I didn't read something and realized how much it suddenly made sense. I read something and realized that I wasn't getting as much out of it as I would have hoped to.

Being in a new job, with a new organization and now working with individuals in technical fields that are totally new to me, I am coming across written materials that are difficult for me to absorb. I don't think I need to acquire a degree in these technical fields in order to understand the materials but I suspect that I need extended intensive exposure to these materials and the people who write them in order to start truly understanding. Right now I understand them on a very superficial level. I'm missing at least 50% of the meaning they are intended to convey.

Related thoughts
1. Whatever I am reading now and not fully understanding, I should read again in six month or a year to "get" more of it because by then I will have a greater understanding of the context.

2. When writing a technical document, keep in mind that audiences with different levels of contextual knowledge will be reading it. For example, someone who hasn't been breathing and living development literature would probably not get a full understanding of a discussion around "sustainability" because so much contextual knowledge would be assumed rather than clearly articulated.

3. At times, even within our own field of expertise, it is useful to reread a text after a few years. Experience acquired in between the two readings of the same text will influence how we understand the text and how we are able to make connections based on these recent experiences.

4. My daughter's teacher thinks that making the kids reread a short text 15 to 20 times (once a day for a couple of weeks) increases their comprehension -- and fluency. That may be but it sure irritates me and it gets really boring for my daughter!!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Rapid Onboarding

What I've been referring to as my rapid transitioning plan is apparently referred to as "rapid onboarding" by some employers and human resources departments. Wikipedia offers the beginning of a definition of onboarding:

"Onboarding is the process of integrating a new or a newly-promoted leader or associate into an organization or role. Onboarding begins when the leader accepts the position; it includes orientation, and extends through about month six, and sometimes up to one year, depending on the organization. Best practices for a world-class onboarding process include building knowledge, key relationships and providing feedback for the new or promoted leaders."

Three tips that apply equally well to the new employee and the employer:
- Avoid information dump (be strategic about what to focus on)
- Focus on introductions and networking
- Carefully select initial projects

A couple of related resources:

Don't Wait: Start Your New Job Now
Abstract: "Given the frequency of role changes today, managers must have their own fast-start strategy at the ready before transitioning into a new job. The most successful of these strategies combines reconnaissance on both business and cultural issues through face-to-face meetings with colleagues and customers and through plenty of independent research. Learn how sizing up your new role ahead of time can help you do more than hit the ground running."

Getting New Hires up to Speed Quickly
Abstract: "How do managers and companies quickly transform new hires into productive employees, a process called "rapid on-boarding"? The authors contend that companies that are more successful at rapid on-boarding tend to use a relational approach, helping newcomers to rapidly establish a broad network of relationships with coworkers that they can tap to obtain the information they need to become productive. Most organizations realize the importance of integrating new employees, but many fail in this regard, often because of five pervasive myths about the process: (1) the best newcomers can fend for themselves, (2) a massive information dump allows newcomers to obtain what they need, (3) cursory introductions are all that's needed, (4) first assignments should be small, compact and quickly achievable, and (5) mentors are best for getting newcomers integrated. Because of those misconceptions, managers will frequently rely on certain taken-for-granted practices that can actually hinder new employees from becoming productive."

There is probably a way to put a bigger knowledge management spin on this onboarding approach. In essence, what the new employee needs to do is a rapid knowledge audit and knowledge gap analysis to be able to focus on key knowledge areas essential to start contributing to the company/organization's mission. The employer is in a great position to help connect the new employee with the organization's knowledge bases (people, physical knowledge databases, etc...), but the employee is in the best position to identify his/her own weaknesses and knowledge gaps in terms of knowledge needed to do the work.

While most of the literature I came across was looking at the issue from the perspective of the employer and what the employer should do to accelerate onboarding, there should be more about how individual employees might want to take charge of their own onboarding -- especially if the company doesn't have a strong employee orientation or onboarding program. What I did find on this topic tends to focus on the highest levels of management and "how to take charge" rather than the average employee who might be more interested in "how do I become a productive member of the team."

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Transition Acceleration Plan - Initial Adjustments

I'm now a full week into my new job. I'm still in the process of defining my role and describing what I will be doing but here's a first attempt: I work with the Chief Knowledge Officer and other OCKO (Office of the Chief Knowledge Officer) team members at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to "maintain and expand knowledge management practices within Goddard." There is a set of six knowledge management practices that the OCKO focuses on so that the mandate of the office is relatively well defined.

My initial transition acceleration plan is a 100-day plan which involved a combination of learning and doing.

- Who is who? Who does what?
- How do I go about doing X, Y, and Z?
- What does Goddard do? (history, current, future)
- What does the OCKO do? (history, current, future)

I don't have a detailed workplan yet. I didn't expect to have one drawn out by the end of the first week. However, I already have a much better sense of what needs to be done and what the existing team has been doing.

My first inter-related steps include the following:
1) Practicing my "story": What am I doing here? How do I contribute? How do I fit in?; and
2) Getting invited to accompany team members to any meetings I can in order to be introduced to as many people as possible and immediately start building my own network based on the team's existing relationships.

I have a specific idea for a more substantive 100-day project. It hasn't been flushed out yet but from my perspective it would be very useful to undertake a rapid knowledge management audit. I don't want to be doing an extensive audit of knowledge but rather develop an inventory of ongoing knowledge management related activities. For example, there is a main library and then project-specific libraries. There are multiple training and related capacity building events developed across the Center. How can the activities of the Office of the Chief Knowledge Officer complement and leverage ongoing knowledge management related activities sponsored by various parts of the organization?

Week 1 lesson learned: It's fine for me to get a clearer understanding of what my role is going to be but it's as important for other members of the team to share the same understanding.

Monday, April 28, 2008

From Exit Interview to Transition Acceleration Plan

In my last couple of weeks at AED I was trying to think about what I could do to make the job of my successor as easy as possible and in the process, wondering about organizational memory and what happens more generally when people leave an organization. The reverse, what happens when people enter a new organization and need to be brought up to speed is also of interest to me at the moment since I will be transitioning into a position in a new organization.

I see huge potential both for knowledge loss and new learning opportunities. The losses seem to be concentrated with the organization left behind and the new opportunities primarily with the departing employee. Clearly, it takes a while for a new employee to be fully on-board and able to contribute, so there is an investment on the part of the hiring organization. At the same time, the new employee is potentially a source of very valuable knowledge. The new employee's questions, reflections, and analysis of the new situation they are thrown into can provide clues related to the organization's operations that are invisible to those working within it and can provide clues related to how the organization is perceived by outsiders. In other words, could a fresh pair of eyes be useful to the new employer? If so, how can this be leveraged efficiently?

Exit Interview
A traditional exit interview is conducted by the human resources department and is focused on issues related to employee satisfaction and supervisors. Sometimes, it also provides an opportunity for the employee to reflect on the job and offer helpful advice. The objective of such interviews is clearly to help identify potential problems and reduce employeed turnover. However, it has very little to do with trying to retain the employee's knowledge. For these types of exit interviews, it doesn't really matter if they are conducted on the last day of employment.

For long-time employees going into retirement, there are other approaches which can ensure that as much as possible of the retiring employee's knowledge is retained within the organization. That doesn't address the knowledge loss resulting from the changing nature of the workforce and the fact that younger generations don't expect to be working for the same employer for more than a few years and therefore may have more self-centered learning and knowledge strategies of their own.

My questions during my last couple of weeks of employment centered around relatively short-term issues:
- How will my successor and former colleagues find my files?
- What files do I leave and what do I take with me?
- For those projects that need to go on without me, how can I make it easy for those taking over to do so without wasting time and energy reinventing the wheel?
- How do I transfer important communication trails (emails) so that they do not disappear with my email account? Who do I transfer them to?
In the end, I didn't have much guidance on any of these issues and I made up my own answers.

Transition Acceleration Plan
Now that this exiting process is completed, I can start focusing on what happens when entering a new organization. It's probably impossible not to start thinking about that earlier -- at least once you've officially accepted a job. Based on past experience, I can say that getting to understand how things work, how things are done within an organization, can be a lengthy process. My goal in the coming months is going to figure out how to accelerate the process. Ideally, I would want to minimize the transition period -- the period of time during which I am absorbing knowledge -- being a sponge -- and contributing very little value. Perhaps I'll call it my transition acceleration plan. And perhaps a pair of fresh eyes can contribute value early on precisely because I don't know how things are done and I should be asking questions.

Some of these reflections were inspired by my recent reading of"Lost & Found: A Smart-Practice Guide to Managing Organizational Memory," by Peter Stoyko and Yulin Fang for the Canada Public School Service (2007).

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Moving on....

Yesterday was my last day working at AED. I worked with AED for a little less than four years.

* rewarding -- most of the time :)-- as in "Wow... I can see how that has an impact on development."

* a great learning experience -- as in "That worked well, let's make sure to do it again this way," or "That flopped... let's not do it again," and "How did I not see that before...".

* challenging -- as in "that really pushed me to learn or do something I didn't know I could do" and "What on earth are we doing? This doesn't make any sense to me....".

In the process of reflecting on these past few years and looking ahead, I want to be able to remember as much as possible of the work I did, the relationships, the people. Below is a little collage representing the last few years at AED. Some of it would have meaning only to me but that's the idea.... The next time I have to go to an interview and I have to explain what I did at AED, I'd rather look at this collage to bring up memories than look at a few lines on my CV.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


The Food and Agriculture Organization and the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation invite applications from members to participate in a free four-day Online e-learning Course:



I have been a fan of online learning for a long time, to the point of developing my own online courses and having a lot of fun running them on my own. To be fair, the sessions were not truly online. If we're now in the web 2.0 era, I think my course was web -1. We used a CD-ROM for content and an email discussion list for communications. I suspect that there are still quite a few people in developing countries who would appreciate this low tech approach. At the same time, I doubt anyone would dare to offer something this backward in the web 2.0 era...:) that would be akin to offering an old fashioned snail mail distance learning course.

So, each time I come across a new online course intended for participants in developing countries and focusing on development issues, my eyes open slightly wider and I check it out. Are they offering it for free? Do they say how much time the participants will need to spend online per day? Do they mix participants from all regions? Do they include participants in the US, Europe, Australia, etc...? Do they have specific technical requirements, a specific browser, etc...? How long is the course? Four days? Did they select such a short period based on past experience with longer courses? Is that the online course attention span these days?

I hope to get the opportunity to facilitate an online course again, or at least facilitate some kind of online knowledge sharing community. It's been a wonderful experience in the past.... and with the technologies evolving so quickly, I'm sure it would be an interesting learning experience again.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

eGov 2.0

I attended an interesting World Bank videoconference event yesterday on "Next Generation Organizational Models for e-Government." First I keep marveling at the technology that enables the participation of so many different locations across the world -- I think 13 different locations were connected via videoconferencing for the event. I still remember a few years ago when there were always technical difficulties with some of the sites, especially when such a large number of sites were connected. Whether the technology has evolved or the people have mastered the technology, the last few events I have attended or watched via webcast have been close to flawless. It is now a well-oiled machine with participants completely comfortable with the medium, including simultaneous translation (for Russia) that was so seamless that it took me a while to realize that it wasn't the speaker I was hearing but the translator.

Congratulations to the team putting these events together! It is really a testament to their extensive experience doing it over and over and improving continuously.

Now to the theme of yesterday's event. I really heard two themes. The first one was about the organizational structure needed to support successful e-Government initiatives. It is better to have a centralized body or to decentralize responsibilities for e-Government? If there is a centralized body, how large should it be? What should be its responsibilities? How can countries maintain a certain level of e-Government expertise (capacity) in a decentralized environment? Can a matrix organization model help to address some of the challenges?

The discussion reminded me of a chapter in Richard Heek's "Implementing and Managing eGovernment: An International Text," where he discusses the advantages and disadvantages of centralized vs. decentralized approaches and the evolution towards hybrid models.

In essence, this first theme was a more traditional discussion around how to structure e-Government support organizations within a government structure, including some discussion of the role of the private sector.

The second theme I heard revolved around the potential impact of web 2.0 technology and the emergence of new organizational models potentially leading to eGov 2.0. I used the words "potential" and "potentially" in the sentence above because while the ideas are being discussed, there are very few governments that have taken the lead in applying web 2.0 technologies and business models.

A lot of the discussions around web 2.0 focus on the social networking aspects and how the technologies enhance participation and engagement of the people (especially youth at this point). The potential impact of web 2.0 in terms of participation and engagement with government entities was mentioned but I was more struck by the potential of web 2.0 in terms of the application of new business models, new approaches to revenue generation. A key obstacle to the implementation of e-Government initiatives in many emerging countries has been the lack of funding and the limited base of taxation. In such contexts, innovative revenue generation models are certainly going to be welcome.

Clearly, there is still going to be a huge problem for countries where PCs and the Internet are not widespread yet. Both access to computers and the bandwidth are going to be key. Perhaps we need to start talking about m-Gov 2.0 (next generation mobile government).

For more information about yesterday's event at the World Bank, see the eDevelopment site.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fiction with a Mission

I can't remember a time when I was more excited and sure that I had come up with a great idea than when I suggested the use of fiction as a way of conveying key lessons learned around telecenters. I had been reading a lot about the use of storytelling as a knowledge sharing tool and then case teaching as a method for teaching. We were looking for something innovative, not just another toolkit or cookbook and so I suggested that we develop a fictional country with fictional characters and a plot. Through their experiences, the main characters would come to identify key lessons learned and develop a process for others to use. While the initial reaction to the idea was somewhat positive, the final word was "no, this isn't going to fly."

I've come to realize that an idea that fails isn't necessarily a bad idea. Sometimes the timing is wrong, the manner in which the idea is introduced is less than ideal, or some other contextual element is acting as a barrier.

It's quite possible that I could not have made it fly but I haven't given up on the idea of using fiction. Since then I've discovered a series of "business novels" that are doing something similar to what I meant to try. In other words, I didn't come up with a brand new idea. It already existed. I just wanted to make it work in the context of a development-related issue.

I've compiled a reading list related to this theme of business novels and I'm working my way down the list. I've now read "Jack's Notebook" by Gregg Fraley and "Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson. "Jack's Notebook" is about Creative Problem Solving and "Who Moved My Cheese?" is about change and how people deal or fail to deal with change. These two books are different in style: "Jacks' Notebook" has a real plot and characters, it reads like a simple novel; "Who Moved My Cheese?" is more akin to a fable. However, they are both written with a primary focus on conveying a set of key principles or concepts, using a storytelling approach. Mainstream novels may have an underlying theme but don't have as their primary function to teach anything. Their primary function is to entertain the reader.

Here's my reading list:

Patrick Lencioni's Business Fables

* The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, by Patrick Lencioni.
* Silos, Politics and Turf Wars: A Leadership Fable About Destroying the Barriers That Turn Colleagues Into Competitors
* The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: A Fable for Managers (And Their Employees)
* The Five Temptations of a CEO: A Leadership Fable.

Jeff Cox's seven business novels

* The Goal
* Zapp
* Quadrant Solution
* Heroz
* The Venture
* Selling the Wheel
* The Cure

Other Examples

* Flying Fox
* Runamok
* The Management Game
* Who Moved My Cheese
* Jack's Notebook
* Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting, By Steve Litt
* The Deadline: A Novel about Project Management

My hope is to learn from these examples of "didactic fiction" and come up with a development-related version. If you are reading this and you know of some existing examples in development-related fields, please let me know.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Click on the map to enlarge

WikiMindMap is a web-based tool that transforms Wikipedia articles into a mindmap. I haven't figured out yet how to use the tool on a different wiki, if it is at all possible.

The mindmap above corresponds to the article on telecenters in the English version of Wikipedia. I used "telecenter" simply because I am familiar with the content of the "telecenter" article on Wikipedia and I wanted to see how that familiar content would translate into a mindmap.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Trying to find the right mix of pens, notebooks, and electronic tools to keep track of projects, to-do lists, planning, random thoughts and reflections is not easy. I've never seen the world as either/or. I don't want to switch to an all digital file system but I do want the convenience of being better able to quickly find a note I jotted down six months ago without having to flip through pages and pages of a notebook.

I was focusing on personal knowledge management this week, not only as something I'd like to have a very good handle on for my own personal purposes but also as the starting point for more productive collaborative efforts and organizational KM. Somehow I ended up jumping into a discussion on the KM4Dev (Knowledge Management for Development) List, asking a question about tools that might help me address some of my personal knowledge management challenges, and ended up testing out TiddlyWiki.

TiddlyWiki is not a software per se but an html page full of code in the background that allows you to have a personal wiki on your desktop or on a USB key. All you need is a browser. It took me a good 30 minutes to figure out the key "this-is-how-it-works" principle, probably because I was looking for something more complicated. In the end, it's extremely easy to start with the basic version.

A couple of things hit me while I was playing around, figuring out how it worked and how I was going to use it for my own purposes:

1. The more languages you know, the easier it is to learn a new one. I don't know a lot of HTML but having a minimal understanding of what HTML does helps to grasp how other languages work -- without ever wanting to become a programmer or to master any of these languages. I have now experienced three different types of wikis. They each work slightly differently but once you get the basic principle, it's relatively easy.

2. Tagging is similar in some ways to coding in qualitative research. Until this week, when I used my newly created TiddlyWikis extensively for personal knowledge management purposes and for a research project activity, I had not fully understood the purpose and value of tagging. The more I experiment with new technology tools the more I am convinced that experiencing the tools, hands-on practice, is essential for people to realize and fully understand what these tools can help you with. Once I made the connection between tagging and coding in qualitative research, I was better able to integrate it into my own thinking/tagging practice.

I am now hooked on TiddlyWiki.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Portrait vs. Landscape

In the last two days, I have downloaded three documents from the web for offline reading. These were PDFs clearly meant for offline reading. All three are in landscape (horizontal) layout. Coincidence? Could it be a trend? If it is a trend, where does it come from? Could it be that our reading habits are changing -- we're scanning rather than reading -- and document layouts need to adjust to the way our eyes and brains are now handling written materials? After all, the landscape layout more closely resembles the computer screen shape and allows for a two or three column format. Of course, you can put two or three columns in a portrait layout but it's easier on the eyes with a landscape layout.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Learning from Doing - Social Bookmarking

I've just posted a short article on social bookmarking.

I'm not going to repeat here what is in the article but this is how it started out and I suspect the same happens to a lot of people: You hear a buzz about a new technology or a new cool gadget. You're not quite sure what it does, how it could help you and any time you hear about it or read about it, you're still not quite sure you're getting the full picture. The only way to get to that point where you can tell whether it's going to be useful to you is by trying it out.

And so I tried social bookmarking a while ago. The short article I posted in the Articles section of the website highlights what I've learned testing out FURL. It doesn't attempt to compare FURL to any other tool. All the social bookmarking tools sufficiently similar that you can just pick one and run with it.

And if you want to take a look at the types of resources I bookmark, check it out in my FURL Archives.

Multimedia Case Studies - NASA

NASA's APPEL (Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership) project develops case studies that "illustrate the kinds of decisions and dilemmas managers face every day, and as such provide an effective learning tool for project management. Due to the dynamic and complex environment of projects, a great deal of project management knowledge is tacit and hard to formalize. A case study captures the complex nature of a project and identifies key decision points, allowing the reader an inside look at the project from a practitioner's point of view."

This is what I want to do when I grow up. I want to create case studies based on projects, case studies that capture the complexity of real-life projects.

You don't truly learn project lessons unless you've lived through the project (and paid attention to what was going on). Alternatively, you can "re-live" the project through a well-documented case study. That's what case teaching tries to achieve in business schools, laws schools and many other places of learning. So, why are we not using this approach as much in international development?

The most powerful training I have ever attended was scenario-based. Training scenarios based in real-life situations allow you to internalize what you may have learned in a lecture setting or a manual. The most powerful job interview I have ever had the pleasure of participating in was scenario-based. Is there any better way to test someone's ability to perform the job than to ask them how they would handle some of the job's most demanding tasks? Why don't we train project managers with case studies? The answer is that we don't have that many good case studies. We write success stories to demonstrate that we've done well, not case studies to learn and share what we've learned.

Part of the challenge is that we are not comfortable discussing ongoing or completed projects in anything other than the "success story" mode. We're not comfortable talking about what went wrong and what could have been done better.

Another challenge is that completed projects are in the past. We've moved on to other projects and we're not that interested in retrospective analysis. At best, we've perhaps integrated some lessons learned from a project into the design of the next project. The lessons learned essentially stay within the team and are not shared more broadly within the organization or externally.

Try the NEAR Case Study.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Friday Fun -- Free Rice, the Future of Technology and Baywatch

If you have.....

0.5 minutes of free time
Give free rice to hungry people by playing a simple — or not that simple — word game and improving your vocabulary. My new term of the week: viral marketing.

6.06 minutes of free time
Information Age... The Future of Technology
Simple yet powerful presentation. Simple in the sense that it is a sequence of plain slides displaying statistical data — not clear where the data comes from. Just the right music for dramatic effect.

10-15 minutes of free time
Baywatch Bigger than Aid, by Charles Kenny (6 pages)
A humorous attempt at measuring the social and economic impact of television and comparing that to the impact of development assistance.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Influence Mapping

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is coming up with an influence mapping tool. The tool was created by Eva Schiffer. It's "an interview-based mapping tool that helps people understand, visualize, discuss, and improve situations in which many different actors influence outcomes." It's called NetMap. It's at the intersection of a game, a mapping tool, a strategic planning tool and something that can be used for community engagement. It looks like something that is both very hands-on, with board pieces, pens and paper, like a board game, but with potential for computer generated network analysis and diagramming as well.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


I don't know how many people took advantage of the "Give One Get One" XO laptop offer, but I was one of them. The XO now belongs to my 8 year old daughter and I retain some rights to play with it when she is asleep or simply occupied with other things.

Some thoughts:
1. The interface is not immediately obvious to someone who has used Windows and only occasionally touched a Mac -- that's me. My daughter didn't find it that weird and she had no trouble figuring out how to access the software and start playing some of the games.

2. I was initially able to connect to our home wireless network but it started to fall apart the next day. I eventually figured out from the OLPC website -- using another computer -- that I needed to change some security settings on my wireless network to make it work on the XO. The main challenge was actually to remember my login and password to access the security settings. I had to reset the router and redo the entire wireless network setup, but it's working now.

3. I downloaded most of the existing XO software that wasn't already preinstalled. Some don't work but most do.

4. Things my daughter has been playing:
- The memory game
- Maze
- Jump (a version of peg solitaire)
- Draw
- Story Builder
- Cartoon Builder
- Capture (camera and video)
- TamTam suite of music software

5. Things I have tried:
- One of the first things I tried was to create a memory game. This is going to be very useful to get my daughter to memorize multiplication facts in the coming months. The software comes with some simple addition facts and it's easy to create your own. I might actually show my daughter how to do it herself. The only problem is that I (or she) could do exactly the same thing with handmade cards.
- I loaded a personal photo from a USB key, edited it with the XO, and saved it on the USB key for printing through another computer. I don't know if I can link the XO to a printer directly. Don't need to at this point.
- eToys --- fancy stuff in there... lots more to explore, but I tried the chess game and some of the tutorials.
- Image quiz: Downloading additional questions from the server hasn't worked 100%. I'd like to be able to create the questions and answers to help my daughter review for tests. Again, these are things I can do with plain paper.
- StopWatch -- though I have no idea what to do with it.
- Implode- just fun.
- Plugged in a wireless mouse, which worked instantly and saved me.
- I have not mastered the Journal yet, but I now understand that it's where everything is saved and where files can be accessed.
- Sims City: I have no idea how to play.
- Browsed the web and sent an email.

Some of the things I downloaded are for younger ages and don't have the capacity to adjust to more difficult levels. I might just take them out.

6. Things I don't understand -- a little too geeky for me:
- Turtle Art
- Pippy
- Measure
- Terminal
-Log viewer

7. In the first 24 hours, we turned off the XO by pushing the power button, instinctively knowing that it was probably not the right way to do it. Eventually, we figured out the "right" way to turn it off. Given that there is no manual and no "help" function, these types of first day mistakes should be expected.

8. This is all good fun but these XO are meant for kids in developing countries, to be used in a school and home setting. Yes, most kids will find them easy to play with. Yes, some (fewer) kids will be able to explore the more advanced games and develop their creativity with them (without any help from teachers or adults). However, given the little I know of teachers in most developing countries, getting the teachers to integrate the XO into their teaching isn't going to be simple.

That's it for now!