Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Elluminate tutorial

Had an electronic discussion using Elluminate today with several OU people. We're discussing Zittrain's book: The future of the Internet and how to stop it, meeting once a week for three weeks to discuss the next of each of the three sections of the book. There's lots of reviews of his book, like this one at BoingBoing.

Zittrain discusses the generativity of various layers of the Internet including physical, content, social. Generativity is the:
"capacity for unrelated and unaccredited audiences to build and distribute code and content through the Internet to its tens of millions of attached personal computers"
The section we've just been discussing concerns how government intervention prevents generativity - topical given today's news that China has been trying to prevent new computers entering the country without internet filtering software.

Although Zittrain writes about the Internet as though it were some anonymous, autonomous robotic system, it strikes me that a lot of the issues concern people. People provide the problems and the solutions, whether individuals, communities or government.

It would be nice to be able to discuss papers more relevant to my research with other people, and difficult but important books like Berger & Luckman's "The Social Construction of Reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge".

It's difficult to generate ideas or argue with yourself and gets a tad lonely talking to yourself. Elluminate is one way of meeting and discussing synchronously though at a distance, but it requires a server. A wiki is an less synchronous alternative.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Knowledge creation, systems development

Supervisor #2 commented I should search on "knowledge creation" and "systems development". Seven papers came up including one by Jackson and Klobas, 2007. {Jackson, 2008 #1164}

Their paper is about building knowledge in projects. It attempts to apply a model of social constructivism to information systems development. The authors research IT projects, taking the view that for project communication to succeed, people need to ensure shared meanings are established to guide decisions and actions. The researchers aim to get project managers to realise that knowledge is shared understanding, gained through a process of continual sense-making and is a social process. They argue that an organising principle for ISD projects is to take an approach based on the philosophy and sociology of knowledge because the basic principle of understanding is a critical success factor in projects. They tabulate heuristics affecting knowledge sharing, derived from the literature. They list so many aspects that have already been researched that I can’t see what I can add. (Depressing) From 130 heuristics, they have created a survey tool for project managers to guide them in evaluating knowledge sharing in projects. They applied the model to twenty published case studies. To test the theoretical model, they guided users of the survey to rate the extent of which their project had each capability using a scale from one to ten, and to rate the importance of the capability to their project. That approach sounds positivist to me, so a bit contradictory to the paper title:
a practical application of social constructivism.
They conclude their proposed model of knowledge construction is a promising and practical tool for assessing knowledge management health of an ISD.

I have yet to work out how these authors' approach to knowledge fits into a situation that involves consultants as one of three parties in IT projects. And, I wonder how and if I should adapt my interview schedule so that I elicit more systems development and knowledge creation than I currently do.

JACKSON, P. & KLOBAS, J. (2008) Building knowledge in projects: A practical application of social constructivism to information systems development. International Journal of Project Management, 26, 329-337.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Typical research day

  • Make tea as soon as I get into the office
  • Read emails
  • Play jigzone
  • Follow my Zetoc alerts to new papers
  • Use OU library site for electronic access to journals and to search databases like EBSCO
  • Coffee with colleagues
  • Write notes in my bibliographic software (Endnote) or blog
  • Check PhD comics
  • Remember to open Twirl - a feed for my Twitter updates
  • Avoid Facebook
  • Check academic networks like academia.edu or the OU Ning site
By lunch time I've used an email package, rss feeds, a web browser, word processing software and perhaps a drawing package like Inspiration. If I've been working on data I've collected, then I've also used analysis software, and perhaps transcription software.

What I don't do enough of, is reading and writing, slow careful thoughtful reading, and academic writing. I suspect the technology distracts.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Glum: how it feels not to be able to write

Write about how it feels not to be able to write. Scott Berkun says:
It’s sneaky, but damn, it works. The voice in our heads is always saying something, so get it down. Writer-weenies call this free writing, implying something unfortunate about other kinds of writing, but I find it easier to think of as listening. Imagine yourself as a recording device, writing down the radio broadcast of some other person who happens to live in your head. If you think this is weird, write about why it’s weird (See: you can’t win. There’s always a way). Eventually your mind will hit thoughts on the topic itself and, presto, you’re on your way.
But when I write badly, then I feel glum. When my supervisors say they can't understand what I've written, then I feel glum. It's not, not writing that's my problem. It's writing badly. It's not that I don't get the apostrophes in the right place, or split infinitives or misspell. It's writing the right content in the right way to say what I mean and say it so that readers understand, and so that readers find it interesting.


Wednesday, 24 June 2009

OU's 40th birthday

The OU celebrates its fortieth birthday this year. There's to be an open day on campus this Saturday. See http://www.open.ac.uk/platform/campus/events/open-unlimited-anniversary-open-day. It looks full of interesting activities, and what's unusual is that some of them seemed aimed at teenagers rather than small children.

I'll be there.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Action hots up

Action hots up.

I had an interview today and was delighted when my interviewee passed me on to someone else to talk to there and then, same place, same day. With just a little more data, I'll have another case study.

I got in to my desk to receive a phone call from a potential contact asking me to send him some details about my research. Wey-hay. Am I pleased! It was a fellow student who gave me this contact - thank you to her.

I bumped into supervisor #2 and told him - I couldn't keep the grin off my face. He looked surprised, after all we'd spoken only yesterday and I hadn't emphasised this potential case study, and hadn't known about the other contact. Also, he asked if I'd searched for
"knowledge creation" and "system development"
No, I haven't searched for that. I keep a list of all my search terms, where I searched, when, number of hits and comments and that combination is not in my list. Supervisor thinks that's what my research is about, not engagement so I'd better start searching.

Since I have enough to do, just thinking, reading and writing, I am arranging to get some interviews transcribed. The OUBS provides a pot of money for research activities and transcription seems a good way to spend it, so I'm investigating the recommended Way with Words.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Getting the message through

Had supervision today. It wasn't great. Supervisor number 1 is into nag-about-access-mode, worrying that I haven't any more case studies yet. I daren't assure her that I have access until it happens, so I don't give her best case scenarios, but let her worry along with me.

Then neither of them were happy with my writing, "muddled" they said it was and too note-like. I've used bullet points - they said at the last meeting to use bullet points - but it's not good enough because I need to join up the bullet points and the quotes with explanations. And layout the setting more clearly and describe the actors more clearly. And write the story more clearly.

The day after I'd sent the paper to them I had an insight to something in the case study that showed how a missing client-consultant engagement at tactical level was overcome through good consultant-consultant engagement and consultant client engagement at strategic level. When I told them that idea, supervisors liked it, though I thought it analytical and they'd told me to write descriptively so I'd not have included it in this paper.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Weekend writing

I must spend the weekend writing a paper for my supervisors. I should have done it earlier but spent two days doing voluntary work this week plus a day at the GC expo. So it's catch up time

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Project management

BCS project management has an article describing differences between projects and programmes here. It indicates different skills and training are needed.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Trade-off between security and sharing

The trade-off between security and sharing was the topic of a lunch time debate yesterday at the Government Computing Exhibition. Speakers were:
  • Sureyya Cansoy, Associate Director, Intellect
  • John Collington, Group Commercial Director, Home Office
  • Toby Stevens, Director, Enterprise Privacy Group
Like the earlier debate, innovation was praised. Suraya Cansoy advised that collecting information across boundaries involved debates about data and security sharing. She had three points:
  1. trust has been broken (statistical proof exists)
  2. recognise the need for action by government and IT industry to restore that broken trust
  3. benefits come from information sharing. e.g, the DVLA can access your passport photo so you don't need to entrust your passport to the vagaries of the post
John Collington talked without notes - impressive. He told the story of data loss last August, when a supplier lost a memory stick, and consequently a contract for £500,000. The Home Office investigated:
  • the required data
  • processes
  • company
  • the person (who lost her job)
He stated that we need a culture change to make people aware of the need to protect data.

Questions came from

This debate itself was interesting, but even more interesting was the chap I sat next to who is heavily against Phorm. Since my students have just had to write an essay on Phorm, it was particularly interesting to hear his views. He runs a web site http://www.inphormationdesk.org arguing that the key issue is the immense potential for harm offered by the unfettered interception of web communications.
"If the Royal Mail offered a service which opened letters in order to improve the quality of junk mail, then you would instinctively know it was wrong and appreciate its future risks. Phorm’s offering is no different."
He also offered to keep in touch to help me with my research, so I'm extra pleased.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Designing public services

Spent the day at the Government Computing Exhibition, just to wander round the stands, see who are consultants, what services they offer: legal, data, management, IT, training. The talks were interesting. One was on
What if public services were designed the way users want them?
The speakers included:
  • David Brindle, the Guardian, Public Services Editor
  • Alexis Cleveland, Director General Transformational Government, Cabinet Office
  • Joan Saddler, National Director for Patient and Public Affairs, Department of Health
  • Sir Michael Bichard, Chair of the Design Council and Director, the Institute for Government
Sir Michael Bichard started by pointing out how bad the UK public sector is at designing services. At service design in the private sector the UK is a world leader. Design drives innovation, provides tools to create, which leads to profits in the private sector, where we are good at design. These techniques can transfer to the public sector. We need to work collaboratively across bureaucratic boundaries, and integrate IT. He gave an example of LiveWork, which explored and mapped barriers to work. IT found a confused offering from different groups that was rarely understood by the client. Redesign was required.

Alexis Cleveland talked about the cost of error and failure, agreed there was a need for innovation and gave some examples of best practice, empowering citizens. For example, they redesigned a system for receiving phone calls to 18 numbers, thereby reduced calls, but the system meant that funding went down because there were fewer calls. They also noticed that demand peaked on Monday, and discovered it was a reaction to sending letters on Thursdays. So they redesigned when letters went out. The redesign meant a reduction of nearly 50% of staff, the number of compliments went up and complaints went down. Another example was setting up a web site Show Us a Better Way to ask the question. It sounds great, but how do the inarticulate articulate a better way?

What would you create with public information?

They got the public to suggest web sites that would be useful to them, such as how to find a school near where you live. Data mashing produced a school map. The public got a lot of value, and it cost the government nothing because it was designed by those who wanted the information.

Joan Sadler required design to listen to patients and staff. Communication is part of good leadership. For example, Obama referred to "mutual interest and mutual respect" without presuming what is best. She wants to check what staff use, without imposing a solution, but recognising a right to engage effectively with a system, designing around a person. Again though how do those too humble and quiet express what they want?

Questions came from people at Thames Communication, Alexoria, Berkshire Consultancy.

I hadn't thought of design in the context of services, but then I'm neither a designer nor a provider of services. This was an illuminating talk that merited the time and further discussion.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Poster competition follow-up

There's no feedback on the OU poster competition. I knew I couldn't present but expected to be able to show the poster, share information and get feedback. Since I’d gone to the trouble of creating a poster before I knew of clashing dates, I was a tad peeved to have put in all the effort to then get told that if I couldn't present, there was no need to put the poster up. I'd sent my apologies, with explanation, but got this reply.
"It is not going to be possible for your poster to take part in the poster competition as you do need to be present with it. There is therefore no need to drop off your poster.
Should you decide that you do wish to take part in the poster competition after all we look forward to seeing you by 9.45 am"
No way was I going to take part in 'playing posters' at the expense of losing good contacts. Although, few things would keep me away, one would be access, and I had an opportunity too good to miss.

My director protested to the person who 'organises' the competition, and I was allowed to get a colleague to put the poster up. As a consequence I also learnt that the competition is marked in two halves, 50% for the poster and 50% for the presentation.

However, there's no feedback. No one knows how many marks are allocated to whom for what. No-one can tell me who won, or what topics won, except by word of mouth that science posters won again. It doesn't seem worth the effort.

But I did come second in the on-line competition, so I must have been doing something right. :)

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Following up contacts

Following up contacts can be nervous making. I imagine contacts might be rude - unlikely, or expect you to know something you don't know so you feel stupid and embarrassed. I don't like following up but I have to do it. I think it must be like selling and following up leads; I need to know how to sell.

I plan carefully. If it's a phone call, there are four scenarios:
  1. They answer and say "Yes, do come and talk to our people and our consultants. Give us your dates and we'll draw up a timetable for to talk to three people the first date and arrange three or four others on another date". Ha! I'd be lucky.
  2. They don't answer the phone and I have to try another time. Procrastination is purgatory.
  3. They have an answer phone. I plan before dialling exactly what message I'm going to leave like name, where from, why I'm phoning, that I'll phone again, what my number is time and date of call
  4. Wrong number - check my records and look for the right number.
I also plan email. I write an introduction, why I'm emailing and I hope for a reply. Sometime it doesn't come for weeks and I don't know if it's because people are considering my request or ignoring me, so I hesitate to email again. Often they've very kindly considered my email, taken it to others in the organisation and discussed it. Some have come back and said:
"Sorry, too busy at the moment"
"Sorry, we've no suitable IT project"
"Sorry, we can't help you."
It's good of them to have gone to the trouble. Perhaps it's even been an AOB agenda item for a project closing meeting. So I'm grateful just for the consideration.

What bothers me is if people are worried that my research might expose them to media vilification. To allay fears I've written a short summary on my aims and methodology. Some have asked for my CV - okay. Others have checked my OUBS web page and followed the link to this blog. So I'm being open and honest about my research.

Perhaps my hesitation to follow contacts is because I don't know very much about the contacts so I can't tell if I'm wasting their time. Though I doubt anyone is going to come to me voluntarily saying "Here's our organisation. We used consultants on an IT project that's nearly finished. Do come in! We'll all talk to you."

No, my job is to sell my research - be a saleswoman.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Keeping on track with public projects

The British Computer Society June magazine Project Manager Today has a helpful article,
Keeping on track with public projects,
that draws attention to a National Audit Office report on "Helping Government learn". But you need to subscribe to PM Today, which costs, so I've got only a hard copy. Apparently, accumulated learning is readily accessible - then after centuries of having a British Civil Service we should have learned a lot by now. The NAO is trying to ensure lessons are learned.

Thursday, 4 June 2009


I missed the excitement in the office just before lunch when a thief walked in and stole a lecturer's laptop - was so cool he even said 'hello' to the victim, then walked out of the office. Victim realised laptop was missing and shouted after the man, who hastened his exit, scarpered down the stairs, out the door and made his getaway on his bicycle parked right by the door.

Why had no one questioned a stranger in the office?

We used to have a secretary who knew everybody and would accost a stranger to ask if he needed help. Super secretary had built up relationships with lots of people on the campus, but that super secretary isn't with us any more. We have a part time temp who knows few people in our building. Is this another example of the potential value of social capital that a long lasting secretary could bring?

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Calculating social capital

In the British Computer Society May monthly magazine, IT Now, Karen Lawrence Öqvist discusses how to harness the social capital of a business. The article is also on line here. What surprises me is that she calculates and measures it. She creates a measurement matrix with factors:
  • activity
  • linking
  • new groups
  • knowledge capital uploaded
  • knowledge capital downloaded
Apply these factors to each employee to enable measurement and convert to
"a form that will allow a picture of the informal organisation".
(It seems a bit odd to quantify something in order to get a picture).
Maybe she's got something because after all, Google's search engines use similar ranking algorithms for search results, so why not create an algorithm for social capital.

Practicalities of quantifying some of these factors stall me. For example
Knowledge Capital x Linkage x Relationship Building x Information Seeking x Information Sharing are needed to calculate employee social capital but I don't know how to quantify these. I wonder who has done the calculation, on what sort of business. How happy are they with the model? Perhaps I'd better read Öqvist's book.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Why won't the OU let postgraduates teach?

Remembering that Derek Pugh told us the other day that a PhD is a qualification to teach, OU post grads don't get to teach, which is a bit odd. The PGs in the Citizenship Identities & Governance Group are having a meeting about this discrepancy and what can be done about it. See here.

The OU is a bit different because there aren't lots of students on campus. The only students on campus are the full time post grads. So PGs can't teach face to face unless they take on associate lecturer posts.

However, it's not that the OU won't let its post grads teach; it's that the OU doesn't show post grads how to apply for associate lecturer (AL) posts. There are vacancies advertised here. Every AL has to apply through a formal process even if, like me, you've been an AL for over twenty years.

For every course, and for every rewrite of an old course - one you've been teaching for years - you have to fill in an on-line form that is designed to be awkward to complete electronically. Up to last year, even if the OU had had your details of education and work for years, you still had to fill in those boxes again. For courses starting next autumn, you had to apply by last week - I missed that date because it's such a hassle to fill in the forms. Fortunately, I tutor two courses already, and don't want to tutor more until autumn 2010, when I finish my PhD.

PGs have to compete with other people from outside the university for these jobs. The distance learning students want the best tutors, so the OU has a duty to employ the best that apply. Secondly, PGs might not want to take on an AL contract that involves teaching adults, very varied adults,- it's not the same as tutoring young undergrads in a standard university. PGs might not want to go for jobs in the regions where the jobs exist - far from Milton Keynes.

But the OU could teach PGs to teach digitally, using electronic tools like Elluminate to offer extra tutorials, even if they didn't have a tutor group of students and electronic assignments to mark. They'd have to be free tutorials, and the PGs wouldn't earn anything, but get practice. I don't know who'd supervise the sessions and help the PGs to learn to teach - that would cost time and money that I warrant the research school won't take on. But electronic tutorials must be possible.

Years ago, as an already trained teacher, I went on a month's training course at International House to learn to teach English as a Foreign Language. Each group of three would-be EFL teachers taught one lesson. One gave the starter, another came in with a follow up session, and the third taught the conclusion. Each WB-EFL-teacher taught for only ten to fifteen minutes, but the students were happy to get free tuition. We had a senior teacher who supervised and gave us feedback.

The OU research school could adopt and adapt that idea, so that on Elluminate three PGs could share a lesson. You'd have to get PGs together who all teach the same subject - like three business PGs, or three science PGs. And they'd have to have read the relevant units for the course so they knew what the OU students were expected to know. You'd still need to have someone from the relevant course team help to set up the session and get a course team to announce the opportunity in the relevant electronic forum. Try it as a one-off, but to support the PGs long-term, it would have to be centrally set up and available through the research school. You need:
  • research school to set the opportunity up regularly
  • post grads in the same subject area who want to teach
  • course team that wants to offer extra tutorials
  • knowledge of Elluminate - would the library provide the training?
  • someone to supervise, help and assess the students - could be associate lecturers with day contracts
I don't think the various parts of the university know enough about each other to set this up.

Technology I use for research

Research uses technology:
  • Microsoft Office (though I could use Open Office - it's Microsoft available on campus). I use Word for writing, reports, chapters and Excel for my plans.
  • Phone - not Skype though
  • Blogging software - this, and I have tried the OU's Assistive Publishing System (APS) to create an internal web site.
  • NVivo for qualitative analysis
  • SPSS for statistical analysis, though not much since I completed the Master in Research Methods.
  • Virtual Private Network(VPN) - very useful for accessing my files on the server at the OU when I'm working at home
  • microfiche - once for a PhD thesis that the library got hold of for me.
  • Digital recording software - for recording data and playing it back
  • Digital photography software - used to edit photographs for the poster I created for the competition.