Musings, Rants, and Random Thoughts

sometimes you have to put baby in a corner

Lately, I’ve been either working with people who are less than enthusiastic about developing a meaningful rapport with myself and my department or have been affected by various issues that have made them less collaborative/cooperative.  In general, I try to build relationships that will help out in the long-run.  That will create allies, that will form partnerships, etc.

I have learned recently that perhaps it’s a futile effort.  That the best tactic is, to turn a phrase, to put [the] baby in the corner.  <nod to Dirty Dancing>

I use the term “baby” on purpose.  A professional that is unwilling to develop a rapport – or even listen to one proposing to form such a relationship – is, in the context of a professional work environment, a baby.  This is someone who is immature, pouts about the realities of his or her job rather than faces up to the challenges, and points fingers and places blame on others.

When working with someone that is like this, my manager gave me some very sound advice recently.  Don’t try to build a rapport.  Ignore all the inane, illogical issues surrounding the discussion.  Place out of mind the obvious fact that if we were to work together, we could get so much more done.

Focus on what you need, and how to get it.

Not in a selfish way – if we are ones that are frustrated over lack of building rapport, we are likely ones that are generally not selfish when it comes to working with others.  But in the sense that, should all diplomatic efforts fail, just focus on what you need to get your job done.

Put that “baby” in a corner.  Pin him or her down with whatever mental constructs you need to block out all the noise.  Focus in on what information you need – how long before the problem is fixed?  What do you need from me to fix it faster?  How quickly can we get out of this conversation now that we’ve gotten our needed information? – and put on blinders to everything else.

This is really a last resort (and as last resorts go, this is far from Machiavellian) and one should still go for collaboration and communication first.  But I’m already finding it to be a useful communication construct when one runs into serious and undeniable barriers.

Counter-points?  For those 5 people that read this?

what do I really bring to the table?

A great many of us, I am willing to wager, want to believe that we are doing something meaningful in life.  That whatever it is we do, it is making some kind of difference to someone.  It is quite reasonable that the “someone” is one’s supervisor, by the way, and that the “meaning” is in the quality of the work we do.  Not everyone is out saving the world.

However, there are people about whom we marvel when we consider the work being done.  The people that are, in some ways, saving the world.  Inevitably, one thinks twice about his or her own accomplishments in such situations.

Perhaps not everyone is as introspective as I am (please don’t ask me how I’m feeling when the new year or my birthday is around the corner, as I really get gloomy then).  And perhaps…though unlikely…there is a reader of this blog that has worked with cancer patients or started a school in a third world country.  The type of stuff that makes me sit back and just say “wow.”  But right now, I’m willing to bet if you took a look at the work of some of my colleagues, they would make all of us sit back for a bit.

Note – this is not a post about how I think my work is lame.  Not at all.  I enjoy my work and I do feel that I make some difference – for good – here and there.  It is a post about how much I admire the work of others.  I am incredibly lucky to call some of these people co-workers.

Look up the Northern California Innocence Project and find out more about the amazing work they do.  Look up the cases of Maurice Caldwell and Franky Carrillo.  Those are just a couple of the articles you will find in a quick search.  Both of these men were imprisoned for YEARS.  DECADES.  Wrongfully.  And, with the help of other law firms that generously donate their time, the lawyers at NCIP overturn these convictions not just on DNA but on poor defense attorneys, prosecutorial misconduct, or inaccurate “eyewitness” accounts.  This is truly inspirational material.

The other day, I was over at the NCIP offices and was joking with Paige Kaneb  – one of the supervising attorneys – about how we had purposely turned off her DVD-playing capability on her computer just to mess with her.  Totally random joke and, admittedly, the kind that I make too often (oh, you’re having problems?  that’s right, we decided to turn the internet off for you today..).  But then I thought some more about that random chat later and realized that this person, this completely accessible, friendly person that is laughing along with my poor attempt at humor helped free these two men.  Paige also mentions that she wants the DVD feature so she can watch footage from the LAPD.  So she can help free someone else.

Later that day, I’m talking with Linda Starr, the project’s Legal Director, about what kind of laptop she needs.  My questions are about how often she will be traveling with the laptop, what kind of battery life she needs, and other practical but banal items.  Linda will be using that laptop on the road, helping to poke holes in the incredibly fallible human component of our legal system.  But the laptop is just a tool used in pursuit of justice.  It’s Linda herself, her devotion, and the work that comes from that devotion that just amazes me.

Yes, part of me is feeling this sense of disproportion between my concerns about the accuracy of our equipment inventory and the work at NCIP.  I’m the little elf that keeps the machine going while Linda and Paige (and don’t get me started on Cookie Ridolfi, who is a force of nature, to say the least, and worthy of an entire blog post) make real change.  I make sure DVD players are working and talk about what kind of computer one should buy.  Maybe I get to do something “exciting” and suggest a mobile broadband hotspot so that they can help work on these cases in the field.

And even if someday I’m the president of a university, or working in strategic development in a major tech company (yes, those are my goals), part of me will still think that what I’m doing pales in comparison to anything Paige, Linda, Cookie, and others do on a daily basis.  And today, as the head of technology at the SCU Law School, my work feels somewhat narrow and tangential.

Paige, Linda, Cookie, and to all of the others at NCIP – on the odd chance you ever see this, please know that I feel lucky to be able to be the one that helps with your printers and DVD players.  And that I hope that, maybe just a little, the strategic plans I work on today for the law school’s technology future will help make your jobs easier.

half-assed Google products

[NB – As I have been writing and editing this post, Google already updated their Docs application suite to make it a bit more functional.  I haven’t done a lot of real-time editing with someone else so I don’t know if it’s any better, but the point is that this post might be irrelevant before I do eventually hit “publish.”

There is also the chance that other items about which I complain will be addressed quickly.  Finally, this is all based on the premise that Google has done little to show true strategic planning from their somewhat haphazard roll-out of products.  Not everyone agrees with this view, and I know that.]

I’ve mentioned before that I think Google lacks strategic planning, and that their tactical moves suggest disorganization and or potentially fatal decentralization in pursuit of freedom to innovate.  First-to-market is an important achievement, and FULLY ACKNOWLEDGE that perhaps that is the one and only driving force behind the release timing of many Google products.  But let’s put that item aside for now.

With the release of Google Docs for Android, which makes their own (half-assed) product on their own operating system somewhat more usable, I thought I would take a moment to examine the number of products that the company has launched that have potential that has been too long in realization or that have just floundered about, without a clear path to success. (more…)

stuck in an analog world

Last week, during my budget meeting, I got to “see” a great tool that our finance officer had put together.  It was a spreadsheet, true, but anyone that has worked with really complex ones knows that a properly designed sheet that has every reference done just right and provides the right data is as valuable as the $10,000 server software running on the $15,000 server in the data center.

What was weird is that, after being told of this great file, I was given a paper copy of what it looks like.  I didn’t get to see any of its dynamic nature.  I didn’t get to punch in my numbers and see how my proposal and/or its variants affects other parts of the school.  I didn’t get to interact with it.  It was an inherently digital artifact in analog form.

This struck me as a classic misalignment of the traditional meeting room and the digital commons (or some small version of it).  Meeting rooms are about handing around stacks of paper, scribbling down notes, and then (hopefully) filing all that away in a place you can find later.

Working together in a digital commons is about interacting with files such as the one described, looking at different scenarios and sharing information via various collaboration tools (maybe I could import the data quickly via a cloud-based sharing tool.  Or have it already in that tool and available as part of the numerous other cloud-based budget folders shared to the finance officer).  Taking notes would be done on, say, a tablet, where one does direct, digital markup of the original proposal.

Everything stays digital.

Not every meeting should go this way.  But one that is based around a dynamic, digital file…that probably should.

online scholarship

The idea of online scholarship has come up quite a bit recently at work.  By this, I mean that part of a scholar’s work must, in today’s world, be done online, or at least exposed online.  So when you write an article, you tweet about it.  You have and maintain a blog in which you talk about your academic research and comment on events related to your field.  A scholar really cannot afford to keep his or her work entirely in the hardcopy domain, passively waiting to be discovered and recognized.

It is my job, similarly, to take time to put my thoughts and ideas online.  For me, topics would be educational technology, management in higher ed, and…lots of other things.  If there is a resolution I’m willing to make for this year, it is not just that I will blog more often, but that I will make it a point to blog as part of my job.  To be an active member of the online community on topics related to my job and my field.  Yes, it’s still passive in that people have to find my blog or see my tweets, but I am here, online, and just a quick search away on Google…

it’s all in the words

I think that one’s choice of words can really say a lot about one’s perspective on many matters.  One can certainly read too much into words – trying to get tone and meaning out of an e-mail is an invitation to disaster and misinterpretation (today, I decided against sending an e-mail and opted for a phone call because I couldn’t find a way to write a response without sound cold…).

But choice of words can mean a lot.  A while ago, I was having a conversation about our respective departments and, therefore, staff.  It’s perhaps too subtle, but what I noticed was:

“they work for me.  they are supposed to do what I ask or tell them to do.”

“we work together to make our decisions happen.  if our actions deviate too far from the plan, I ‘correct’ things, but then we try and keep moving along.”

That’s a bit of an exaggeration on both examples.  But in both situations the staff do work for us, and they are responsible for making our plans happen.  And we are in charge of making those plans.  But the two descriptions couldn’t be more different in perspective.  And it’s probably safe to presume that there is an underlying, corresponding difference in approach to management.

Just some random thoughts.

an olive branch turned into stifled innovation

Disclaimer:  The Tech Steering Committee Innovation Grants offered by Santa Clara University are a terrific idea in support of those that have viable proposals to move teaching and learning forward.  Without these grants, many projects could not even get off the ground.  That these grants even exist at a smaller university is a testament to the commitment from the very highest levels of the university to innovative uses of technology in meaningful and hopefully important ways on education, learning, and university experience.

Having said that…a recent experience with the TSC grants has left a very bad taste in my mouth.  It seems contrary to the goals of the program, in fact.  It takes what was an olive branch offered in line with the very criteria for a proposal and turns things all around, potentially stifling innovation.

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false advertising and hiding the tracks

Usual disclaimer:  IT groups at any university are faced with a tough challenge.  Limited resources, usually not quite enough staff to manage too many enterprise-level type services, and a strong, legitimate desire to do things the right way that gets misread as slow response, lack of concern, and or a number of other negative opinions from constituents.  I don’t like saying this is a “thankless job” because it’s an overused term, but it really can be like that.  I’m sure that the various folks indicated and implicated in this post are doing their best – I know that they are.  And I know that they could probably write posts about me that are similar, too.

Having said that…there have now been 2 instances of what I consider to be false advertising followed by an attempt to hide the tracks leading to those inaccuracies that truly, deeply frustrate me. At the very least, there is a lot of spin going on.  Yes, I know these are strong words. (more…)

management and innovation

A while ago, I posted about how hard it is to be a manager.  It was a kind of introspective, philosophical post rather than an in-depth analysis of management.  I was doing an off-the-cuff look at the conflict between being a manager and a leader.  The two are different, but unless you happen to have an administrative manager and a…leader manager, you often have to be both.  Someone took it rather personally, though.  The specific comment was:

“Since when did managers “lead”? Their job appears to be to punish creativity.”

This was an incredibly harsh reaction to my post, though I think more indicative of the contributor’s experiences than the content of my post, to be honest.  But it does get at a very key thing – if the key responsibility of a manager is to control resources, doesn’t that stifle creativity to some extent?  How much freedom can a manager provide when that person is looking at whether we can afford this, or whether this falls within a certain policy, etc?  Managers tend to look at boundaries – it’s an inherent part of the job.

However, it need not be the ruling philosophy, and I am actually quite opposed to an approach that looks at limits rather than opportunities.  I think that if one looks only at the boundaries and thinks first about policy then there is less rather than more organization, and certainly less creativity.  So I do not at all agree with the comment quoted above – I do think it’s possible to be a manager, and encourage creativity.

I don’t quite formalize things like Google does, where employees are asked to spend a certain amount of time each week thinking of “new ideas,” but I do put the responsibility of thinking of new concepts or new ways of doing things on the staff in my department.  I want to be able to trust them not only to do their jobs, but to approach those jobs with an eye towards thoughtfulness, thoroughness, and creativeness.  So I want everyone to think about what is being done, whether all the bases have been covered (documentation, informing people, etc – yes, this can create more structure than allow creativity), but then to ask “is this the best way?”

Even if it seems to be the only clear method, I encourage staff to then posit “there is another way.  What is it, and is it better?”  I hope that they will come to me with those ideas.  Yes, I will have to think about costs, because we don’t have an unlimited budget.  But I also budget each year for “random things we’ll try because they are cool,” and I hope that staff will take advantage of that.

Management need not stifle creativity.  Management should, in fact, encourage it.  Maybe crossing the line to leadership is another whole ball of beans (messier than just a can of beans, no?), but at the very least a good manager should leave room for creativity.

My biggest fear, by the way, as I write this is that someone that knows me and my management style will read this and immediately think “Allan doesn’t manage like that at all.  He’s a dictator and control-freak, not one that encourages creative thinking.”  I try not to think about that.

EDUCAUSE_HULK SMASHES twitter

A superhero touched down at the Educause Annual Conference last week in Anaheim.  Experiences were changed, Twitter was twisted, and everyone was asking…

“Who is Educause_Hulk????’

At this year’s Educause Annual Conference, held last week in Anaheim, I got to witness something that, realistically, doesn’t happen all that often anymore.  I got to see an existing social networking tool get twisted and used in a new way.  I got to witness the impact of Twitter, twisted.

It is true that a great many tools – social networking and media ones in particular – are used in new, creative ways every day.  Discovering new ways to use a tool such as Twitter is so common that calling it “reinvention” is almost inappropriate.  It’s almost commonplace.  So this isn’t new in the big sense, but within the particular context of the conference and how Twitter has been used therein, something quite remarkable happened.

Twitter has been used at conferences for quite some time, as both a great way to set up social activities (“hey!  I’m here, who wants to get some food?” or “Let’s have a tweet-up!”) and to share information (“in a great session about topic X where such and such is said”).  Of course, the use of a hash tag is required to organize all of this data, and an easy-to-read interface like that of Tweetdeck makes for a very powerful tool for communication.  If you take a look at the Educause 2010 stream, you see it is littered with all kinds of posts.  I think the first time Twitter was used so heavily at an Educause event was about 3 years ago at ELI, and it has just blossomed (exploded?) since then.

This past conference, however, saw a new twist.  An attendee created an “alter ego” – EDUCAUSE_HULK – and posted on a semi-regular basis as that persona throughout the conference.  This had a huge impact, at least for me, on the overall experience, and it raised a number of questions for the person behind the Hulk, too.

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