Musings, Rants, and Random Thoughts

supporting early adopters, or punishing those that go off the reservation?

A combination of the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) “movement” and the rise of widely-used, highly-effective third party communication systems (eg – Gmail over whatever your company/institution is using) has created what I see as a conflict about whether to support people that you’d call either early adopters or ones that have gone off on his or her own and away from standardized systems.

First, some general definitions and stuff.  BYOD has arisen mostly because incredibly powerful computing devices have hit the mainstream.  Tons of people have smart phones (though the actual % is lower than you might think – recent surveys indicate that a solid 30-40% of cell phone users have, at most, “feature” phones with keyboards or some other extra feature for faster texting, but no web browsing or anything like that.  Many others just have flip phones for regular calling).  Lots of people have tablets.  And laptop ownership went past 75% a long time ago.  So with all of these devices already in our pockets and bags, we have to start considering the ramifications of so much computing and productivity power being brought to our campuses and work places, rather than being provided by.  A computer lab might need to be only half the size of just 2 years ago, with empty desk space being far more useful for students and their own laptops, etc.

Even though AOL first offered its own e-mail system a very, very long time ago (I was on AOL starting in 1994-1995, and I remember it had not yet purchased Compuserv), the massive shift to yahoo and google for personal e-mail also causes an issue.  In the same way that we have to consider that users have their own devices which they prefer to use over the ones we provide, we must also be aware that one’s well-established gmail account might supersede the benefits of an organizational e-mail system (or calendar system, or chat system, etc).  Yes, for work purposes there is the issue of separating official from personal e-mail but the lines get more and more blurred, even for employees, as adoption of these other tools gets higher and higher.  Investment into one’s personal gmail account gets so high that his or her identity is based on that account, not the or one.

We have faculty at Santa Clara Law – people who are scholars associated with an academic institution – who use their gmail accounts with suffixes over their accounts.  I recently worked with a few marketing folks that asked me to contact them on their yahoo and gmail accounts instead of their company ones, because it was faster (and easier to get to one their phones, etc).

A lot of the two movements go hand-in-hand.  Because it’s so easy to connect an Android phone or iPhone to gmail, people prefer to have that account when “on the go.”  As they are more and more mobile, more of their e-mail goes to those “non-sanctioned” accounts.  As more goes there, less goes to the official one.  And so on.

As we look towards a shift to a new e-mail and calendaring (and collaboration) toolset at Santa Clara University, those faculty that switched over to gmail will in fact be left “out in the cold.”  They are using the “commercial” version of gmail, and we’ll be using the “educational” version of either Google or Microsoft’s cloud-based solutions.  Even if we go with Google, there is no migration option from a personal, commercial account to an institutional, Apps for Education one.

So…in a way, we are punishing those that adopted these highly-productive tools (gmail, gchat, etc), potentially a side-effect of early adoption of highly-capable devices (smartphones, tablets).  We are penalizing early-adopters.

Yet we rely on early adopters to push the envelope, to ask the questions that those only one standard-deviation away from the mean have not yet considered, and to help motivate and inspire us to do more and be more creative.

How do we resolve this conflict?  Do we create an environment that encourages early adoption?  Many times it is these individuals that help instructional technologists (or just plain technologists) try new things and work out the bugs.  But what happens when we switch to a standard that leaves them out in the cold?  What safety nets do we provide?  If none, then do we risk fragmentation (aside from dissatisfaction, of course)?

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.


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.