“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog


Archive for May, 2012

Managing the Innovation Cycle

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

When we can afford to innovate, we don’t. We are happy. We are making lots of money, our staff are happy and busy, we have too much damn stuff to do to worry about the Next Big Thing. Besides, the current Big Thing will be around for ever, surely?

When we most need to innovate, we can’t. We are in straightened times, struggling to do what we need to do with the current staffing levels, trying desperately to hang on to our current activities and make them viable. We just don’t have the time or resources to risk on something that might not work out.

I’ve seen this happen in universities. Departments that are doing well see little (strategic) need to consider delivering new degree programmes: the current programmes are recruiting well, staff are enjoying teaching them, the students are enthusastic and there doesn’t seem to be any shift in the supply of new applicants year on year. We could easily put together something new, risky and exciting; but, who cares? When student numbers dry up, we flail around for new courses to deliver, and end up putting on untried and cobbled-together courses without the staff effort to do it properly.

I would imagine that this same cycle holds in many kinds of organisations.

What can we do, as a management strategy, to handle this cycle better?

Communicating out-of-the-Ordinary Decisions

Monday, May 28th, 2012

All organisations need some way of handling situations that are out of the ordinary. Regardless of the complexity of an organisations (written or tacit) processes, there will be times when a situation occurs that is unusual; to take a simple example, consider a railway network when there is a broken down train.

In small organisations the decision taken can be communicated on an ad hoc basis as needed. But, in a large organisation such as the railway network, an ad hoc decision can require the cooperation of a number of actors in the system. For example, I have sometimes been told by someone at a station that it is okay to take a particular alternative route or a different train to the one that I was booked on to, only to find that the staff on the train make a different decision.

How could this be effectively communicated? The obvious solution is for the person making the ad hoc decision to communicate this to other actors that need to be involved. There are problems with this—if the communication is direct, then there is a difficulty of identifying the actors involved. If the communication is indirect—for example, by issuing the customer with a note to show to other people that are involved—then there is a problem with verification (how does the train ticket inspector know that the note allegedly from the duty manager at St. Pancras actually comes from there?).

I wonder if there is a case for some kind of online “blackboard” system where decisions such as this could be noted and then looked up by everyone within the organisation. This depends, of course, as to whether confidential information needs to be transmitted, but in many such cases, this is unlikely.

Variations on Folk Sayings (13)

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

“If God had intended us to have wings, He would have made us fly.”

Wanker! (1)

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Outside my flat in a (studenty, but quiet) area of Edinburgh a few weeks ago. At 11pm on the dot someone starts playing bagpipes at full volume (is there any volume control on those things?), and gives a wonderful rendition of some tune.

Immediately after, several people from the surrounding flats start applauding, a couple of people cheer, and after about two seconds someone clearly articulates the word “wanker”.

What makes this perfect is that he waited until the performance was finished before shouting out—it would have been so easy to have shouted it in the middle, and so less effective.

Quality Assurance (1)

Friday, May 18th, 2012

The pen that we were all issued with as a celebration of my employer getting ISO9001 has just burst, spilling ink all over the desk. Why didn’t they assure the quality of the pens that they bought!

Do it like Derren

Friday, May 18th, 2012

I have in the past been impressed with the ability of people like Derren Brown to present a losing ticket to a bookmaker and get a payout. A little while ago, I had an experience that gave be some insight into how this works. I was rushing to get a train at Charing Cross, and when I got there I discovered that the station was closed and that the train was starting from London Bridge instead. A sign said that tickets would be valid on the underground between the two stations, so I rushed to the tube station. When I got there, I tried by train ticket in the barrier and it didn’t work, and so I showed it, with some urgency, to the guard at the barrier, who looked strangely at the ticket. I said “don’t you know that the station is closed; I need to get through” and the guard opened the barrier for me.

When I looked at the ticket a few second later it was an old ticket from Nottingham to Edinburgh.

Somehow, my guileless confidence in the ticket had worked. I think the skill of someone like Derren Brown is to be able to fake this even when knowing that the ticket is irrelevant.

412th in the World

Friday, May 18th, 2012

There was a report in the paper about some minor member of the royal family having achieved some ranking like “412th in the world” in some sport. I wonder what it is like to reach this sort of level of achievement? When I was at school there were a couple of sporting stars—one in tennis, one in swimming𔃉who put in astonishing hours of effort to achieve in their sport. As far as I remember, they were similarly ranked somewhere in the low-hundreds in the country.

At one hand, this is rather a success. Being ranked, say, 243rd in tennis in a country of 60 million is an incredible achievement. On the other hand, it is quite depressing, particularly once you reach your peak and realise that that is as far as you are going to get (this is one of the benefits of intellectual activities—you can always have the hope that you might improve yourself next year, whereas in most sports raw physical constraints set in early).

I really can’t imagine what this is like, whether it is ultimately an amazing feeling that you got to the semi-professional level of an activity, or depressing that you never made it to the top. I suppose in the end it comes down to your motivation for doing the activity.

Crossword Clues (1)

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

A few crossword clues (answers in white after the clue). One day I’ll get around to writing a full crossword.

  • Pug-pugilist (5) (Boxer)
  • Foundational degreee? (5) (Basic)
  • Department store that doesn’t do what it says (10) (Selfridges)
  • Sound, genuine look for misinformation (10) (Propaganda)

Sacred Cows in Higher Education (1)

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Let’s slaughter some sacred cows; or, as I’ve been a vegetarian for a quarter of a century, perhaps some sacred quornburgers. I’m concerned that there are a few things in higher education that we just automatically take as unchangeable background without considering them as part of a tradeoff that we make. The more of these we have, the more sclerotic our decision-making process becomes.

Something that we seem obsessed with when planning teaching is delivering module-for-module what we promised to students on arrival. This promise is made to students before they apply, which in the UCAS system can be over a year before they arrive to start their course. Furthermore, this is dictated by the printing deadline for the dead-tree prospectus—I also thought that this was ludicrous in this online age, but I did a couple of straw polls at UCAS days and the printed doorstop is still used a lot by applicants, so perhaps this isn’t so unreasonable. This adds the best part of another year to the process, as the things have to be designed and printed and distributed a few months before applications start to be made. Then there is a QA and budgeting time-burden of getting programmes and programme-changes approved. Let’s say that in total this means that we need to have made decisions on this a good two years before students enter.

Therefore, we are saying that if we make decisions about a programme by September 2012, and students are on a four year course like most of ours are, we are making decisions about the details of what they will study in Spring 2019. This hardly seems conducive to running a dynamic, up-to-date programme.

I’m not so convinced that students care that much about the details. Of course, if you promised a degree in Ancient History and delivered one in English Literature, you would be in a mess. But, I don’t think that it is unreasonable to be more indicative about the contents of the programme, and expect some trust from student that we will design a good, up-to-date programme for them. We could go further and negociate the contents of the curriculum year-on-year with the cohort who are actually going to study the damn stuff.

I also get the impression that a lot of people “out there” think that we have a lot more flexibility with our students than we do. It would be great if we could pick up a topic in the news in class; take up an offer for a guest lecture from someone passing through; the opportunity to work on a project for an interesting external client now, whilst the opportunity is meaningful, rather than a few months down the line when project choices need to be made. Some people manage to do this sort of thing—but it is rather difficult. I wonder how we could do this within the curriculum, this seems to be exactly what the university experience should be like, yet we have lots of structures that militate against this.

Zeitgeist (3)

Friday, May 4th, 2012

An interesting shift in perspective (from the middle of a recent discussion on Ask Metafilter):

met in a bar, but parents say that they met online

Situations in which I thought that a euphemism was being used but it turned out not to be the case (1)

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Followed signs to the “cloakroom”. Ended up in a room full of coat hooks.

Above the Fold

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Something that continues to bemuse me is why so many web pages continue to split content across so many pages. I can understand in the early days that there was a need to save the amount of information transmitted per page, in order for pages to load in a sensible time. But now, it is the forming of the connection and commencement of downloading that takes time—once a page has started to download, the actual content seems to download very quickly.

Forums are particularly bad at this; frequently, I see things like this:

forum index in blocks of ten entries

I don’t see the point; it takes me a few seconds to read quickly through ten entries, then about the same amount of time to load the next ten, during which my continuous partial attention flicks to another page on the screen. I’d much rather load the whole thing and then read through it all.

I can see one exception, and that is where advertisers are paying each time the page is loaded (but, I understand that this is a rare model these days).

Some sites have taken to downloading more when you reach near the end of a page, a kind of continuous stream of posts; this seems better.

The apotheosis of this can be seen in the emails I get every few months from a second-hand book dealer whose catalogue I signed up for a few years ago. These consist of around 10 separate plain-text emails, in order to “send this by e-mail while minimising problems with formatting and size”. It is astonishing how quickly that sort of thing has gone from being a necessity to being something that looks really weird and outdated.
large list of bookseller's emails

Wise Beyond my Years

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

The AgeAnalyzser thinks that this blog is written by someone 65 to 100 years old.

(from http://ageanalyzer.com/)