Saturday, October 3, 2009

Collaborative Saturday

One of the major challenges of running a dispersed, global organization is, literally, keeping everyone on the same page.

Early on, it seemed like I needed to set up project workspaces where people could share background materials, work together on documents, and have discussions in forums. It needed to be reasonably priced, have WSYWIG editors, and support multiple projects. I didn't want to host it, so I needed security and backups. There were "Enterprise Solutions" but big-iron IT gets militaristic and tiresome (not to mention expensive), so I went looking for a friendlier solution.

A web search turned up a wonderful review matrix that captured a big slice of the available systems: it seems to be up-to date (no dead links) and has a good qualifier filter that let me narrow down to about 20 candidates. Some were excluded for price; I tested all of the rest, about 15 systems. There's an interesting spread, from really basic wiki-pages to full-featured collaborative environments. Three seemed to give me the features I wanted. Confluence had a good feature set but the pricing was ten times what I was ready to spend on my projects. PBWorks was very flexible and configurable on everything but their use plans, and there wasn't a way to get the combination of storage and users that I wanted.
This brought me to Brainkeeper.
Note: After playing with the system and inviting users during the 30-day trial period last summer, I paid for a 1-year membership: there's no conflict of interest in these comments.
Brainkeeper lets you organize projects into workspaces; setting permissions and giving users access are readers or authors within their limited space. Workspaces contain trees which are regular, Explorer-style file systems with documents and files. Documents can be edited using a very serviceable visual editor, and version changes are kept along with notes. RSS feeds and e-mail notices keep people up to date with what is going on and recent activity is displayed in the Dashboard when you log in. Templates can be saved as a basis for documents, helping with re-use of outlines, and the hypertexting within documents sets up when Word documents with headers are imported. The export is weaker, only .pdf is supported and images don't reproduce correctly.

It's possible to set up blogs and forums, but I disabled those functions to keep the space simple. Files uploaded can only be downloaded, not displayed, which is an interruption to workflow, and tables can't easily be sized to fit in the page provided. That was really the first breach of the space for me: I prepared a competitive landscape with photos of products, links, and descriptions, and then found that I couldn't export or extend it. I ended up cutting and pasting into excel and starting to exchange the file as e-mail. There is an excel-like "Smartsheet" feature that I tried to use as a tasklist, but it has very limited functionality and turned out to be more trouble than it's worth. User and access controls were easy to set and I can keep everyone sequestered in their own garden.
The pricing is very reasonable, and the support folks have been responsive when I have a question. I like the document collaboration best, and could probably warm up to the Forums as a way to discuss an issue. The biggest headache has been to entice people to use it. Generally, people like exchanging Word files with markups, and it's been difficult to bring them into a wiki-world. One client has given it a try but became frustrated trying to export copies that he could print. Another travels too much to connect and do the work on-line: he needs offline access to the space and sync on connect when he lands.
Collaborative workspaces are a great idea, and Brainkeeper does a lot that's right. The tools are evolving quickly, and should improve with time: handling and export of multimedia content seems to be the most ragged part. At the same time, it's a new way of working, and people trying to get daily work done may be reluctant to join if it doesn't naturally fit their style.
Opening Photo Credit: VizWorld

Friday, October 2, 2009

Friday’s style of thinking

A lot of the difficulty that people have communicating may really be due to differences in how they think.

Generally, I think I communicate pretty well: At Cambridge, I was consistently surprised that I got better marks for my presentations than for my writing. I suppose that I could even score converational effectiveness by whether I understand what (and why) people are saying and feeling, and whether I can express my thoughts and feelings clearly in return. There might be Turing tests to pass: can I sustain a conversation, tell a story, understand a lecture or a play.  I'm pretty sure I'd do okay no matter what metric is used.
Yet, the real world doesn't always agree. Yesterday, I was in a grant review for research project funding: two hours of friendly, but intellectually intense, back and forth with a very capable reviewer. For some questions, I saw the point immediately and exchanged the necessary information with minimal fuss. But other times, we would wander back and forth around the point before finally she'd suddenly exclam "That's all I needed to hear!"  And then I'd feel a bit chagrined because I thought we were talking about a different issue enti.
The five hour plane / train ride back to the Netherlands was a good chance to reflect a bit on the experience, and on why this might happen.  I cataloged at least five mental habits that are important to my thinking, but probably are deadly in conversation.
  • Active listening. When people say interesting things, they triggers insights that I want to follow. But when my mind wanders off along that thread, I miss the rest of the point. To avoid having my attention drift, I've learned to write down a word or two as reminder, then to drop the thought and refocus on the conversation.
  • Slow Glass. There was a story by Bob Shaw, ""Light of Other Days", based on the creation of windows that took years to transmit light from one side to the other. Sometimes my mind runs the same way: my subconscious chews on a conversation overnight before it pokes up a good response. This leads to punctuated conversations that pick up with "remember yesterday when we discussed…."  I dont' have a good solution for that yet.
  • Assembling the pieces. Some people who made decisions by chance, others by deductive logic, and still others who steer by intuition. Intuitive sorts shuffle and organize sets of seemingly unrelated observations and knowledge until the answer emerges. And, until that 'A-Ha' moment, they seem to be wandering and playing without giving a clear answer. I find myself doing this a lot: the solution is not to do it out loud, and not to indulge the habit while missing the simpler underlying question. It happened in the review: the question was "What is your intellectual property position?" I thought out loud, summarized existing patents, an abandoned one, the new one that their attorney found, noted that we still had freedom to operate… that's the point where the examiner said "That's all I needed to hear!".  Stupidly, I was still driving towards defining the whole landscape.
  • Telling the story. A question or situation sometimes reminds me of a similar circumstance that illuminates the dilemma and suggests a solution. Believing that people solve problems by sharing stories, I'll tell mine. This irritates all sort of people who don't want to wander off topic: I've learned to preface it with a word of reassurance that it's relevant and to keep it short.
  • Fine lines. Directness can simply be rude; indifference can be mistaken for trust. We interpret people as being wrong when they are only different, as lacking competence when they only lack confidence. It's easy to step across the myriad separators that prejudice how we hear what people say and how we respond to them. I try to recognize when I'm getting doubtful or frustrated and reset my assumptions to give the conversation another chance.
I remember a Lilly VP who would ask everyone "Who calls you during the day and why?", and another Fortune 500 executive who would lead with "Why are we having this conversation?" I suppose that just seizing the conversation and framing tightly enough can make communication more efficient, but I don't think it makes it more effective. Instead, I try to take account of differences in how we all think, and then I find I can adapt to the pace and trajectory of conversation to get better communication, maybe better uunderstanding..

Photo credit: Storytelling

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Thursday exploring Heffers

I ran into the fellow living upstairs (but not for much longer) who told me he was thinking of retiring. What are you going to do? I asked (a question for myself as well, considered late at night). He shrugged. “Hobbies, I suppose…” What sort? He vaguely describes work that he started, then abandoned, years ago; aspirational things that he isn’t sure he’ll enjoy. Stuff. Another shrug. Maybe more reading? I offer. He brightens, “Yes, certainly more reading.”
I've found that expatriate living is surprisingly hard on reading. Few English-level books, little time to spare: I’m reduced to digesting the weekly Economist on the bike, nibbling a few pages of technical books in bed, or sniffing at paragraphs of Dutch in the morning. But serious literature and high philosophy…it’s been years.
With an uncommitted day in Cambridge, I decided to spend an hour in Heffers, the local academic bookshop. It's a delight: vast areas devoted to literature, religion, arts, and language. Nothing like the institutional Barnes and Noble stores, these shelves challenge and inspire.
I wandered the stacks, gathering impressions.
Physics hasn't changed at all: like many of the traditional maths and sciences, the basics seem fixed. The presentation changes, the equations loook timeless. I feel as though I could still pick up the Classical Mechanics and ElectroMagnetics books and continue where my studies left off.

There is a gratifyingly huge philosophy section. I read a fair amount in graduate school for rrecreation and really came to enjoy the interlay of ideas and arguments, the alternative ways of looking at everyday experiences. It seems a waste that philosophers in our century have withdrawn from the popular discourse, leaving the void to be filled by psychology and pundits. I tried to pick up the trail a couple of months ago, searching the internet for philosophy sites, loooking in academic departments to see what philosophy professors were doing, seeing if text I'd enjoyed had been updated. Nothing. It's like it died out 50 years ago.

As might be expected Keynes owns the Management and Economics section. A Cambridge graduate, he earns the right to have his own display shelves. Gratifyingly, the usual suspects like (the still quite-mad) Richard Branson are on the markdown shelves to one side. There is a well-stocked marketing section that had solid books on process and content rather than the big-type / one-idea titles that dominate airport bookshops.

The travel shelves are recognizable from a distance, with colorful spines that contrast with the earth tones that dominate all of the weightier sections.
The history section had absolutely no Dutch history: nothing except the tomes dedicated to each of the major western european powers. I was reallly surprised. There were a half-dozen Dutch language books, and even a woman buying a grammar book for her courses, but the Low Countries were really under-represented. I'm never shure whether the Dutch take this neglect as an irritation: my impression has always been that, as a culture, theey enjoy flying under the radar where they can chooe their own way.
In contrast there always seems to be yet another computer language to learn, with no particular justification for bothering.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Remembrance Wednesday

Stephan Hawking has announced that he's stepping down as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge; his successor will be named next week. Nothing ominous behind the announcement: the university requires professors to give up their posts by age 67. It keeps a flow of fresh perspectives and ideas flowing through the senior ranks of the Colleges, I expect. I never saw Hawking during my year at the University: he didn't give any lectures and I wasn't lucky enough to run into him around town or at his Gate at Gonville and Caius College.
I've also recently learned that two other men passed away earlier this year, both influential as I was starting out.
Alexander Heard was 92 years old: he was the Chancellor at Vanderbilt while I was an undergraduate there. He was a consummate gentleman, always gracious with his time and full of encouragement for students. In my Freshman year, I was assigned to a same-sex residence floor, one of the few left in the Quadrangle. Boys being boys, it wasn't long until we wanted girls. Under the banner "Free the Fourth", the men of Dyer Hall (4th floor) petitioned for a vote, which was initially granted, but then taken back. I was part of the delegation dispatched to the Chancellors office to find out why and to negotiate an alternative.
I remember the reasonableness of it all: we were invited into a paneled office with a polished wood table: Dr Heard had gotten the University Attorney and Dean to meet with the four of us. They listened to our side, explained theirs, and we discussed it for a half hour when I'm sure they had more pressing concerns. It was the first time that I had been treated as a member of the adult community, included in the serious conversations at the big table. We lost (several parents had complained about the vote), but it was a real lesson in diplomacy and problem solving.
Years later I met him at a dinner, where he held his wine glass by the stem during the toast in a way that I spent days learning to emulate, and again at a reception where I parked guest cars at his home and he made a point of coming out to thank us and to talk with each of us. On every occasion, his style and warmth really stood out, when I expected someone brusque and aloof.
Erwin Roy John was a neuroscientist directing the brain research laboratory at New York University: a totally original thinker and insightful mentor. Our company accountant discovered him while I was working for Cadwell Laboratories, and suggested that we might be interested in his quantitative methods for EEG interpretation. For the next three years I led the team that qualified his findings for our use and developed products based on his techniques. He believed we could do quantitative psychiatry, not just peripheral neurology, and, he, his colleague Leslie (later his wife and another good friend), and I worked together almost daily.
He taught me so much about asking questions and not being afraid to propose original answers, about negotiation and partnership, and taking time to laugh and eat well. He had assembled a strange but brilliant group in the lab (I was convinced that the mathematics drove them mad), and we struggled to get things working properly to replicate their clinic's findings. But it made me a lifelong believer in open innovation, in the value of creative talent, and in being comfortable with academics even though I was in industry.
Lots of fun times to remember fondly as well.  Late dinners in New York City; our shipping box being taken by a homeless person and set up as shelter across from the UN; a week diagnosing patients together for a vendor run-off at Charter Medical; the morals clause.  In the lastt, case, we nrenewed Roy's contract with the standard clause that it could be terminated "for cause".  Roy wanted speciffics.  We took a list from a 1920's business book: Immoderate use of alcohol, contracting a vennereal disease, etc.  The indignant protests echoed for a week.
The generation ahead of me is starting to withdraw, retire and pass on. A layer of valued and inspirational mentors left Medtronic this year, and the founding core of both ISCE and the ERC have started to disappear. I always feel bad when talented and generous folks leave, and these two meant a lot to me.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Remarkable Tuesday

Looking off towards the positive side of life as the week gets rolling:
  1. The 50 km per hour sailing record was broken last month by a remarkable craft called a Hydroptere. It's impressive, a large hydrofoil with grinders stationed out on each wing to adjust the sails. The video looks intense: I once wanted to try to sail a twin-trapeze 49er and thought that it would be a similar rush across the water, albeit on a much smaller scale.
  2. A friend directed me to a local realty site for renters, and I have to admit that there are far more apartments available in Maastricht than I had thought. I'm clearly not going to save any money if I want any combination of view, style, and ambience, and there are a lot of miserable student digs. But the inventory seems to have lots of variety in my geographic area, so there's hope.
  3. I was inspired to try some Dutch cooking this week, and pulled down a recipe for gehaktbal. This meatball is 100 grams, almost a quarter-pound of ground meat all by itself. Gehakt is a combination of spices, unique to me, but gives a good hearty flavor like an American meatloaf (missing catsup and onions, though). It's a hugely messy dish to make: I was up to my elbows kneading together a kilo of ground beef and pork, eggs, milk, and bread crumbs. I got slippery enough that a bottle of wine slipped out of my hands, leading to still more cleanup. There's also an unholy amount off butter involved: the recipe recommends making a gravy out of the stock, but it's just too oily for that. Still, the dish came out wonderfully and made enough for three dinners.
Okay, a grant request turned in for a UK Technology Competition today, a proposal sent off to an orthopedic group for a new remote monitoring idea, and an IP landscape complete. Off to the UK tomorrow for a review of an earlier grant proposal, now up for funding, and then on to the US Monday for a site visit and business planning review.

 All of the bits seem to be coming together, on time, on task.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I don’t like Mondays

'with apologies to Tori Amos, it's been a bit of a bum start to a busy week. Our building's landlady is a lovely person who just celebrated her 87th birthday. She's full of energy and manages the entire building well, but is starting to worry about whether the years will catch up with her at some point soon. A reasonable concern, and she wants to make space for a caregiver if she needs one, unfortunately meaning that I'll need to find a new place to live within the next six months.
It's a pity: I only finished transferring the lease from the expat agreement in August, and I've grown fond of the river and the views of the city beyond. The passing boats have been a nice backdrop to daily activities, and the neighborhood has been great. It's unlikely that there's an equivalent place available along the river near the city, so it's going to mean a more wide-ranging search to define something balancing desires for ambience with constraints of geography and budget.
I learned that the market in tightening up in town as well: the A2 bottleneck through town is going to be relieved by a new tunnel, starting construction next year. Apartment buildings, holding over a hundred units total, will be demolished along the road during the project, so those tenants have all been asked to vacate by January. That will throw a lot of people onto a limited market in the coming months: I hope it doesn't turn into a race for the bottom.
It's a lesson in not being too quick to call a rented flat "home". Expatriate life is inherently nomadic, but I'm still not used to the yearly ritual of picking up my 13 boxes and finding a new nest for the coming year. The only bright spot is that each move has been a trade-up, and there's every reason to hope that the trajectory can continue.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Biking to Eijsden

Today was a wonderfully sunny day, unusual after the cold nights and foggy mornings that we've been having the past week. Although there was work to be done (housework if nothing else), the rivers and fields were far more tempting, so I saddled up the Locomotief ( a vintage east-german bicycle according to my Dutch friends, with more years on its frame than it cost me in euros) and headed south.

The road out of town leads to Eijsden (right, courtesy Google Maps), one of the oldest and most southern villages in the Netherlands. Originally funded as a roman settlement, then becoming one of the dominant areas for fruit-trees, and finally a center for producing zinc and gravel, the village has now become a bedroom community for Maastricht. There are rows of neat, modern brick houses, a small village square, café's along the river, and a chateau / castle at the perimeter. The bike path winds through orchards and fields of cows, finally ending up at the river crossing past the town center.

The Netherlands are thick with irrigation canals and diverted creeks; many fields and country homes are bordered by small, straight, neatly tended waterways, with small bridges and earthworks connecting homes to streets, paddock to field, and town to island. Larger rivers, such as the Waal near Tiel or the Meuse near Eijsden, are served by small private ferry boats. These are quick and efficient, chugging back and forth across the river every few minutes, carrying pedestrians and cyclists for a one-euro fare each way.

The Eijsden ferry is unique because it leaves the Netherlands on the east bank and lands in Belgium to the west (the while line snaking through the map, above). Both countries fly flags at their docks; I'm not sure how it functioned before the Schengen treaty opened the borders (everyone had to flash their passport and have their saddlebags inspected during the crossing?) In any case it makes for a nice break in the ride: everyone lines up at the shore and exchanges route suggestions and restaurant reviews while waiting for the boat. There's a rush to get good rail position once the ferry docks, and the children poke at the passing ducks and swans as the boat chugs over.

Both banks of the river have cafes that offer bier, vlaai, and shade to watch the flow of traffic: the vast majority of people were headed from the Dutch to the Belgian side this Sunday. Cyclists were evenly divided between casual family bikers and serious teams in matching helmets and spandex. It's going to be a while before I'm in shape for the super suit.

The route back north passes the Sluis, deep locks that lift working barges over a drop in the river. Many cyclists stop to watch the boats go up and down: I think that there's a Dutch link and fascination with the water and the boats since the show draws in everyone, not just the children. The full circle beyond the locks leads back to the old city wall and gate of Maastricht, about three hours of very leisurely autumn riding, looking, and eating.