2010/04/18

Australia and the Researchers' Workbench

This is a pitch for something new: the "Researchers' Workbench".
Australia has the wealth and inventiveness to do it, but most probably, not the political will.
Chalk that up to "the Cultural Cringe".

Pitch.
I.T./Computers are "Cognitive Amplifiers".

They aren't just a 'good' fit to Research, but a Perfect 'fit':
Researchers are the definitive "Knowledge Workers".
This idea isn't new or exclusive, here's what's gone before.

Theme 1: Augmenting Human Intellect.
In 1968, Doug Englebart of Stanford/SRI and his Augmenting Human Intellect Research Centre did a demo (available on-line) of their work in the area.
40 years on, this initial work has languished.
Could the ANU or CSIRO repeat the demo, even given some time? I doubt it...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mother_of_All_Demos
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Engelbart
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augmentation_Research_Center

Theme 2: Bush's Memex.
Couple this with what Vannevar Bush actually proposed in his 1945 article, "As we may think", the "Memex".

This is much more than simple "Hypertext": It was a way to distil 'threads' of knowledge into accessible units, index and search them, and give/swap with others.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memex

There is a huge obstacle in the way of implementing true "Memex" capabilities these days:
Copyright and Digital Library access.
These obstacles are trivially solvable for people working within a single institution which has paid for collective access. But much more is needed to expand the scope to a general solution for swapable "threads" incorporating copyright, digital material.

For instance, why does every University and Research organisation, or Libraries, in Australia separately license access to the many digital resources on-line?

Especially when DEST (Dept of Education, Science and Training), and ARC (Australian Research Council), who fund the vast bulk of work, could copy the "Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme" (PBS) and negotiate single licenses for all Australian Institutions.

Theme 3: Researchers Workbench.
The world of Programming was transformed around 1973 by Bell Labs and its "Programmers' Workbench".
It consisted of a few tools, now considered staples by the Open Source project community.
The power of the work was distilling essential processes into fewer than a dozen tools, applicable to many fields.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PWB/UNIX

Where is the "Researchers' Workbench" or the studies identifying what's needed or optimal at the individual, group/team, departmental, Institutional and Subject Area level??

Theme 4: Research into Research.
Lastly, the organisation and execution of Researcher work, time and processes needs definitive investigation.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi suggested, after studying what made Nobel Laureates different, "Flow" as a critical difference.
Is it? i.e. Has that finding been tested and proven or refuted?
Are there others?
If "Flow" is real, why isn't it well known and practised as a matter of course in Academia?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)

There have to be some simple disciplines that underpin the output of the best, most prolific Researchers.
Something that allows them to use the equivalent of Einstein's "most powerful force in the Universe": compound interest.

What techniques, disciplines or processes would allow Researchers to improve their output/performance by an significant fraction every year?

I posit that there are only a very few tools needed for a Researchers' Workbench, such as:
  • Shared Annotated and Ranked Bibliographies
  • Mind-Map representations of Knowledge Areas
  • a (single) definitive searchable document document repository (docs as PDF's) for selected Bodies of Knowledge. i.e. "Google Books" for academic books/journals/papers.
  • PDF annotation, link/reference tools, and
  • appropriate search and information/knowledge organisation tools & representations.

Gestalt.
Applying these approaches together (Englebart's Augmentation, Bush's Memex, the Workbench and Research into Research)  would be transformative in the Academic/Research world.
Also surprisingly cheap.

Here's a simple test/question:
Is there any evidence that Microsoft Word is even a suitable, let alone effective, tool for creating Academic Papers?

If not, why it is used almost exclusively through major Universities?
What are the characteristics needed of "Perfect Academic Writing Tools"?
Why aren't these needs well known?

The world of Academia and Research is an "Elite Sport": highly competitive, intense on-going activity requiring the best/most effective training techniques of the most suited and most capable individuals. With only occasional "crystallisation" points: where performance/outcomes are unequivocally judged. (Not unlike the Olympics).

The A.I.S. (Australian Institute of Sport) proved two things:
  • "It takes a village to raise a child": or a large co-operative/coordinated organisation to create Great Sportspeople, and
  • the process can be replicated. [other countries now do it]

The A.I.S. result wasn't accidental or unplanned: They applied the "Scientific Method" to their task/goal.
What matters in producing "winning performances"? e.g. {Selection, Coaching, Technique, Training/Learning, Training Regime and Work-load, Nutrition, Mental/psych Factors, Recuperation and Recovery from Injuries}
"What Works" in each of the areas?
How do we measure and improve each area?

After around 25 years of outstanding and obvious achievement of the A.I.S., I don't understand the seemingly complete blindness of Academia/Research to applying their own methods/principles to their own work. If Human Performances can be systematically improved in Sports by applying 'Science', then isn't that enough evidence to at least trial the idea on Academia and Research itself?

Where is the Academic Discipline of "Research into Research"?
Where is the "Office for Improving Research" in each and every University?
Clearly, the simple, coarse metrics used now to characterise "Researcher Outputs" for DEST funding are not sufficient for intensive study of the Science of Research. One of the priority research areas of the A.I.S. initially was breaking down performances and the factors contributing.

Alan Kay, a noted Computing pioneer at XEROX PARC, commented "Point of View is worth 80 IQ points".
PARC managed to redefine the world of Computing/Networking in the early '70's with a small team and some very powerful organisational ideas and approaches.

I suggest that applying the "I.T. as a Cognitive Amplifier" Point of View to Academic Research in a disciplined, organised way would significantly raise the Collective I.Q. of Australian Research, and in certain fields really produce that "80 IQ point" advantage Kay suggests.

This is equivalent of Roger Bannister in 1954 not just breaking the record by 2 seconds and achieving the first "four minute mile", but beating Sebastian Coe's time of 30 years later.

Australia could "steal a march" on the rest of the world.
Once ahead, the work should feed on itself and push our Researchers further ahead.
A secondary effect is The Best Centres attract the best, brightest and most ambitious. A virtuous circle.

The A.I.S. experience shows the cost of creating "super-stars" is calculable and within the reach of a wealthy small nation, such as Australia.
It also shows there is a very strong "First Mover" advantage, that can be maintained and extended for quite some time.

The obvious starting place is Canberra, home of the Australian National University, the same place as the A.I.S.
Like the A.I.S., the program has to become trans-national, with decentralised areas of excellence and expertise.

Why now and where's the urgency?

The USA's National Science Foundation, via it's Office of Integrative Activities, is now funding projects for a new program:
Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation (CDI).
... is NSF’s bold five-year initiative to create revolutionary science and engineering research outcomes made possible by innovations and advances in computational thinking.
Australians have always been very inventive and occasionally this has translated into "innovation".
We have shown we "punch above our weight" in areas where the Research Outputs can be directly applied, as suggested here...

We get one shot at being "The First" to Augment and Amplify Researcher Intelligence.
We can choose to be Leaders or Followers and enjoy the on-going consequences of either.

2010/04/04

Death by Success II

There is another, much more frequent "Death by Success" cause, first introduced to me by Jerry Weinberg and Wayne Strider and Elaine Cline (Strider and Cline).

It's the same process that some herbicides use: unconstrained growth.
Monsanto's flagship herbicide Round Up is exactly this sort of agent.

If you are very good at what you do and much sought after, this can lead directly to massive Failure - personally and in business.

Growth is Good, but too much, too fast is a Killer.

The only protection is awareness.
As  Virginia Satir pointed out, "We can't see inside other people's heads, nor can we see ourselves as others see us" (courtesy again of Jerry and "Strider and Cline".)

Typically you need objective, external help is recognising this condition.
Once you have restored Situational Awareness, you can choose your response. Which may be "I'm outa here", Denial or something in between.

There is an alternative form of "Death by Success", which again we see in the Plant Kingdom.

Your initial approach, solution or technique may not Scale-Up or have a fixed Upper-Bound.
E.g. if you sell "factory seconds", there is a limited supply that sets your maximum turnover.
Or selling fragments of the Berlin Wall - at some point the Genuine Article is all gone...

The example in the Plant Kingdom are when tree seedlings 'set' in unsuitable places, like a small pot or within a bottle. Down the road, they will become "root bound", which slows growth, then they'll consume all the nutrients and having converted 'everything' into plant material, die.

That's it for that plant - all of one resource has been exhausted and it's Game Over.

Death by Success

The things you do in the beginning, when you're the minnow-against-the-giants, to start and build a business may not work well when you're successful, when you've become The Giant.

Exactly what leads to Success can eventually lead to your downfall.

You become very good at the things that have gained and seemingly maintained Success.  Every problem and challenge you've met have been solved with your brilliance and individual style.

Why would you ever want or need to vary that approach?

Until something new comes along and it all goes wrong:
  Inevitably in Business and Life, things change (perturbations arise in Control Systems terms).
  Responding with "More of the Same", as in the past, will, at some point, not work.
  If you've grown large, it will take time to fail, you'll have notice "things aren't great".
  Many companies only ever do "More of the Same",  often amping-it-up as results don't appear.
  The results are as predictable are throwing oil on a fire.

Often I mention Sydney Finkelstein's book, "Why Smart Executives Fail" in which Finkelstein describes the results of 6 years of research.  He self-describes as "Steven Roth Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, where I teach courses on Leadership and Strategy".

In Smart Executives, Finkelstein and his team documents a whole slew of companies (50) that burned bright and collapsed. This book was published in 2003, covering a turbulent period of US and global business, as well as some famous cases going back decades.

The subjects of the research were chosen precisely because they were wildly successful and suffered a notable collapse. Enron and Worldcom are on the list, plus many I.T. companies such as Wang Computers.  The common thread is the collapse was avoidable and predictable.

Would the conclusions, Lessons Learned and "Early Warning Signs" be different post the 2008 GFC (Global Financial Crisis)?  I think not...

Finkelstein lists 7 naive causes of failure:
  1. The Executive were Stupid.
  2. The Executives couldn't have known What was Coming.
  3. It was a Failure to Execute.
  4. The Executives weren't trying Hard Enough.
  5. The Executives lacked Leadership Ability.
  6. The Company lacked the Necessary Resources.
  7. The Executives were simply a Bunch of Crooks.
and comments in a para entitled "Failure to understand Failure":
All seven of these standard explanations for why executives fail are clearly insufficient. (Because the companies had demonstrated excellence in becoming highly successful.)
The next 300 pages are his answer. Part I describes "Great Corporate Failures" and Part II their Causes.
This research ends with a positive message, Part III is "Learning from Mistakes":
  • Predicting the Future, Early Warning Signs.
  • How Smart Executives Learn, Living and Surviving in a World of Mistakes.
His "Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful People"  are worth reiterating:
  1. They see themselves and their companies as dominating their environments.
  2. They identify so completely with the company that there is no clear boundary between their personal interests and their corporation's interests.
  3. They think they have All the Answers.
  4. They ruthlessly eliminate anyone who isn't 100% behind them.
  5. They are consummate company spokespersons, obsessed with the company image.
  6. They underestimate major obstacles.
  7. They stubbornly rely on what worked for them in the past.
Each of the 11 chapters has 30-50 references.  Although written and published for the general market, this isn't any "Puff piece".