My top 10 academic research interests

The last week has given me some time to reflect on life, the universe, and everything (Adams, 1982). One of the things that came into focus was reducing my research interests. My interests tend to branch out over time. That is both intellectually invigorating and frustrating. For better or worse, I need to focus in on a few key topics and work toward publishable works. A few minutes of every day has to be spent on academic pursuits. To that end, I started to think about my top ten favorite academic topics:

  1. Data mining
  2. Prime number factoring
  3. Political campaign design
  4. Pharmacy benefit management
  5. Public health policy
  6. Local government administration
  7. Applied data science
  8. e-government
  9. Encryption algorithms
  10. Multichannel campaign management

I was hoping that by focusing on a defined set of academic topics it would help flush out my research interests. Each one of those topics could be translated into problem statements and hypothesis. That is the kicking off point for research. My goal for the rest of the week is to pick three topics.

Focusing on picking better paper topics

Part of being an academic involves writing papers. Picking the right topic is key to moving the paper forward. Striving toward the betterment of society through academic inquiry requires more than simply focusing on incremental improvements. Efforts have to be targeted on striving toward outcomes that break barriers. They have to push the edge of what is possible. Each and every effort has to be geared toward making meaningful and lasting progress. Those are lofty goals for academic papers. However, it is imperative that academic publications push things forward. Papers should not simply be published for the sake of publishing. Writers are welcome to write. A ton of forums exist for writing for the sake of writing.

Picking the right topic matters. The topic needs to be germane to the academy, meaningful to the author, and engaging for the reader. You have to find topics that almost pull you into writing mode. Passion tends to drive great papers forward. My whiteboard is starting to take shape with a list of three paper topics. Those topics will be the focus of my efforts this month. Every paper that is currently in progress has been set aside. They were nice and I am positive at the time they were meaningful. That point in time has passed.

Some academic writing on a Sunday

It was supposed to be a long weekend. The Labor Day holiday is occurring on Monday. It should have been a 3 days break from my regular working routine. It could have been full of epic writing sessions. However, a lot of work creeped into my holiday weekend. Some of that is completely my fault. All of that got me thinking about how to push my academic efforts forward. My pursuit of writing academic articles has started to take up more and more of my time. At the moment, I am in favor of scrapping the current batch of articles and starting work on two new ones. One focused on a management topic and the other focused on a public administration topic. One of them might even be a literature review. The current batch of articles might have been a false start. That happens. Sometimes you have to change gears to refocus on the things that are truly important. Each morning I try to write for one hour before everybody gets going in the house. That is always the plan. Sometimes it does not work. Sometimes it works well. My alternative writing method has been to work on my ASUS Flip Chromebook during television time.

Figuring out how to focus for an hour a day on writing is an important commitment in my life. Locking down a pure hour to focus on writing requires commitment. Life is full of surprises. Nobody else works on your schedule of inspiration. You have to capture it when you can. You have to seize the moment and strive forward. You have to stoke the fires of creativity and use the spark when you find it. Sometimes the only path forward is to try to bottle that inspiration for later. To that end, capturing solid notes and figuring out how to refocus after a disruption has become an increasingly important part of my skillset. It is not a part of my skillset that is overwhelming impressive, but it has been improving.

Renewing my MPSA membership

Today seemed like a good day to renew my Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) membership. Over the last decade I have elected to present papers at the MPSA annual conference. That conference occurs at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, Illinois. Renewing my membership today helped provide me with a reminder that now would be the time to start writing a new academic article for submission. Writing academic articles is always an interesting part of my year. For the most part, the process involves keeping 3 open articles at any one time. Imagine either 3 actual folders on my desk or 3 digital folders on my desktop. Throughout the year I strive toward completing each of the three articles. Sometimes I ended up focusing on something new and pushing it from start to finish. Most of the time I have ended up tinkering with an articles over the course of several months.

Starting the literature review process

Snow is falling outside my window. It is May 1st in Colorado. Snowfall is happening. The snow that is falling includes heavy flakes that are actually sticking to the ground. The roads are clear, but the group is slightly covered with snow. That type of weather is great to inspire a desire for hot chocolate and the start of a literature review. In my case, a cup of coffee was confused and I have started to work on a literature review article related to growing and developing talent in the workplace. That topic is something that I want to better understand. It is a topic worthy of structured academic inquiry.

Understanding the structured nature of academic inquiry could underscore why we conduct research. It could also illustrate the process of how that research occurs. In this example it could describe what a literature review involves. Most of the literature reviews I have written were not intended for publication or were eventually condensed into a single section of an article.

In this case, I just wanted to better understand the topic in question. I am not sure if that is the right or wrong way to approach this type of work. The final product might be a standalone literature review or it could end up being a section of an article to be named later.

Writing a literature review is about figuring out what exists within academic literature and how it relates to the question at hand. Undergraduates typically have access to academic databases that they have not learned to appreciate just yet in the process. Outside of school the search becomes harder without easy access to academic databases. The vast majority of journal articles are not something that just shows up in a quick Google Search. A quick Google search for, “scholarly articles on developing talent in the workplace”, may not yield everything. You cannot expect that it will yield all possible scholarly results. That is unrealistic — some academic journals are not easily searchable without subscriptions.

My process for reviewing academic literature is pretty straightforward. I have used it over the course of a number of years. I hit up Google Scholar or a scholarly database and use the references from articles to map key contributions. The academy has existed for a very long time. Contributions have been made to academic literature over a very long period of time. Figuring out how far back to review and how many of the new articles are relevant is the core of the question at hand. You really do want to understand about newer and older academic theories and how older works are being referenced.

Here are the steps I am undertaking:

  1. Define the topic in question
  2. Define the keywords related to the topic in question
  3. Search for the keywords and locate relevant literature
  4. Use the relevant literature to locate key referenced works
  5. Identify what key referenced works to read
  6. Build an outline of the literature review
  7. Read the relevant literature and fill in the outline of the literature review
  8. Complete a first draft that addresses the topic in question
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Colorado snow in May

A deep learning course

It appears the good folks over at Google built out a 3 month Udacity course related to Deep Learning. The course is called, “Deep Learning: Taking machine learning to the next level.” I started watching the first few videos form the course last night. Machine learning is always an interesting subject. Discovery is part of being a lifelong learner. So far the course is pretty interesting and is holding my attention. 

On the nature of things

Many sleepless night have been devoted to understanding questions about life, the universe, and well everything we can perceive or attempt to understand… That being said — you have to be present in the moment. That moment has to be all about the journey. It has to be about what you invest in it. Passively running out the clock defies the point of the journey. You have to invest in the actions you are taking. You have to be present. You have to invest. We strive to move forward in different ways. However, you should begin with the simple premise that life, the universe, and everything is 100% about the process of investing in the journey. You get out of journey what you put into the journey. In my humble and brief experience — life, the universe, and everything is 100% about how you invest in the journey.

I started out writing a treatise about education. Specifically, I started to write about online education. Those observations quickly expanded from a specific use case to general theory. In terms of being a use case, online education is for the most part a self-service education installation that provides a guided journey. I have spent a significant amount of time thinking about how higher education can be a like an art installation. A campus in general can change our perception about our learning space. Community is the fundamental different between my experiences living on a college and attending college vs. participating in online education. We know that communities of place, circumstance, and interest are incredibly powerful. Fundamentally we are better off together working toward the common goals implied in our social contract. However, even the best education environment is about what you put into it. If you are passive participant in your education at the best possible institution, then you will not get everything you could get out of that experience.

My junior and senior years of college at the University of Kansas I got very interested in the concept of civil society. I had taken a class on it and the guided readings and lecture was work class. The professor was outstanding. The class met one time per week and we had very lengthy discussions about civil society. They were not rushed or hurried. The class was 3 hours long. The next class that professor taught after the one I attended was at Oxford University in England. I would argue the quality of education was world class. However, the tipping point related to me truly understanding the material occurred after the class ended. I checked out the entire shelf of civil society books from the library. I then read that entire shelf of books. “The academy” is a concept that is both alive within higher education and something that exists in scholarly articles, publications like books, and classrooms. A number of ways exist to tap into “the academy”. Online education would open the door to academic databases and provide course syllabuses that would open the academy’s door.

You may not agree with my observations on the nature of things. That is ok. The search for feedback never stops. Accepting and internalizing feedback is the hardest part. Translating criticism into action is never easy. That translation requires both acceptance of what is being said and an understanding of what to do with it.

Evaluating the KQV Productivity Triad

The following passage is the start of a series of vignettes related to the business world, business decisions, and omnichannel strategies. Some of them will be adapted to book chapters at some point. At this point, the vignettes are essentially a form of intellectual sandboxing that allows me to write about complex situations.

Tentative Title: The first steps in fixing a team: Evaluating the KQV productivity triad concept

Introduction

Imagine for a moment that you work for an organization as a fixer. Some people really do take on this role as a profession. Most people end up getting involved for a short time out of necessity. Within this role your core function within the organization or as a temporary work assignment is to parachute into a situation and fix something. For the most part, you know that you are going to be deployed to fix a significant problem. Where you are going will be clearly defined. However, for the most part how you are supposed to achieve the desired outcomes will be and will remain highly mysterious. It will be a real challenge. It has to be a challenge that is worth overcoming. That has to be the stage and it has to be well understood.

Most of the time the fix will involve working with a group. The following paragraphs of insightful prose relate specifically to working with groups or organizations that have team members. Perhaps at some point a general theory will be proposed, but at this time please accept this evaluation of a special case scenario that involves evaluating a group. Building a general theory can at this point be considered a topic tabled pending future research. The rest of this intellectual inquiry focuses on introducing a framework that can be used for evaluation. Making sure that people do the right things at the right teams for the right reasons is even harder than it sounds. This framework goes a layer deeper than my general philosophy of letting leaders lead, managers manage, and employees succeed.

Evaluation

Evaluating groups is about understanding how knowledge, quality, and velocity drive meaningful productivity. In the end, making major changes to the productivity of a group requires a combination of planning and opportunity. I call that path to evaluating productivity the evaluation of the knowledge, quality, and velocity (KQV) productivity triad. Understanding KQV requires a great depth of understanding about the group being evaluated. It is very rare that you will start an evaluation of an organization that is mature enough to have a key performance indicatory (KPI) compendium and performance dashboards. Those types of artifacts are usually evidence of organizational maturity.

Before breaking down the components of the KQV it would be prudent to talk about why a fixer has to have a solid exit strategy. I ask myself this core question every day during the course of evaluations, “If I walked away today without any warning or preparation, then what things would people keep doing and why would they keep doing them?” People steal great ideas. You can accept that as an almost absolute fact. Another thing that should just be accepted is that good ideas are sticky. People keep doing things when they believe in them to the point of taking ownership in them. Taking ownership of something is a very powerful motivational factor. Both great and good ideas are generally sticky. They tend be very sticky. They benefit from ownership and from sustained interest.

The concept of stickiness really matters when you are evaluating an organization. Any and all recommendations or corrective actions have to be the right suggestions. They have to prove to be sticky. They have to be great. People have to want to steal them and move forward with full ownership of them. If you want to drive any one element of organizational knowledge, quality, or velocity, then all of those changes have to be things that people would steal and they have to be sticky. I always try to channel Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People philosophy and begin the process with the end in mind (1989). That is why being focused on ensuring that all recommended changes are the right changes that will end up being incredibly sticky.

KQV

Each topic involved in the productivity evaluation needs to be explored in more detail. Specifically we are about to examine the knowledge, quality, and velocity (KQV) components of the productivity triad.

On Knowledge – The knowledge part of the KQV triad describes what the group needs to know to be successful within the organization. It is all about the collective understanding housed within the team. Organizational knowledge is easier to talk about than it is to define. An organization includes a number of people who have a unique set of knowledge, skills, and abilities that make up the people capacity of the group in total. The knowledge part of people capacity is defined by what people know. It is about how the combination of information and experience is translated into action by a team of people. When you parachute into an organization and start mapping out what is going on it is pretty easy to start evaluating tribal knowledge, daily work instructions, and new hire training materials. It takes practice to truly map what is happening. That mapping has to include what people need to know along the path to do what they are doing.

On Quality – The quality part of the KQV triad is always a little more elusive than the knowledge part of the equation. The opportunity for exceptional quality exists when the steps in a process are well documented and repeatable. If a situation exists where team members are following a well-defined set of repeatable steps to achieve an outcome, then the adherence to those steps could be measured in terms of quality. Any high quality recipe for success includes things that are repeatable. A team member working on the same set of repeatable tasks might do things flawlessly for the first 5 hours of a shift. During that sixth hour the team member might get distracted for a moment and miss a step. That lack of adherence to the well-defined and repeatable steps could generate a problem down the line. That problem could be a serious gap in quality. Most of the time quality is not that easily defined. It is something that has to be observed via some form of sampling. A number of quality related items will probably end up in the KPI compendium. They will also probably be featured in any major departmental dashboard.

On Velocity – The Velocity part of the KQV triad is usually very easy to understand and describe, but incredibly hard to measure in a detailed way. Velocity in this case can be operational defined as the speed between completing elements in the well-defined set of repeatable steps mentioned above. In general, figuring out ways to measure velocity is difficult. Most of the time team members are performing work without any real tracking system. Very few work streams include a defined time stamp at each step along the way. Those system are easier to study via numerical analysis. Most of the time datasets have to be built out via sampling and or other methods of observation. Introducing velocity tracking into an organization requires an extreme amount of planning and a defined process that includes traceable steps.

Conclusion

Parachuting into a situation to help fix something creates some interesting dynamics. Outside of those dynamics a certain set of objectives have to be achieved. The prime objective usually includes fixing something. That fix typically includes rolling out a plan to improve the knowledge, quality, and velocity of a group. Throughout the course of building out a plan an evaluation usually occurs. All of the steps in that plan have to ultimately lead to the creation of a KPI compendium and dashboards. Getting that built out is the key to ensuring ongoing oversight and accountability.

If a clear line of sight exists into the organization, then it will be easier for leaders to understand where the group has been and where they are going in terms of trends and results. That level analysis drives the foundation of solid evidence based decision making. The KQV triad sets the foundation for evaluating an organization. By understanding all three elements it makes it easier to understand how the organization functions and what is necessary to sustain that organization.

The bottom line on KQV is simple. It is pretty straightforward. At some point you are going to be asked to help a department increase productivity. Those increases are going to expected to occur with increases in quality. That is only going to happen based on a balanced KQV improvement strategy. Helping increase productivity in the right ways means a high degree of quality and velocity. High quality velocity is normally paired with an increase in overall departmental knowledge. People have to know what to do and what they are doing before they can transition to the next level of productivity.

The Next 5 Topics include writing about 1) my stop doing list, 2) the power of investing in people, 3) the importance of pracademics, 4) my Disneyworld experience, and 5) omnichannel contact strategies

That one with a project management symposium

Taking the time to engage in professional development is critical to growing and developing. You have to be actively engaged in things that help you gain experience. Seek out those type of opportunities. However, being actively engaged in things can quickly consume all of your available time. Great contributors stay busy and tend to continue receiving more and more tasking. That is why it is so important to make sure that your professional routine includes reflection, education, and development. That call to action is much easier to write about than to achieve. Friday was one of those professional development days on my calendar. It is one of those rare days that my efforts and energy were devoted to focusing on nothing short of improving and getting better. It was also nice to have a three day weekend.

This morning after dropping off John Paul it was time to head downtown to the Denver Convention Center. The schedule showed the event running from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. I know that is a large block of time to spend focusing on project management. I was ready to attend the 17th Annual Rocky Mountain Project Management Symposium. The 45 minute drive to the Denver Convention Center was worth it. I knew it was worth it before I even got into the car. Today I had the distinct privilege of listening to Jim Collins talk for 2 hours about project management and leadership. About 1,600 project management industry professionals have made the choice to attend the symposium. Jim is a pretty powerful and engaging speaker. 1,600 people within a large convention hall were all very focused on the presentation. The presentation seems to be focused on delivering stories related to “Jim’s 12 Questions” article.[i]

I was surprised that the majority of people in the room stopped working on other things and focused on the presentation. They were really locked into the presentation. The room was full of people sitting at 10-12 person tables. Everyone could have had a laptop out and been working, but I could only see 3 laptops out and within my line of sight in a room full of 1,600 people. More people had tablets or actual lined paper notepads that they seemed to be taking notes on. About 25% of the people in the room were just messing around with smartphones. I would say roughly 1% of people were using laptops, 10% were using tablets, 10% were writing on a notepad, and 25% were messing around with smartphones. That means that about 54% of the people in the room were doing nothing but paying attention to Jim Collins talk. In a room full of professional multitasking professionals that is a powerful testament to Jim Collins as a speaker. Jim talked for 2 hours and the time seemed to go by quickly without any real slow spots or pauses. Both the content and the delivery of the content were very appropriate for the audience.

I’m not sure why Jim Collins spent so much time talking about climbing during the presentation. Beyond the stories about climbing Jim shared a story about visiting West Point that was printed in Inc Magazine that turned out to be a pretty interesting read.[ii] The audience probably would have been pretty happy to just sit around and listen to a series of stories or factoids. The entire presentation really did seem to be anchored by the 12 questions. They stories were just abstract enough for people to process them vs. their current situations.

During the course of listening to Jim Collins talk, I started to think about what 2 hour presentation I would be able to deliver to a room full of people. My stock presentation on allowing leaders to lead, managers to manage, and employees to succeed takes about 20 minutes. That presentation is pretty well defined and rehearsed at this point. I normally follow that up with my 10 minute diatribe on openness and transparency in the workplace. That means that I have about 30 minutes of reasonably well prepared content to present at my disposal. At this point, the things I would want to say to that room would not cover a 2 hour lecture. A secondary question exists related to if the content would be meaningful enough to hold the attention of the room for 2 hours. Beyond just holding the rooms attention it would be a real challenge to get 54% of the room to focus without any multitasking. My Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) would be to get to a point in my career where I would be able to deliver a 2 hour speech on leadership to a room of 1,500 plus people. I’m not overly sold on how using the BHAG concept could drive things forward, but I’m trying to give it some serious consideration.

I’m working on putting some of my thoughts from the presentation together. For better or worse my thoughts are still in a very raw bullet point format. They need to be flushed out, but that is not happening today. It might be something worth focusing on later this week.

  • One of the items that I plan on researching later on is why it would be dangerous to aggressively study success. That is a take away that I want to spend some more time trying to better understand. The audience seemed to accept that argument, but it seemed like something that deserves to be questioned. Maybe it was something that seemed out of place due to the context.
  • I found it really interesting to hear Jim talk about finding historical matched pairs that have dramatically different outcomes. It was really interesting to think about the possibility of zeroing out circumstances and figuring out what other factors make a difference. A large amount of literature within the management and leadership space should be devoted to the idea, “Never confuse urgency with crisis.” Working with a sense of urgency is an interesting topic to think about. Some people seem to always be more motivated. They approach things with a sense of urgency that can be overwhelming to some coworkers.
  • It was informative to hear somebody talk about what it means to build a great enterprise. You do not often hear somebody openly declare that greatness is not a function of circumstance it is a function of conscious choice and discipline.
  • I thought the following observation about project managers was interesting. Jim said that the one thing about being project driven is that it suspends all existential angst. Everything you do is certain and wrapped around the project.
  • The following quote was brought up at one point. It was noted that Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” That quote seemed to stand out from the rest of the content.
  • I really want to spend time focusing on understanding how to put all the brutal facts related to a situation on the table. I’m going to make sure to read the parts of the Good to Great (2011) book that talk about confronting brutal facts.
  • How do you develop a business practice that includes postmortems without blame? People have to be able to explore root causes for issues without making the exploration overly personal.
  • I’m not overly sold on the whole BHAG idea. It seems like an interesting idea, but it seems like something that might evolve via iteration at some point.
  • It was argued that not only should anyone who has a “to do list” also have a “stop doing list”, but also that “to do list” needs to be treated like a balance sheet. Somebody asked Jim during the Q&A about important items from “stop doing lists”. Jim responding by talking about, “Stop hitting send and start hitting save” and something about “stop dwelling on past mistakes.”
  • I’m going to spend some time reading about Peter Drucker.
  • I need to spend some time thinking about how failure is accounted for in projects and what efforts have to be made to manage failure.
  • Every single time somebody asked Jim Collins a question during the Q&A period Jim would take a few moments and think before speaking. A number of the responses seemed to have been repeated from other things. A number of the responses included one to three responses.

At some point this weekend, I’m planning on acquiring a copy of Good to Great (2011). I want to get an actual copy of the book. The other take away item I have from the presentation today was how to use the following item in my everyday routine. I really enjoyed hearing Jim Collins talk about keeping track of how many creative hours a person logs each day. It sounded like Jim really did keep some type of productive hour spreadsheet. That seemed like an interesting thing to keep. It made me ask the question, “How do you hit a goal of logging 1,000 creative hours in a year?” That type of creativity is worth exploring, but it is also somewhat daunting. The real question would be about how that type of productivity translates to work product. 1,000 productive hours could translate to a variety of different things.

[i] Article on “Jim’s 12 Questions” is free in PDF form here http://www.jimcollins.com/tools/TwelveQuestions.pdf

[ii] Jim referenced this article http://www.inc.com/magazine/201310/bo-bulinghamo-burl/jim-collins-re-learns-leadership-at-west-point.html

Denver Convention Center Bear
Denver Convention Center Bear

Nonprofit Online Education

Week 10 just started in the business ethics course I’m teaching online this term. Next term (in 3 weeks) will be the first term fully under the operation of a new company. I’m curious to see what happens. I have working in the online education space since 2010. This term my services were acquired by a newly formed nonprofit career training company for adult learners. The last time the company I worked for got sold to another company was years ago. Back during 2009/2010 I was a part of Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) when it was purchased by Xerox. That transition as fairly seamless at first, but then got more complicated. I’m not totally sure what will happen to the staff during an online education company acquisition.

Some major changes could be brewing within the online education space. The amount of online content has grown dramatically. Some of it is very high quality. It is only a matter of time before some of the larger more established colleges simply start offering free online degree programs. I look at the certified courses that the edX group is providing as a model. That model could easily be built out into a degree program. The technology exists for the classes to be pretty much automated. The colleges would just have to invest in updating the content on a regular basis. That service will probably be offered as a reaction to the for profit online university systems.

I just installed R-3.1.3 for Windows (32/64 bit) on my HP Envy X2. That installation happened at the Denver airport. The setup was pretty easy. I needed to complete the installation for my MITx: 15.071x The Analytics Edge course. I’m hoping the bandwidth will be fast enough during the flight to complete the week 1 homework assignment.