Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I hate it when others do this

But I've realized that calling the Six questions "Administrative" limits their perceived usefulness.  I also dislike acting on the varied and changing thing we call "perception". I'd rather deal with reality.

But the reality is that "Operational" is a better description than "Administrative".  "Operation" implies everyday, front-line work that has the ability to adapt to new situations.  "Administrative" implies a hands-off, set it and forget it mentality.

So, what I have now are the Big Red Question, The Four Directional Questions, and The Six Operational Questions.  I'll still be using "customers", "users" and "audiences" interchangeably, but I probably won't be keeping score on that.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Neologism Alert!

This little gem was coined one day when yet another project was doomed to oblivion by the piling on of absolutely critical deliverables after extensive reviews.

"Yeah but"s are actually essential to a successful project.  The devil is in the timing.  If you're still working around with the direction the New Thing is going to take, you end up with scope-jacking.  If you hold it off until you're at the operational planning stage, you're golden.  That's when you call it "risk-management".

There are always exceptions - usually when you run into legal issues that prevent directions you can take.  Or invisible boundaries when you find out there's a duplicate somewhere.

But as a general rule, do whatever it takes to dodge scope-jacking.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

There's bad news and then there's Bad News

Remember when I was wondering about how my doctor's office got their new patient system?  Well, I've been following my connections to find the decision point and haven't really gotten anywhere. It's a passive search, so this doesn't surprise me.

Neither, sadly, does this.  I mentioned I'd been following the Quora Healthcare IT questions. Well, here's a pretty depressing answer:

 Which healthcare software has the best user-experience?
None. Repeat: NONE.

There is not a single major healthcare software company that genuinely cares about its end user experience, despite the fact that poor implementations have, amongst other things, been associated with increased patient death. The particular publication I'm thinking of is actually more reminiscent of a frustrated rant than a calm scientific explication[1].

And more along that vein.  Maybe I'd better step it up.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Another Doodle

Sorry about the off centered-ness, I did a poor job of scanning.

When looking at the directional questions, it's pretty easy to become overwhelmed.  Why on earth would you be answering something like "who are you" when all you're doing is asking for a simple change?

The answer in some cases is that you wouldn't and probably shouldn't.  The smaller the objective, the narrower the focus is going to be.  But there is this to consider:  you're not writing an autobiography, you're just setting down what you're bringing to the table.  This can help break the ice and let people get to know you.

If you're after something big that's going to change the way you do things, then it's pretty important that you answer all of the directional questions.  Having the answers at hand will remind you that you have an end in mind, who's on board, and what got you all started on this adventure in the first place.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Shooting for "Good", not "Great"

I made a presentation not long ago on the Ten Questions Plus One.  It was a dry run, really, part of the PHITE Club, where you can present without the pressure of a conference.  One of the suggestions was to put more pictures in to illustrate concepts.

So this is the first one.  They won't be in any particular order.

Comments and suggestions are welcome.  They are moderated, and I'm on vacation, so don't fret if I don't respond right away.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

We made this cool thing!

One of the fun parts of having this blog is being able to show off and brag a bit.  And this is one of those times.

My colleague Joy Perrin and I went to the Texas Conference on Digital Libraries this past May to show off our new baby, the KnowWiki.

It came about through a number of factors:

  • Our digital collections weren't getting much use, and we couldn't determine if it was because they were hard to find, or if they were hard to find because they went unused.
  • Projects for the digitization lab came in unevenly because there was no real policy on what should and shouldn't be online (and that didn't even include copyright headaches).
  • Putting something in digital format is only the beginning.  As Joy will be pointing out in her upcoming book, there's a lot more to "digitization" than just scanning.
  • After my work on intranets, shared drives, and SharePoint sites, I'd come to the firm conclusion that "things" online can't just exist, they need to live or operate.
    • And what I mean by that is that people need to interact with your stuff, not just "ooh", "ahh", and "Save As".  I'll explore that in another post.

So we first tinkered with digital collections as a whole.  We sent the Six Administrative Questions around to staff and asked how they'd answer it.  We got the academic equivalent of blank stares.  It was an unanswerable question for the most part, because we'd digitized things without thinking about what would happen once they got there.  We could promote a collection through marketing, and that would bump interest some, but then usage would fall off.

Evil Plans

Now both Joy and I had what I called at the time "secret agendas".  Joy wanted to find a way to get us into the Semantic Web.  I wanted to make the collections come to life, as in have people participate somehow in the gathering of knowledge about the objects (a.k.a. metadata), as well as contribute information about the knowledge from the objects - what I call knowledge representation(1)(2).

Trouble was, we had no way to do that with the software we had at hand, so we had to go looking for something else.

Questions and Answers

At this point, I had the Ten Questions, and since we'd gotten nowhere trying to answer them for all of our digitized material, we chose to focus on one collection.  We got those answered and started looking for a platform.

This is the essential thing: If you don't have clear, simple answers to the Questions, you won't get anywhere. You'll be so bogged down in "what if's" and "yeah buts" that you'll never get past the review process.  Once you know what you're doing and why, the questions of how and what are very much simplified.(3)

The Contenders

DSpace is the platform that is used at the Texas Digital Library.  It's got what Librarians consider to be good metadata handling, and it can take any sort of content you want to throw at it.  The "bitstreams" can be .PDF files, video files, music files, whatever.  It's also indexable by search engines, although the contents of the bitstreams are not.  

ContentDM was another platform we'd used that also had ways to handle images and documents, but that had too many parts that needed attention, and customizing it was a major undertaking.  Its other major disadvantage was its inability to be indexed by search engines without a lot of work.

Fedora Commons came to our notice about this time. It had social media hooks and possible links to blogs, where we thought we might be able to capture audience feedback.  It also had hooks to DuraSpace/Cloud (As did DSpace), where we could store the preservation-quality materials)

The Test

We eliminated ContentDM because it failed most of our requirements.  DSpace also failed, but since we're committed to the Texas Digital Library, we can't simply abandon the platform.  There's nothing stopping us, however, from using a combination of platforms.

Fedora Commons was fairly simple to install, but the interface was user-indifferent, and seemed to be about as care-intensive as some aspects of DSpace, and we didn't have the resources to fully explore what it would take to customize it.  The proposed link to Drupal never seemed to come to be, either.


Joy emailed me one day and asked if we could use a wiki.  I blinked a few times and ran it through the crucible of our evil plans and the ten questions.  Except for security, some cosmetics, and the fact that nobody else had done it that way, it was a perfect fit.

The rest, as they say, is history.  We've got a few more hurdles to jump before we make it completely live, but we're optimistic, and looking forward to doing more experiments on what we can do with collections and audiences and living sites.

The PowerPoint file of our presentation can be found here. 

(1) Yes, I know, Knowledge Representation is already a Thing in Computer Science.  It's a way to teach a computer context.  I contend that the knowledge contained within the object is represented by the object, and the words used to explain that are aids to human understanding.  Making a computer understand it isn't my problem.

(2) We had other agendas/evil plans that I'll explore in still other posts.

(3) I'm afraid I can't share the specific answers for lots of reasons.  I won't be able to email them, either.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Looking for trouble

I've been spending an awful lot of time in doctors' offices for one thing or another. The system I'm in has just (again) implemented a newish computerized "office" suite.  I hate it.  If I hate it, then you know the doctors and nurses and aides do, too.

Previously, I'd come in, say where it hurt, and someone would make a mark on a picture of whatever part of your body was causing trouble.  It would go in the chart and they could look up my previous problems by flipping back some.

On the pain scale this is negative 10
Now the poor schmuck has to scroll through the medically correct bits of my body (figuratively) on the screen and ask precisely where the pain is, what kind of pain it is, and make damned sure s/he saves it before moving on to the next bit.

All the while getting fatigued eyes and no doubt well on the way to some Workers Comp style RSI's.  I wonder if that's covered in the database?

Here's the thing for folks on the tail end or front line of any system:  If neither you nor anybody you know has had any input into the system, the higher ups bought it because of its reporting capabilities or because it was on sale.  Your work was figured in on the "savings" or "operating costs".

That's not to say the data entry isn't important.  It's crucial.  If there's anything a DBA, office manager, or C-level person hates it's dirty data.  It gums everything up, from top level summaries to down-level ratings, and having to fix something is a major pain in the ass, especially after reporting deadlines.

But that doesn't mean it can't be better.  I know of at least one 3D modeling lab that could conceivably be used to interface with a system to merge the body drawing with the database.  Get a multi-touchscreen involved and even the patient cant zoom in and point out the owie.

What I don't know is how to get them together.  Right now I've subscribed to the Healthcare IT section of Quora to see if I can get a sense of how to start to approach someone.  I'm also working through the six degrees of separation in real life to see if I can catch someone's interest in doing this.

Or, if you know, have at it below.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The one thing you need to do to spread an idea: Shut. Up.

I was a SharePoint devotee when it was called Web Parts/Office Server Extensions/SharePoint Team Services.  It had everything: integrated file permissions, web interface, group permissions and denials, sub-administrators. Searching.  And most of all, it wasn't and didn't require, in fact despised, Front Page Server Extensions. 

I flogged that horse, raised it from the dead, flogged again. Rinse, repeat.  I was the intranet administrator, complete with those [redacted] FPSE's.  A good 10% of my job was managing permissions, documents, accidental deletions, and just fixing whatever FPSE had decided to break that day.  Fun times. 

I forced our department into the SQL-backed WSS, and we went wild.  We made document libraries, folders, customized lists imported from spreadsheets, and some of the most painful color combinations known to man.  The most useful thing on there was the pizza list - we had a list of employees, a list of toppings, and folks would list their preferences so we could cover everyone: 0 was allergy, 3 was OMG must have.

I made a second site for the rest of the library, and it got moderate use, but it wasn't SQL backed, so it lacked search and a lot of other things.

Around this time Data Information Lifecycle became a thing, and I was tasked with managing that.  Mostly it involved establishing size quotas on shared drives and deleting really old stuff.  Also deleting or moving stuff when an employee left.  I kept flogging that horse, stating that with Sharepoint, we could get rid of shared drives altogether*. 

After a few years (yes, years. I'm not always quick on the draw) I got tired of people "not listening".  I stopped talking about how SharePoint would Make Everything Better and started listening to what folks needed to do.   Mostly what they wanted could be taken care of with Sharepoint, other times it couldn't.

Then I started hearing folks tell each other, "well, we can do that in Sharepoint".  They started helping each other, usually because they didn't have to stop to explain what they were doing in simple, small words to IT. 

After a time we finally moved our entire intranet to the campus MOSS server.  The move was OK, which for me was great, since I was shooting for Not Terrible.  In the process, the folks in the Project Management department became so skilled at setting up sites that they rarely needed my help at all.  Again, there's value in not having to try and explain your complex thing to someone who might or might not be able to help you.

When I was managing the Help Desk and Development, I'd get all kinds of odd questions.  One of the more stressful things for IT is a user coming up and asking about a pretty complex bit of technology as a solution to a really simple problem.  We like talking geek.  The stress comes from realizing what you're talking about isn't what you want.  Then we sound like we're patronizing you, when we'd really rather just help you out with what you're trying to do.

Eventually I got frustrated one day and wrote "What Problem Are You Trying To Solve?" on our whiteboard.  I'd jokingly point to it and ask how we could help whenever someone came in with a question.  Some folks took it well, others not as well.  What I didn't do was go around evangelizing the phrase.  I said it two or three times, and the idea started to spread.

Now I've learned to keep track of how often I express an idea or radical opinion.  I try not to say something more than three times, and always to different people.  Then I stop.  If it's going to take off, it will. If not, it won't. 

What needs to happen is this: other folks need to see the same or similar problem that I'm seeing, and see how it applies to them.  It's also known as marketing, but I prefer the Shut. Up. method to trying to think of new ways to say the same things.  I'm lazy, and it's much less work.

*No, you can't.  Between file type and size restrictions, life is just not that simple.  You can do it, but enforcing that type of thing will take more time than it's worth unless you're required to by law.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Eating my own cooking II: The Six Directional questions

  • Who are your audiences? Assume at least two: intended and unintended.
Intended: Anybody with a problem to solve.  I'm most familiar with IT and computer issues. By the same token, I'm not your computer technician/network analyst/programmer.  The content here is about thinking your way through the problem(s) you're trying to solve.

Unintended:  Whoever stumbles here because of a search result gone wrong or some other accident. Welcome!  Have a look-see and let me know if you have questions.
  • What does each audience need from you?
Both:  Questions about what they're thinking of and why.  I want to illustrate the questions and their answers as I and others have encountered them.
  • What, if anything, do you need from each customer?
Both:  Questions and answers.  I hope to start conversations about how problems can be solved and what to do if they can't.
  • Will there be restrictions on what each audience can contribute?
Yes.  Comments will be moderated.  I learned the hard way about scam-bots and unfortunate url generation.  If it ends up not being worth the trouble I'll probably turn them off and take feedback some other way.
  • Who will be the administrator(s)?
  • How often will the site be reviewed for updating and organizing, and who will do it?
Six months seems to be the sweet spot in terms of determining if a blog will live, so I'll go with that.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Eating my own cooking: The four directional questions

  • Who are you?
Just me, a generalist system administrator/sometime programmer working at an academic library.  I come from a family of engineer/problem solvers.
  • What do you want?
Mostly I help people solve problems.  I like looking at problems from different perspectives, and I really like it when someone has a perspective I haven't seen.  I want to learn, and I want to teach.
  • Why are you here?
Blog hosting sites are pretty much the same.  Various colleagues and family think I should write a book, but I don't know if I have enough to say. Time will tell.
  • Where are you going?
That is the one question I can't answer yet.  Again, time will tell.

Monday, March 26, 2012

How to have a good failure

The other day I got an email about an old conference room I'd had set up in Exchange.  Nobody remembered how it came to be except me and the guy sending the email.  We'd both moved on to other jobs, so that's why we'd been asked about this thing.

If you don't use Outlook/Exchange, this is what I'm talking about: you set up a "user" that's actually a room or classroom.  They're called "resources" in Exchange, and when you're setting up a meeting with a group of people, you can list that room as your meeting room.  Depending on how the resource is set up, you're automatically booked, automatically rejected because of overlap, or a human reads an email and gets back with you.

Someone thought that setting up room schedules via Exchange was a better option than the shareware program we'd been using (and that was going away), and in some ways, that was true.  In other ways, not so much.

Our previous program was going away because it was insecure, out of date, and on a server going out of warranty.  We'd been working in SharePoint for a while, so the decision was made to do scheduling of rooms there.  At the same time, I and a few others looked into the Exchange option.

A lot of times there are more than one set of audiences or customers to consider.  As IT, my interest is in keeping the servers humming and the services moving their data around.  The end users wanted a simple way to book a room and to know that the room they're after is actually free.

The other customer to consider is the department actually responsible for the room(s). In this case our building manager.  He needed to know more than how many people would be at the meeting. He needed table set up information, video/projector information, and other specifics that would not fit on to the Exchange forms, but that could easily be added to the SharePoint calendar forms.  (Modifications could also be made to Exchange, but at a much higher cost in time and coordination).

So after a review, the building manager - the real owner of the service of booking rooms - made the decision that we would stick with the SharePoint calendars. If folks wanted to avoid overbooking, they'd have to check the calendars first.

I changed jobs not long after, and so I got the email, asking if it was OK if that old room was deleted.  I said sure, nobody's using it.

In the process he'd learned about customizing forms, I'd learned about customizing Exchange, and the limits of what's available to a single department in a large enterprise.  Even if we'd gone up a blind alley, we'd come out with more knowledge than we'd had before.  Failure isn't always a loss.

But like every other job, there needs to be a cleanup afterwards.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Wherever you go, there you are

So there are a few sites that have Ten Questions for this and that.  This site is about problem solving.  Specifically, you ask these questions in order to focus your attention on what's important to you.

The "Plus One" came after all the rest.  It's the top question, the first one to ask: What problem are you trying to solve?

It's not original to me, others have made the same point - asking this question helps you to not insult someone who's out of their depth when they're asking you about something you know a lot about.

The problem I'm trying to solve with this blog is to have a place to discuss problem solving, demonstrate the use of the questions, and get feedback on all of it.