Mark Twain, Stewart Brand, and what to call “remote work”

In The Diaries of Adam and Eve (“translated by Mark Twain”), Adam writes at one point:

The new creature names everything that comes along, before I can get in a protest. And always the same excuse is offered—it looks like the thing. There is the dodo, for instance. Says the moment that one looks at it one sees at a glance that it “looks like a dodo.” It will have to keep that name, no doubt. It wearies me to fret about it, and it does no good, anyway. Dodo! It looks no more like a dodo than I do.

Names do stick, though as Stewart Brand observed, names associated with technology gradually fade.

We have only another decade or so of carrying on about computers as the big new bad/good thing. They’re about to disappear from view the way motors did. Engines were cause for wonder and speculation when they ran ships and railroads.

Motor? Mouth!
CC-licensed photo by Josh Minor

Nobody called the automobile or truck a personal railroad, but that’s what it was, and people still were impressed. Then motors got smaller and disappeared into lawn mowers, refrigerators, toothbrushes, wristwatches, and nobody…speculates now about what motors will become or worries much about what they are doing to human dignity or economic inequality.

I think perhaps the coming of personal computers was slow enough — starting with the Altair in 1975 and slowly accelerating with the Apple II in 1977 and the IBM PC in 1981– that we’re still talking about “computers,” though that’s shifting. Everyone knows what you mean by a laptop or a tablet.

The speed of technology in phones is such that “smartphone” is starting to sound a bit quaint, like “automobile” for “car.”

I was at the Institute for Performance and Learning’s symposium in Vancouver last week. In his session, Steve Blane argued for “elearning” as a term (no capital L, no hyphen), much the way he’s seen “e-mail” turn toward “email.”

I’m not entirely sure of the latter, but I agree with the spirit. In fact I’d like to stop talking about e- things generally, except perhaps to distinguish one subset from another. Elearning, however spelled, is a format for encouraging learning.

Which is why I so much enjoyed Michael Erard’s Remote? That’s No Way to Describe This Work in the New York Times. He and his wife moved from Texas to Portland, Maine; she manages a geographically dispersed team, and he is a researcher for an organization in Washington DC.

They found a number of people in Portland in similar positions, and in looking to form a community, wondered what to call such people.

  • Remote workers? “Such a headquarters-centric label.”
  • Telecommuters? “Such a dial-up-era feel.”
  • Virtual workers? “As if the work is somehow less tangible…than in traditional offices.”

It was at the first face-to-face meeting my wife and I had with Creative Portland representatives (we had been communicating by Facebook) that a new label came to me: We “work in place.”

It’s worth reading the linked article for Erard’s full discussion. As he points out, it’s worker-centric. And it carries a connotation of the work that suits you in your circumstances (assuming, of course, that you’re not frantically scrambling to make ends meet).

Less weak each week, or, what I’ve learned from Damian Roland

I’m lucky in that I’m connected to a lot of smart, generous people in my field or closely connected to it. A great deal of my professional (and personal) development has come through those connections. When I think about the next opportunities or challenges I’d like to encounter, I may not be sure of the details, but I do aspire to accomplishments like these people achieve.

Sometimes, though, I get real benefit from people whose specialties are much further removed from my own — lawyers (and more than one barrister in the UK), nanotech scientists. Even a well-done Twitter parody account (of which @AngrySalmond is a lapidary example) brings unexpected insight and ideas.

That’s something Damian Roland has done for me. I honestly don’t recall how I first learned of him — most likely through a retweet. He’s a  specialist in pediatric medicine in the UK, and “a passionate believe that education exists to be shared.” To that end, he participates in #FOAMed, a movement for Free Open-Access Medical education.

One thing that Roland does on his blog is to post WILTW — “What I Learned This Week.” As of this writing, he’s got 101 posts in that category. (This week’s is “Children’s Experience of Emergency Care as a Measure of Quality.”)

This kind of reflection is aspirational for me — as with going to the gym, I know it’s a good idea, but I don’t manage to pull it off that often. That means Roland’s regular reflection is inspirational as well. It goes with James Clear’s idea of committing to a process, not a goal.

I’m trying out some new or modified processes to encourage reflection and exploration. (One of them, which I’ve been calling “the tool of the month,” has me consciously trying out one new or unfamiliar tool over the course of a month.

I’m not necessarily going to write a post or review about it, but I’m going to kick it around to see how it works in my own life. An example of small but very welcome results with the first tool, IFTTT (If This, Then That): I’ve learned how to:

  • Have my phone automatically set itself on mute at 10 pm.
  • Have it set itself to 30% volume at 6 am.
  • Have it lower itself to 10% when I connect to the wifi at work.
  • Have it set itself to 80% when I connect to my home wifi.

(I tend not to carry the phone around the house, and so I’ve often missed calls and texts because the sound was off or nearly inaudible. That doesn’t happen any more.)

 

 

 

Experience: the outcome of trial

An image I saw on Twitter last week turns out to be the work of Hugh MacLeod, @gapingvoid:

information-knowledge-400x314

Many people have come up with their own take on this, often adding a third panel. I might put one on the right, fewer dots and more motion or flow: knowledge being applied, which is how you build skill.

There’s a gap between knowledge and skill, though:

Good judgment comes from experience.
Experience comes from bad judgment.

I’ve always liked this saying. I try to remember when it matters that the bad judgment doesn’t have to be yours in order for you to harvest the experience.

And that leads to one of the best experiences I’ve had recently. In a private setting, one colleague I respect shared a portion of a project that’s underway, and asked for candid feedback.

I saw the posted request during the workday, when my link to the wider world is my phone — not the best tool for musing, editing, and commenting. And, to my embarrassment, I forgot about the request until the weekend.

That’s when another colleague I respect did offer critiques — thoughtful, specific ones — and encouraged others to do the same. She pointed out that the original sharer was “practicing what he preaches” by inviting comment.

Well.

I’m not always comfortable offering public critique, even in the context of a small group. I know the theory; I just need to practice overcoming this reluctance.

I had been thinking about sending private comments, but decided to trust the sharer and the process by posting in the group’s forum. It wasn’t easy for me to get started, but it felt good when I got into it.

Experience, I see, has its roots in Latin: the verb experirimeaning to try, to risk, to test. I’m glad I got a little more.

 

Bear in mind: results first, tools second

I’ve worked on a lot of technical training: how to forecast warehouse inventory orders, how to create mockups of proposed software, how to write flood insurance policies. Programs like these are a complex version of working with tools to produce specific results.

To navigate that complexity, to keep on track while designing training, I find it helpful to frame the purpose in a single phrase. And as a phrase, I think this:

Producing retirement estimates using the ViaComp system.

is better than this:

Using the ViaComp system to produce retirement estimates.

The distinction’s clearer if, when asked what the training’s about, you drop the last clause:

Producing retirement estimates.
Using the ViaComp system.

What comes first in the longer versions is what’s assumed to be the most important. In English, word order matters. That’s less true in a language like Finnish, where word endings matter much more. Here are some examples, thanks to my friend Riitta Suominen:

Bear in mind
CC-licensed photo of a karhu
 by Guido Gloor Modjib

Karhu söi miehen.  (The bear ate the man.)

Miehen karhu söi… (The bear ate the man [and not the berries].)

Miehen söi karhu… (The bear ate the man [while the wolf ate the rabbit].)

Emphasis in Finnish comes from word order and case endings. In English, to make the distictions clear in print, I have to add visual emphasis.

For those learning goals above, dropping the ending was a way for me to emphasize how distinct they are, the better to choose the right one for the training program. 80% of the time may be spent using the ViaComp system, but what we’re really doing is producing retirement estimates.

Would I ever choose “using ViaComp to produce retirement estimates” as the one-sentence summary? Sure — for example, if we were changing from the Acme Pension Suite to ViaComp. The emphasis would be on how to use ViaComp so you can accomplish the same work as in APS.

Even if the organization is switching systems, though, what matters to the learner (far more than the underlying system) is the work that gets done. And most of the time, you’re not switching. You’re expanding the skills of people who already handle other pension-related tasks, or you’re helping newcomers become productive.

Neither one of those groups cares much what the system’s called, what server it’s on, or similar infra-facts. They do care about their jobs, which means they care about immediate context. How you describe learning goals is an entry to that context, as well as a beacon during the design process.

Results before tools. Worth bearing in mind.

 

 

When I’m stuck, I talk to myself

On several projects lately, I don’t know what I’m doing. Or at least what I’m doing next.

A way to cope is to ask someone who seems to know more. I’m lucky in having smart colleagues at work who will not only share what they know, but will work with me to reshape that knowledge so I have a better understanding.

I’m lucky professionally as well, because I have people I can and do consult with on issues apart from my everyday job.

Directing the right question
CC-licensed image from PublicDomainPictures

Sometimes, though, I’m not quite ready to do that asking. Usually that’s because of the particular type of don’t-know I’m experiencing.  Either I don’t know what (as in what to ask, or what’s the difficulty, or what’s the domain), or I don’t know how (to take the next step, to choose the right option, to switch points of view).

To that end, in a nod to the Working Out Loud concept, I’ve been making what I think of as Talk To Myself notes. (The TTM nickname just came to me, and I like it enough that it’ll become a tag in Evernote.)

The idea is that for a specific project or domain, I write down what it is I can’t figure out or what I want to know.

This is hardly an earthshaking idea, but it’s a concrete one. The effort to form a question, even if I’m not good at forming one for the topic at hand, gets me to run through what I do know, and I think primes me to think more expansively.

Here are some examples:

Sibelius First

I’ve written about this music-composition software here and here. I got it so I could scan choral sheet music and produce audio files — especially for the tenor, since that’s what I sing.

I think I’m at the “relatively good apprentice” level with Sibelius. I can handle basic tasks pretty well, and I’ve developed some good-enough workarounds.

Noting things down
CC-licensed image by FNeumann

One side effect is that I’m more aware of things I don’t know how to do but want to. So onto the TTM note go thoughts like these:

  • How can I add a blank page on the end of a score so I can add text there — like block lyrics, or background notes, or even a pronunciation guide for Gaelic?
  • Can I export the melody for just a portion of the piece (say, bars 12 – 24 for the tenors)?
  • Is there an easy way to change the instrument for a given line? So far I only know how to add a new staff for a new instrument, then copy the notes from an existing instrument, then delete the staff they were copied from. That seems… kludgy.

Forums in WordPress

As a follow-up to my Building Job Aids workshop last month, I wanted to learn how to create a private online community for interested workshop grads — a place where they might share how they apply what they learned, and maybe even do some show-and-tell in a safe space. At DevLearn I heard Tracy Parish talk about how she did something similar, and I got some ideas from her.

This is one of those don’t-quite-know-what situations for me. Through trial and error, I’ve installed plugins to enable forums (threaded discussions) but I still feel I lack understanding.

Talk To Myself in this case means repeating questions till they make sense, at least to me.

  • Do I have to have open registration?
  • If I do, can I keep out the obvious spambots?
  • What should be recording the registration (if anything)? Do I need some kind of sign-up form, and if so, where does the signing-up go?
  • At a broader level, what’s the flow from inviting someone to that person’s reading and posting in a forum?

At work, a practice database

So many core corporate systems have no way for people to safely learn and practice how to use those systems. A rich, low-risk environment like Amtrak’s training trains will support and encourage learning in a thousand different ways.

We have such an environment for a key system at work–but it hasn’t been used much, and the documentation I can find is sketchy. So I’m making Talk To Myself notes here, too. This is a tougher area because it involves a lot of database security and management.

Borrowing from advice I received from a graphic artist, I’m framing these questions in terms of what I want to accomplish rather than how I think I should go about getting that accomplishment. For example, I don’t know the steps or the stakeholders or the timeframes needed to copy data from another environment into this practice one. I don’t know how (or if) it’s possible to search for certain types of data in the practice database.

I’m pretty sure I need a conversation with one of my IT contacts — but that conversation with her will go much better because I’ve spent time Talking To Myself… and taking notes.