On the use and abuse of Technology and its Management from the perspective of an academic at UCL specialising in Project Management, Systems Engineering and Space Science/Technology.

Friday, October 29, 2004

The System is the Project.

and the Project is the System.

Two of my (sucessful) Systems Engineering MSc students had this to say about system development projects, from different angles:
The architecture of a system and the organisation of that work are fundamentally interdependant.

Well, duur. Aside from the obvious, we spoke at length about the two sub-systems: the product side and the project side. Like all systems, you don't want to optimise any one part, but the whole.

Here's another case: software (specfically, database) development at Flickr (a burgeoning product, with a comparatively tiny dev-team). Sometimes the usual quality criteria on the product side may be better compromised if you want to achieve desirable behaviours on the project side. Ergo, by way of interconnected, don't bother normalising your data tables like you were told in college.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Starting research

Setting out a research agenda is hard. I should know. It's possible (probable) that if there's the freedom to spend time doing any research at all -- if the effort it's not results-driven -- then the initial directions are hard to define. That can lead to difficulties in making the final stages of the work yield value for the numerous stakeholders. These difficulties are endemic to Masters and Doctoral theses but are common in "higher", team-oriented, research efforts too.

Some work and proposals flowing near me have crystallised some views and criteria, all of them pretty obvious and well-known:

  • In the beginning, seek to define the terminology and knowledge landscape under study. This establishes a beginning place.
  • Have a working hypothesis (Proposition A), and work for or against it (transforming it into Truth A). This is an initial direction. Even though it may be a stalking-horse, it should be conceivable that demonstrating the hypothesis could be a goal of the research.
  • Tools (e.g. Tool A) you acquire to deal with knowledge and statements shouldn't be an end in themselves.
  • Be prepared to abandon the hypothesis if it looks inappropriate to what can be found. Don't proceed without forming a new one (Proposition/Truth B).
  • At a later stage, you might be fed up with hypotheses (too many of them, self-evident by now, etc) and may wish to progress towards demonstrating a usable product (Tool B). That's fine, but again, don't abandon the hypothesis/es until you can define B's characteristics.
  • Keep defining the targets of the proofs and products in terms that the audience of the research will value (this does not necessarily mean that ready Applications are always required).
What's most important? If you come away with a Tool B, then that's something in itself. Then, less vitally, Truth B, then Truth A. Tool-A's are incidental (but creditworthy). The whole thing is creditworthy if the above paradigm is followed adeptly.

This article has turned into Marking Research, which is as it should be, since Specification must always have its own Evaluation in mind.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Small tools

I was having a discussion about how PM syllabi are becoming full of trophy topics, straining new entrants to the field with a weight of learning objectives. A sign of maturity? Not necessarily. Mature thinking might be about letting go of childish ideas, keeping what you really need. Hence: let go of monetary flow control routines; grasp the idea of measured work value.

A bunch of stuff I've come across recently seems to be about light toolsets. Some of this from Innovation Weblog.

Mayomi is a web application for mind maps. Not very rich yet, and certainly not dynamic. When I pick up a tool I expect to be able to mess around with scenarios, rather than document perfected thoughts (the essential fact that makes thinking with Excel different from declaring with Word). One to watch. The developer makes the most of post-HTML web tech.

Another Flashy thing is Webnote. I've set up a space for Double Loop, with a topic in tool use in Project Management for us to try. This is sooo simple (emulated stickies) yet potentially powerful. Please, get involved at Loop2, Surface1, or use its XML feed to keep in touch.

And finally, Basecamp is a web-service oriented towards project management. Rather than produce scientifically intense charts and diagrams, it focusses on making communication between collaborators and clients easy, coupled with deadline-sensitive displays. Certainly easy to jump on if you know blogs - its spools projects out to RSS feeds and everything. Cheap too, if you compare it to hulks like Project, which if truth be known tend to paralyse the analysts and isolate the manager.

Now, off you go to Loop2Surface1. I'll buy you a drink if you correct my spelling mistakes, two if you add a Note that kicks the topic.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Large construction

Large construction
Large construction,
originally uploaded by Drift Words.
or small construction? Smashy or Nicey?

Sometimes, our PM students don't quite get it. "Why are we playing with kids' toys?" Others just get on with it. Warming up the brain is a key element of this game, regardless of the PM lessons. We like this game, despite all the yelling we have to do.

Here, however, I'd like to point out that the Risk v Scope dilemma is plain to see.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

sylloge - innovation process at Flickr

Stewart says "in Flickr, there's no not invented here, here". Hear Hear! Instead, they have "recombinant idea folding".

read: sylloge

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Risk vs Scope

As a follow-up to the last note, here's a simplistic view of part of the project management triangle (remember: On Time, To Budget, Right Quality -- pick any two).

Sometimes scope is drawn in explicitly (a tetrahedron!) sometimes not. Sometimes Quality = Performance/Requirements, other times Requirements have their own dimension. Basically, it gets more potentially confusing the more properly you think about it, and despite many brave attempts the Triangle is a persistent idea. The central idea of a consciously managed trade-off -- along any side of the triangle -- is the one thing all the models have in common.

Let me have a go. This one's called Risk vs Scope :

Link to Risk versus Scope diagram


Smash! Tinkle
broken Gemini capsule - wodged in desert
The Gemini sample-return vehicle, er hard-landed, yesterday (news, video - 6MB Quicktime) .The waiting choppers, piloted by famous dudes, were fortunately nowhere near (they weren't hired to stop a ballistic missile). The solar-wind sample discs are almost certainly mixed up with ambient bits of Utah, rendering them of little remaining interest to space scientists.

The tinkle (lost samples) is more of a problem to scientists than the smash, although not as newsworthy. Engineers, who deliver the science baby, should be pondering. Beagle-ers have heard it all before, and wished they had seen that one too.

Clearly, there is a reporting bias that brings disasters to the fore, so that spectators grumble in pubs "why can't they just do things right?". Putting aside that spin, and even allowing for the fact that in millions of everyday cases, innovation goes wrong before it goes right, there are long-standing questions about the right ways to perform such experiments.

Do engineers and their managers really know where they stand on the Scope vs Risk slope? Or are there deep gaps in our knowledge of the uncertainties? Would even greater modelling of outcomes or diagnositc instrumentation of the apparatus help or hinder? One has to remember that such efforts have to come out of the same project's budget, putting us on entirely different scope/risk hill. On the other hand, ontological polyfiller, like talk, is cheap.

Even if we did know where we stood in any given mission, the debate continues as to the best economic choice for a program BS6079: "group of strategically-related projects". Test test test and guarantee an occasional Rolls-Royce ride to the finish line? Or race learn race learn, sending waves of evolving Fords out to the track?

Remember, though, that your race entry fee includes the use of a space rocket and is priced accordingly.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Drucker on Adaptive vs. Plan-Driven

How to reconcile the need for planning with the whitespace required for innovation?
Drucker predicts Agile processes, it says here! Does he mean Planning in the operational sense, or Project Management as we know it? Investigate here : Drucker on Adaptive vs. Plan-Driven.

On a side-dish, is CMM compliance (more processes in place) a Bad Thing for innovation, by this light? I must talk to Mike Emes and Steve Welch about all this.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Step 1. Make a List

I'm not sure about these lists. Using them is a bit like having food chewed for you. These particular ones are OK, don't get me wrong, but I feel a complete manager ought to have an underlying theory in mind so that lists and syllabi can be grown at will when needed.

Something like the Balanced Scorecard, but for projects.

Hal Macomber: Ten Rules for Project Managers

Computerworld: The systems builder as leader (five skills and six practices)

APM: Body of Knowledge

PMI: Body of Knowledge

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

MainlyMartian: That dog, still dead

MainlyMartian: That dog, still dead

MainlyMartian picks up the last pieces of Beagle better than I could. His commentary of the Leicester analysis (reports available here) fills in many details and nuances.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Ship, land down there.

OK, so the main problem with Beagle 2 may have been inadequate funds (surprise!) or poor risk management but a pertinent factor had to have been the control of the a tricky process like parachute landing through a planetary atmosphere.

Near open-loop control is viable when the craft under control is in a predictable medium (such as vacuum) and where the craft is essentially a rigid body. The many successful journeys to the gas giants exemplify this approach. With proper flight planning, there will be plenty of time for corrections (maybe even with an Earthman in the loop) if a manouevre doesn't get the craft into its target state.

This could be the killer application for spacecraft autonomy (more so than, say, scheduling of obervation modes). Big guns are working on it.

I would guess that some of this will be spin-off from UAV tech (very hot at Farnborough this year).

Others are more excited at the thought of autonomy in the process of going up, rather than down.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Hooray! Projects and Mindmaps

Mind maps for (small) projects!

Seen in Reforming Project Management. Hal also generally recommends the source site, Innovation Tools.

Mindmaps turn up again here. This tyime, they're made from your del.icio.us tags (a free-form open bookmark space, that certain bloggy types seem to be hot on).

Monday, June 28, 2004

Breathless Fluff to Deep Thought?

Nova Spivack on Minding the Planet has written an unusually lengthy post, let's call it a "paper" entitled Semantic Web to Global Mind. The title says it all really.

My reading of it seems to be fairly close to Danny Ayers', that is, an appreciation of the effort to understand what's going on mixed with curmudgeonly disliking of the gee-whiz frothiness.

There could indeed be something interesting going on with contemporary communications media, but I don't think it is in terms that this author asserts, nor are the particulars he claims that unique.

Semantics: what knowledge is, how it is processed and represented. Beyond syntax (form) into meaning.

If semantic behaviour, (cough) thinking?, occurs outside of human heads then we could well have a global mind on our hands. Except it would be out of our hands. It could well be that recent techniques have, or will shortly, enable this.

The usual suspects are underneath somewhere: Dennett, Dawkins, Minsky.

Some spins of my own: without explicitly codifiying a general scheme, semantic data and processes already exist and have done for millenia. They are present in systems and behaviour - what people do with the words and texts - and are occasionally represented by gestures, punctuation and the whole continuum of what is sometimes called meta-language. They are augmented by all sorts of social considerations. The fact that a given conference was in London rather than Budapest is "meta-data". But we need to be careful with our terms, many examples given as language meta-data (tone, gesture) are actually explicitly linguistic. Tone in Chinese being a simple example. Even pre-written language had asynchronous storage: well, hello there wandering poet!

As I keep saying whenever someone asks me bitter or lager: Categories Don't Exist. There is no clear division between data and meta-data in nature; genes and memes don't particularly care how they are expressed and transmitted. DNA, RNA, mother's milk -- there's no system definition.

Knowledge seems to be slippery anyway, and it's not reliant on syntax, more on modelling another's internal states. What do I think you mean? That's what I guess you meant, I think. Who are you anyway? What do you want?

The step change in capability, if there is one, is not that TADA! a given "layer" of metadata can now be described, rather that the thinking itself can be let go of, delegated, by virtue of distributed processing. Maybe by eyes and brains, maybe by wires and scripts. This paper illustrates how this could operate very nicely. It could well be that XML is what makes a global neuron fire, or is a step in the waggle dance of the hive mind. But I'm not sure that this, or even the internet, is a necessary part of such a thing.

Want an example of pre-existing emergent semantic processing, on a global scale, with no semantic layer definition? The Economy.

However, semantic layers and their objects are genuinely interesting. If one knowledge object can "mark up" another than some additional evidence can be left behind of process. Aha! Writing! The trackback (the two-ended link, the link as relationship) is seen from this viewpoint as the locus of this paradigm shift, rather than any implementation of XML. But that brings into question the notion of open data fields (blogs with TB, comments) vs closed ones (commercial entities, sealed from graffiti).

Those are some technical issues I have with the paper (I'm also with Ayers on other issues, like the non-applicability of the Turing test argument). But I'd also argue with what it all seems to mean.

If there is such a thing as "the" weblog community, and if it indeed has a mind then it is not a wise one. At present its personality seems to be infantile with disturbances bordering on the psychotic. Impulses related to vanity, currency and other faddishness seems to dominate. Hence my grinching today rather than writing a 3000 word paper of my own, tomorrow.

Also, were I his editor -- gosh! In blogdom, I am! -- I would also recommend that the paper be de-fluffed. Mention "my company" once and once only puhleeze.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Report overturns: not many hurt.

Here's a story column about avoiding academic reporting styles in live projects, getting the punchline out there first, so to speak.

Academic style (background, problem, details, then consequences) is still, I feel, necessary outside of the regular status meeting. The rigour of in-depth analysis and reporting helps projects (i.e. trains people) to make rapid decisions (reported in a journalists' inverted pyramid style) in the tussle of project work.

I still feel sorry for the bull though.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

We're Doomed!

Of all my projects I like the Doomed ones the best. Here's a Computerworld Q&A with Sue Young on, essentially, how to sense being doomed.

no more e-learning.

I loathe the use of e-. e-marketing, e-governance, e-ducation. Its use seems to denote an immature reaction to the existence of new(ish) tools. I prefer the e-is-everywhere-get-on-with-it approach. On a parallel track, here is an industry columnist saying, rightly, that the days of the "IT Project" are over.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Chris Argyris

This biography of Chris Argyris, who was instrumental in developing the models of single-loop and double-loop learning and applications to organisational (for example, let's say "Management") behaviour, includes extensive references and links to the Monitor group (where Argyris is a director).

From infed.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The robots are playing around with wierd stuff.

This time they are doing Origami, and working in other non-manufacturing domains. Some snippets from the bench of Devin Balkom, a grad student at the CMU manipulation lab.

How to get knowledge

... according to Denham Grey. Think: do we do this?


Another fish dragged in. This is a nice mindmap homepage index from a guy who's doing some research in the knowledge management area. Here's his blog (en francais).

Sunday, May 23, 2004

social software: Thou Shalt

Social software, what's that? Online groups, how do they work?

Clay Shirky, of Many2Many, gives the lowdown. Cruise through this 10-minute talk, Google the terms you don't know and get back to me. Let's talk.

He's on again on the subject of Wikis. This time try wikipedia first (Read an entry where You know more than They do. Edit it. You are Them) then read why this works. Talk to me.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Beagle 2 criticised

What? UK semi-amateur mission to Mars, added on (by embarrising series of press conferences) to ESA orbiter. Or, depending on your POV, glorious Blur/Hirst brit-art spin-off with science bit added in for show. Come Christmas day 2003, there wa-as no-o blee-eed-din signal.

What happened? It left the mothership (ugh) Mars Express Orbiter in a nominal manner, but then probably crashed, probably probably because the height detection part of the freshly-developed and innovative landing system (aero braking, chutes, airbags) sent false data.

A comission of enquiry has critised the handling of risk in the project.

Why? Start here. Seek the ESA report.

24/5/04: "Report won't be published, only ... recommendations" Press Conf today ...

24/5/04: So, space robots are tricky, but surely the answer isn't space men? Link

Why blog?

You may be wondering what the Business Case for this whatever-it-is that you are reading is. Well, in lieu of one, this: Bill Gates says it's a neat thing.

Systems Behaviour

In case anyone is in any doubt as to the importance of systems-aware project management and engineering, let them take five minutes to read this, from The Register.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Cube solver

I'm not sure what this has to do with my core topics, but here it is mentioned anyway. A chap called JP Brown has built a machine to solve the Rubik's Cube ... out of Lego. And an imaging system, natch. Seen on Joi Ito.

Beats my 27-seconds in the back of the school bus in '79.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Mind fullness illustrated

OK, here's a Visio mindmap, illustrating my research directions. It's a bit rough at present ... more to come.

Technically, the process of drawing this in Visio was OK, rather than wonderful. Visio drawing concepts are unlike standard illustrating tools. Once this hump is over, everything is easy.

I would like links to external documents and sites to complete the mindmap.

Free Mind mapping software

Ah haa! Some open-source mind-mapping software. Goodee!

It's in development so there's a few features to come - like rich graphics? If you want to explore further, the authors give background info that refers to other breeds, some non-free, of mind-mapping stuff. Mind maps? Examples: here.

It's time for me to get back into this style of paperwork. I'll be seeing how MS Visio (search: mind map)copes with the task as well.

Qualitative Research

Coming at things from a physics/engineering POV, I need help with
qualitative research methods. This site at SLAIS/UBC provides one of the best collections of resources I've seen.

Friday, May 14, 2004


The degree of risk in a project should be reflected by the
penetration of prototypes into the development life-cycle.

I will have something to say about this in due course. In the mean time,
have patience, perhaps go here for guidance.


I declare this journal open

The title of this blog refers to the following distiction between learning styles.

Single-loop learning is identified as "the ability to know what to do in a particular set of circumstances, or in response to specific triggers and stimuli." Individuals learn how they can do better, improving what they are currently doing. This may also be seen as learning at operational levels, or at the level of rules."

Double-loop learning is concerned with "why" in relation to what is being carried out. Lines of reasoning are added to the "what" approaches of single-loop learning so that, as well as learning new qualities and attributes, the "mental model" of reasoning, justification, evaluation and analysis is adjusted and developed also.

Sounds like A Good Thing, no?

Practically, this will be about academic teaching, e-learning and associated new media developments, and the application of emerging and existing tools to the management of innovative technology development.

Essentially, this is a discussion forum related to certain themes within my work.

Thanks to Richard Pettinger for summarising the two loops. Now buy his book.