Compute:Communicate ratios

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In scientific computing, researchers sometimes embrace a style of computing called "parallel processing." Parallel processing is a technique used to get more simulation accomplished by splitting up large complex tasks into smaller tasks that can be operated on at the same time, thereby speeding up the entire simulation. The coordination of the work being done between the smaller tasks is profoundly dependent on the speed with which the tasks can communicate - tasks which are often running on differents computers, sometimes separated by miles, not just feet on a machine room floor. In parallel processing circles, programming efficiency is sometimes talked about in terms of the ratio of time spent computing compared to the time spent communicating.

I believe that I can make a case that we - IT and ITS - are parallel processing. We're are all trying to get lots of things done at the same time. In some cases, tasks are - for the most part - autonomous from other tasks. But in most cases, tasks are dependent on all other tasks - sometimes in direct ways, sometimes in indirect ways.

Right now, the dominant form of communication in our business is email. Email is wonderful at communicating very directly about something to a targeted group of people. A fundamental assumption of email is that the To: line contains all interested parties. There are two current flaws with this when considering this "parallel processing" model for an IT function. The first flaw is that by using email as nearly the sole method of communication, our communicate to compute ratio is heading into a direction that is unfavorable. It is taking so long to process daily email queues, that we spend a lot of time communicating and less time computing. The second flaw is that the email based communications assume that only tasks or people that need to know something actually know it - when in fact other tasks and people might derive benefit from that communication.

That's where Web2.0 like communications come in.

Soon - there will be a generally available blogging service available from ITS. When it is available, it is an opportunity for each and every one of us to start to move the compute:communicate ratio back to where it belongs. Critically think about every email you send and whether or not it could be changed into a blog entry so that people can discover it for themselves and decide whether or not your knowledge is helpful to their task. Critically listen in every meeting you attend and conference you go to and think about telling the whole world about what you learned or connected from having that conversation. Instead of listening for yourself, listen for all of us and then tell us what you learned and what you think.

Directly, I've heard two criticisms of encouraging this kind of openness.

The first criticism is - "I barely have enough time to read all of my email. If you you think I'm going to read the same number of blogs every day/week you're crazy." This criticism has no legs because the concept is not to ask N people to read N blogs. The concept is to get N people to contribute their knowledge and insight to a blogging space in such a way that N*1,000,000 people can discover that knowledge and insight. For example, ITS had about 8 people attend the last Internet2 meeting in the spring. If everyone who attended that meeting had blogged the various sessions and tagged their blogs with keywords like "identity management" and "streaming video" and "mashups" and "intrusion detection" etc. - then the rest of could search this blogging space when we need to to see what's new in these areas. It isn't about reading a million blogs, it's about discovering relevant information in a timely manner. This is only possible if we're all sharing what we know.

The second criticism is - "My colleagues are critical of me when I blog or comment on a blog. They suggest that I should get back to work instead of communicating." This criticism is simply hogwash. We are, by the nature of our work, doing things in parallel. We can achieve our various goals if and only if we are communicating with each other. To not communicate is to fail. So to those people who might hear that kind of criticism, I suggest pushing back by telling your critics that communicating is a fundamental part of your job and that perhaps your critic should consider sharing something they know as a replacement for the misguided whining. I will freely admit that one can fall into the dark side of sharing - only sharing and never doing - but I don't have much fear of that happening to too many of us because of the pressures we live with to deliver.

The time is coming when you'll be asked to share and there will be a tool at your disposal to use. It will take some time to get this right - but the first step is to fundamentally change our expectations of how we communicate with each other. Share what you know and what you think.

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14 Comments

kevin said:

I suppose it is wrong to add a comment, particularly a first comment, to one's own entry - but
this article
resonates with some of what I'm feeling these days.

Mairead Martin said:

Thanks to Robin Anderson, I've had a blog since I started here last November. (Robin told me it was mandatory for Senior Directors to have one; how was I to know?). Got a few comments about the experience:

1. I still feel like the early emailers who called recipients to say "I just sent you an email". If I communicate through blogs instead of email, I've got to make sure that it's being read. One solution: encourage folks to subscribe to RSS feeds. Another - make the blog so darn interesting that readers sit waiting for new entries. The former is more realistic.

2. A presentation Cole Camplese gave to the Libraries last Wednesday underscored my first point here: there is elementary blog use, like mine ("I had coffee and a bagel for breakfast ....."), or the more sophisticated kind that integrates add-ons, widgets, other social networking tools, etc. to make the whole process much more dynamic and interesting. I'll need the help of Education Technologies to make the best of my blogging or I'll continue having to email folks to remind them to read my blog. Anyone want to join me for a training session?

3. Kevin's points here and Cole's presentation this week both underscore that what we're talking about is much more than a change in communication channels. How much time do we spend, for example, on sorting out organizational tensions that orginate from people feeling left out of the loop? I know how much time I spend repeating the same communication/story/development because my first telling was only to a select few.

4. Finally, there's the blogger's style that you feel is required for each entry: inquiring, whimsical, insightful, etc. as if you were paid to write Op-Ed pieces for the New York Times. That can absolutely be an obstacle to posting entries. I tell myself it's ok to write "I had coffee and a bagel for breakfast ......".

kevin said:

If I'd known that there'd be such a thoughtful comment, I'd have let /you/ write it :-) .

Some reactions:

- I am in for training
- Couldn't agree more about having to find a style but also giving yourself time and playfulness to find it
- If I'm as open as I can be, the responsibility of being informed becomes more of a two-way street and I think that's more natural

Chris Hubing said:

I'm glad you wrote this post. I'd like to see more ITS people sharing what they're working on and what they're learning when they go on travel. I used to compile things from travel in e-mail and send it to my group, I find nowadays, I'll do a blog post and send a pointer out to it via e-mail. It's cool to see how to disseminates from looking at my logs.

However, as one of those eight people who went to the I2 member meeting, I do feel called out. :)

So, I put my notes up on my blog.

http://thundercougarfalconbird.et-test.psu.edu/blog/index.php/2007/05/25/internet2-spring-member-meeting-notes/

And, from now on, I'll happily throw my notes up for general consumption.

-cjh

kevin said:

Oops - I wasn't trying to call anyone out, honest. I just know that we had a presence there (cuz I was there too) and I wished at times we had brought 20 people. The time is coming when calling someone out will be fair game :-), but that isn't today.

That's great you posted your notes. And people might also find your O'Reilly ET notes as well.

Cole said:

I've been trying an experiment with the new PSU Blog tool in that I have been keeping an unpublished weekly updates post sitting in my Movable Type dashboard that I just update along the way. I then release the post on Friday using a standard category and tag. One of the things we are working on with the blog is a new template that auto-publishes an RSS feed for every category ... when that is done, I can simply ask my staff to use a consistent tag for updates that I can subscribe to and mash up for easy review.

Here is a link to my weekly report archive, just to give you an idea of how I am using it ... so far it is working for me. Also here is a mash-up of all ETS blogs.

The way we currently provide updates in ETS bothers me quite a bit -- it is a game of managers placing weekly updates in BaseCamp that are then merged into a single Word Document and emailed to me. It is killing so much time and things are not discoverable and the permanence is a mess. How do I comment from a distance? More importantly how does everyone get a feel for what is really going on across the organization. Multiply that issue by the size of ITS and we have a challenge -- but one that provides us with an opportunity to change the way we think about communication.

This is as much an organizational change issue as it is a technology one -- maybe more so. If we want to find ways to leverage technology to better manage communication we'll need to spend time aligning personal perspectives to both the tools and the goals. Moving towards openness will take time ... probably more time than what we'll be initially comfortable with, but long-term it will pay dividends. I have a feeling with the right amount of administrative support coupled with the right tools we can be a leading example of an IT organization actually leveraging the technology we build/promote/use.

Now, all we have to do is get everyone a blog ...

Mark Linton said:

I’m going to have to call your bluff on this one, too, Kevin. :-)

My notes from the FWNA working group meeting I attended while at I2 and my post on the presentation Philippe and I gave.

I’m with Mairead, though. We really have to get people using RSS. I’ve got 12,715 articles ready to read right now — or at least look at the headlines. There’s no way I could surf that many pages. Any time I feel overwhelmed there’s a big button that says “Mark All As Read” and it’ll go right back to zero. ;-)

Lately, though, at meetings I’ve been setting up a document in Google Docs and sharing it with the other people I know at the meeting. I’m just dumbfounded at how good a set of notes can be when three or four people work together, rather than having everyone try to get everything down themselves. Afterwards, you can blog it from within Google Docs.

Mark Linton said:

Kevin... anybody, actually... could you talk about how the need to communicate more is balanced with the need to protect "institutional data." I just see a conflict between "more openness" and "firewalls everywhere."

kevin said:

@Cole - we're in violent agreement I believe. The change is behavioral and organizational. Way back when just after the Computation Center was morphed in the CAC - the biggest collaborative application was netnews. The dialogue was about whether or not we were spending too much time on bulletin boards, not email. Then email took over but not just in the IT shop - it took over the world. I believe we /need/ to get back to a different modality for a) our sanity and b) our effectiveness.

@mark - IMO, the two poles as you've stated them are not in conflict for me. We have a profound responsibility to diligently protect institutional assets and personal privacy. Openness, for me, means that I am personally open about what I'm doing and why, what I'm thinking to find out if it's right, and learn what others are learning, thinking and doing. Discoverable openness can help us learn how to better manage the friction between firewalls everywhere and performance, firewalls everywhere and collaboration. At one level I think I understand where you're coming from - to design a network that protects assets almost always means designing a network to prevent convenient collaboration. Here in lies one of our biggest challenges in IT - increase fidelity, performance, ease of use, constantly changing collaborative models in the face of changing laws, strong laws, industry compliance, etc.

Brian Katyl said:

Great idea, but what we've done doesn't allow all of us to use this form of communication effectively.

We have many topics that everyone shouldn't see, yet this is good medium to use to communicate it to the ones that can/should.

Let there be one SINGLE feed that all of ITS/IT can pull from, but also allow any of them to post to it. But here's the catch, let the author choose their audience.

kevin said:

I agree that not all of anyone's daily communication is for the world. I also agree that a blog, in general, is not for limited readership.

One of several premises here is that there is a lot of information being exchanged, horded, or passively sitting in an InBox that /could/ be shared with everyone. It many cases, it's just a matter of thinking and acting differently on that information that can be shared with the world.

For example, sometimes an e-mail will come into me about a particular topic with a long history associated with it. Often, I will do a search of my e-mail to piece together relevant information for a meaty reply. I'd also like to be able to search everyone else's InBoxes - or at least the part that would be OK to share - so that the response, and my knowledge about the topic, would be improved.

Not all topics, issue, conversations are bloggable. But many more are than are being shared - and I believe that if we changed that, we'll be a better organization if we share what we know.

Right now, I'm forced to a different tool to do the kinds of collaboration I /think/ you are referring to. In those cases, I've been using closed wiki's for higher stakes conversations and google docs where the risk is lower.

What tools do you use to facilitate more closed collaboration?

Suzanne said:

I think it is important to distinguish between the kinds of communication we are talking about - If we mean sharing about the different workshops/conferences/innovations we've seen or the new things we are working on - I can see that being shared in a space where people can go "to discover it". However, if we are talking about information/communication that is critical to how we get our jobs done, then I think it can’t be left simply to the discovery process and more formal, targeted, strategic methods of communication should be employed.

One of the biggest issues among campus IDs is the sense of a lack of communication we experience; that we often don’t hear about initiatives, conferences, grant opps until it is too late to let faculty know about things, let alone to get their buy-in or to plan for anything strategically (i.e. seek funding sources somewhere). So I get a little worried when I keep hearing that we will be “discovering” information.

In my mind, there are different kinds of communications – those creative, reflective – the musings we have when we are thinking deeply about the work we do, its importance, and the meaning it has to the greater community. This has great value – both in terms of our own learning process and in identifying the zeitgeist of the times – discovering creative new ideas that pop up and gain momentum, and that have value.

On the other hand, the step that seems to be missing is the one which I think also gets left out in some classrooms… the lesson is going along really well, the students are actively engaged, they are working on problems and challenging topics, the discussions are lively…BUT… there never seems to be the wrap-up or debrief that lets students check to make sure they were able to bring it all together into some semblance of meaning – for that lesson, in the broader scheme of the course and their program – to me, that is the strategic part that is crucial and is the responsibility of the faculty member – as “master” of that content, faculty should know what this crucial nugget is, and if students weren’t able to come to it on their own, should help them to get there. In the same way, there is too much left to chance, when folks who need to know, are left to search for and “discover” information that helps them to stay connected (not unimportant when considering retention issues), to maintain currency in their work, and to share it in a timely manner with their constituents.

We all know the power of information – to empower or to marginalize – I worked for many years with severely disadvantaged learners and know firsthand what happens to folks who are marginalized, who are outside the power structures that would give them opportunities and access to information that could change their lives. So we always tried the best we could to act as a conduit of information to them. In the same way, I think we, at the campuses, need formal conduits of information to us, that we can rely upon to get info to us – both nuts and bolts kinds of info and the zeitgeist kinds of nuggets that energize us and keep us all going – so finally (and sorry about the length of this) an idea….I think we should think about the roles people play within our organizations and consider a new job description that would include people whose main responsibilities would be to not just synthesize the information (formal and informal) that is out there –and send it out – but who would also have the time to reflect on what people are blogging about and who would be able to start to pull threads, sense movements, identify energy flows towards ideas and cull them into some meaningful communication that could be sent out to folks on a regular basis. To identify the zeitgeist of the times – this is where true leadership begins and where true movements get their life. It is also where true and meaningful action must start. So I don’t think it is a small thing nor is it a thing to be left to chance.

Communication is a science and an art and I think instead of simply relying on info to be spread by grassroots means, to find folks who are skilled at listening, researching, analyzing, and synthesizing to help us pull together all we’ve been talking about and share it in an organized, targeted, and strategic way. This frees people to continue to be creative and reflective within their work and still allows folks to share/build/connect with each other and ideas, but leaves the larger global task of going through it all to someone who can try to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks and is able to gather it , bring it back to the group to ask, “OK, here’s what we’ve been talking about, what does it all mean? And where do we go from here?”

Brian Katyl said:

We've used sharepoint for a few years though it always feels limiting using something that requires IE6+ and office to use all the features. Much of the testing center has been/ is being planned using it.

Google docs is nice when working with non-university or non-sensative data. I'm think of trying confluence as it looks easy enough to use yet secure.

I think a more direct way of saying what I meant is, we need to have a standard at least for within ITS to do this kind of secure collaboration. A common yet secure place to do what we need for collaboration. There are quite a few test wiki's, yet none are given the blessing of being called production. Thus there is apprehention in moving to something that can disappear as fast as it appeared.

kevin said:

We do need a common way for us to facilitate this for ourselves - and figure out a way to provide it for others as well. Blogs are a first step - wiki's might very well be a second.

FWIW - Internet2 has settled on confluence as the wiki they use for some of their projects. It can be found at https://spaces.internet2.edu .

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This page contains a single entry by KEVIN M MOROONEY published on May 25, 2007 11:49 AM.

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