!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: August 2009

Monday, August 31, 2009

Dmitry Fadeyev on Web Usability Mistakes

Back in February, Dmitry Fadeyev posted a helpful description of "9 Common Usability Mistakes in Web Design" at the Smashing Magazine website. The mistakes in question are:
  1. Tiny clickable areas (a problem that's exacerbated when the user accesses a website on a mobile device)

  2. Pagination of running text simply to increase page views (but note that spreading text over several pages can reduce the likelihood that the web page will cause a crash on a mobile device)

  3. Duplicate page titles

  4. Content that is formatted and laid out in a way that makes it difficult to scan visually

  5. No contact information

  6. No search function

  7. Placing too much of the website's content behind a wall that can be breached only by registering

  8. Out-of-date permalinks that do not automatically redirect to the content's current location

  9. Long registration forms
Not only is Fadeyev's post itself worth reading — as fundamental guidance for people just taking up Web design, and as a refresher for more experienced designers — but so is Comment #78 from a certain Dr. Girlfriend, who explains how Firefox and Firefox plug-ins can mitigate each of the nine mistakes on Fadeyev's list.



Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ernest "Brownie" Brown, 1916 - 2009

Ernest "Brownie" Brown
(Independent Television Service)

But the greatest of all knockabout comedy teams ever to grace the Apollo stage was Cook and Brown (Charles “Cookie” Cook and Ernest “Brownie” Brown), who first played the Apollo in 1935. Charles Cook was born in Chicago (February 11, 1917) and raised in Detroit ... Around 1929, at the age of twelve, Cook performed with “Garbage and His Two Cans” and toured with Sarah Venable’s “Mammy and Her Picks” with his childhood friend and future dance partner, Ernest “Brownie” Brown, who was born in Chicago (April 25, 1916). In 1930, the two formed Cook & Brown. Their act combined acrobatic stunts and grass-roots humor with eccentric dancing. The short-tempered, six-foot tall Cook, known for his Russian floor dancing, played foil to the diminutive five-foot tall Brownie who, when knocked down, slid the full length of the stage and bounced up in a reverse split, thumbing his nose and ready for more abuse. In 1931, they played the Lafayette Theatre in New York, and stayed, quickly becoming highly popular comedic performers, despite the Great Depression. In 1934 they played the Cotton Club and skyrocketed to popularity, playing the Palace, Palladium and Apollo with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lena Horne and Bill Robinson. On Broadway in Kiss Me Kate (1948), choreographed by modern dancer Hanya Holm, they stopped the show with their routines in “Too Darn Hot” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” [American Tap Dance Foundation]

The video below shows Ernest Brown and Charles Cook performing in "Chatter," a 1943 soundie.

Ernest Brown's obituary in the LA Times is here.


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Saturday, August 29, 2009

What You Can Learn from War Gaming

Three years ago, Robert Rubel, Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport RI, published "The Epistemology of War Gaming" (pdf).1

Aside for what Rubel has to say about what you can learn of military significance from war gaming, his article is also useful, more generally, as a guide to learning from any strategy-based simulation. I say "strategy-based" to distinguish the simulations Rubel and I are talking about — including some that take strategy as given and operate at the tactical level — from simulations that are designed to impart concepts and principles.

Rubel adopts Peter Perla's definition of "war game":
... a warfare model or simulation whose operation does not involve the activities of actual military forces, and whose sequence of events affects and is, in turn, affected by the decisions made by players representing the opposing sides.2
In explaining his view of what one can learn from war gaming, Rubel sounds several themes, which include:
  • A war game is "valid" to the degree that it helps with problem solving.

  • "[A] war game should be designed with as much fidelity as possible without including factors that, because they are not clearly related to its purpose, risk diluting or masking valid knowledge ..."

  • A war game is not predictive because in the real world there are too many factors influencing the outcome of a military engagement to allow for modeling that captures determinate cause-and-effect relationships.

  • War games are best viewed as research tools. While they don't provide proof that A leads to B, X leads to Y, etc., they do produce insights and highlighting of issues in need of further analysis.

    As Rubel puts it, "what games can reliably produce [is] knowledge about the nature of a warfare problem such as potential flaws in a plan, the potential importance of geographic features, gaps in command and control, logistical needs, etc."

    Rubel explains that "the knowledge emanating from a game is ... weakly structured, meaning that such knowledge is conditional and subject to judgment in application."3 Applying judgment is not easy because of political pressures, because of game users' frequently powerful attachment to conventional wisdom, and because "game results are often equivocal, open to interpretation."

    Rubel suggests, "Perhaps the best way to characterize this conditionality is to say that knowledge produced by war games is indicative — that is, at its best it can indicate the possibilities of a projected warfare situation and certain potential cause-and-effect linkages."

    And then Rubel notes how war gaming can, as I would put it, help participants develop skill in improvisation: "The primary mechanism through which war games produce such knowledge is visualization. Games allow players and observers to see relationships — geographic, temporal, functional, political, and other — that would otherwise not be possible to discern. Seeing and understanding these relationships prepares the mind for decisions in a complex environment."

  • Letting organizational politics influence the official report of how a particular war game played out will surely warp the conclusions drawn. Rubel notes that the key to extracting all the learning that the results of a war game embody "is objective, disinterested sponsorship, or at least analysis."
As you read the above list of themes, I believe you can see that they offer helpful guidance to civilian users of "serious games." Particularly well-taken are Rubel's points concerning bringing issues to the surface for further analysis, training people on how to exercise judgment and how to improvise effectively in a complex situation, and making sure lovers of conventional wisdom are prevented from distorting the analysis of a game's results.

1 "The Epistemology of War Gaming," Robert C. Rubel, Naval War College Review, Vol. 59, No. 2, (Spring 2006), pp. 108-128.

2 You can find Perla's definition (worded slightly differently from the text quoted here) in a paper entitled "An Introduction to Wargaming and its Uses" (pdf) that he co-authored with Raymond Barrett (Center for Naval Analyses, October 1985), p.3.

3Rubel is using "weakly structured" in the sense of "structurally indeterminate," as that is defined by John Hanley on p. 13 of his 1991 Yale dissertation, On Wargaming: A Critique of Strategic Operational Gaming: "Significant elements of the problem are so little known or understood that we cannot define the problem in terms of the other forms of indeterminacy [statistical indeterminacy, stochastic indeterminacy, strategic indeterminacy]. Such elements might be 'indeterminacy in current conditions, the kinematics of the process [motion of ships and aircraft, as determined by course, speed, and altitude/depth parameters], acts of nature, the available response time, and the perceptions, beliefs and values of the decision makers.'" (Hanley's dissertation is available through Dissertation Express.)


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Friday, August 28, 2009

Innovation in the Pharmaceutical Industry

In a striking example of concision, the Wall Street Journal has published a 1½-page summary of research on the drivers of innovation that Frank Rothaermel (College of Management at the Georgia Institute of Technology) and Drew Hess (McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia) published two years ago in a 24-page academic paper (pdf).1

Rothaermel and Hess analyzed data covering the pharmaceutical industry in the period 1980-2001 to identify the mechanisms that best enabled firms to develop "dynamic capabilities," i.e., the ability to recognize and adapt to market and technological change, such as the rise of biotechnology.

The researchers began with the general view that "antecedents" (drivers) of innovation can be found simultaneously and interdependently at the individual, firm, and network levels. By "network level," Rothaermel and Hess are referring to external organizations in which a firm might invest resources, e.g, through forming an alliance with another firm or a university, or by making an acquisition of another firm.

To test their theory, Rothaermel and Hess investigated several hypotheses that the theory implies. (You can learn in detail about the rationale for these hypotheses by having a look at their paper.) The hypotheses are:

Hypothesis 1A. A firm's innovative output is a positive function of its intellectual human capital. In the case of pharamaceutical firms, this intellectual human capital was measured in terms of the number of scientists employed.

Hypothesis 1B. A firm's innovative output is a positive function of its star scientists, controlling for nonstar scientists. Star scientists were defined as those with publication and citation records well above average.

Hypothesis 2. A firm's innovative output is a positive function of its R&D capability. R&D was measured in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars (with firm revenues treated as a control variable).

Hypothesis 3A. A firm's innovative output is a positive function of its alliances with new technology providers. These providers include universities, research institutions, and biotechnology firms.

Hypothesis 3B. A firm's innovative output is a positive function of its acquisitions of new technology firms.

Complementarity Hypothesis. Antecedents to innovation located at the intersections between the individual and the firm (Hypothesis 4A), between the individual and the network (Hypothesis 4B), and between the firm and the network (Hypothesis 4C) complement one another, i.e., interactions across levels are positive, and thus increase a firm's innovative output.

Substitution Hypothesis. Antecedents to innovation located at the intersections between the individual and the firm (Hypothesis 5A), between the individual and the network (Hypothesis 5B), and between the firm and the network (Hypothesis 5C) substitute for one another, i.e., interactions across levels are negative, and thus decrease a firm's innovative output.

Rothaermel's and Hess's results included:
  • Hypothesis 1A was supported. "... the most effective way to achieve continuous innovation over the long term is to hire and cultivate talented people. Companies that innovate through hiring will have stronger control over their intellectual property and often a steadier pipeline of future inventions because they aren't relying on outside partners for any part of the innovation process."

  • Hypothesis 2A was not supported. "The odds of this strategy [investing in talented people] working improve when a company builds a team of both star and nonstar employees. Having people who can prospect for new ideas (star scientists, for example) and people who can turn those ideas into actual products and services (rank-and-file knowledge workers) makes successful innovation more likely."

  • Hypothesis 2B was partially supported. "Rather than finding a linearly positive relationship beween R&D expenditures and biotech patenting, ... we find that this relationship is characterized by diminishing marginal returns."

  • Hypothesis 3A was not supported, but Hypothesis 3B was. I.e., the data indicate that alliances do not increase innovative output, while acquisitions do. (But see also the findings below for Hypotheses 4B and 5B.)

  • Hypothesis 5A was supported (and Hypothesis 4A was not). I.e., "a firm's intellectual human capital (proxied by its total scientists) and a firm's R&D capability are substitutes for one another ... Star scientists and R&D capability also substitute for one another ..."

  • Hypothesis 5B was supported (and Hypothesis 4B was not). If a company is using human capital as an innovation strategy, it only makes sense to also invest in alliances if those alliances bring unique assets that the company does not already have access to from its internal talent.

  • Hypothesis 4C was supported (and Hypothesis 5C was not). "Alliances and internal R&D spending often complement each other ... because internal knowledge allows companies to more readily identify the most promising research areas, which in turn allows them to select the most promising research partners. Internal knowledge also helps companies better understand the information that is exchanged between partners, increasing the efficiency of such arrangements."

  • The most complementary innovation strategies are forming alliances and making acquisitions. "That's because forming a joint venture with a company before trying to buy it gives a company inside information about the target's worth and the value of the research it is seeking to acquire."
In concluding their 2007 paper, Rothaermel and Hess sum up with the basic recommendation that
firms should, with the help of star scientists, identify an exogenous paradigm shift, and then assemble the requisite human assets in the form of rank-and-file scientists.
Their advice to firm managers is to avoid
the "grab bag" approach to innovating, [i.e.,] employing a variety of available mechanisms simultaneously without knowledge of the possible deleterious interaction effects. Our research demonstrates that, due to path dependency and constraints imposed on a firm's financial-, managerial-, and research-related resources, a tandem approach may actually lead to decreases in innovative output. ...Instead, the managers who take a discerning and discriminating approach towards selecting innovation mechanisms will be most successful in building the dynamic capabilities necessary to continuously innovate.
1 "Building Dynamic Capabilities: Innovation Driven by Individual-, Firm-, and Network-Level Effects," Frank T. Rothaermel and Andrew M. Hess, Organization Science, Vol. 18, No. 6 (Nov-Dec 2007), pp. 898-921.



Thursday, August 27, 2009

Personal Scenario Planning

The August 2009 issue of Wired has a compact graphic article by Peter Schwartz on how one can apply scenario planning to one's own career or other personal issue.

Schwartz outlines the scenario planning process by working through an example in which an aerospace engineer gets the process started by deciding that the question in need of investigation is "How can I future-proof my career over the next five years?"

Schwartz then outlines the five steps in the process:
  1. List driving forces.

    What variables, trends, and events could change the aerospace industry? Which are fairly certain? Which are uncertain? Which are the two most important uncertainties?

  2. Using the two most important uncertainties, make a scenario grid showing four possible futures.

  3. Imagine possible futures and write them up like news stories.

    What could happen over the next five years?

  4. Brainstorm implications. Then devise suitable strategies and tactics for coping with each of the futures you've imagined.

  5. Track indicators so that you recognize when a particular future is emerging.
Schwartz closes by noting that if none of the futures you've imagined comes true, "You can always reevaluate you sense of the forces at play and rework the grid to reflect reality more accurately."


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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Jeppesen's White Papers

I was reminded of an earlier post on how to write good white papers when I browsed through the white papers on offer as part of Jeppesen's documentation of their Vessel and Voyage Optimization Solutions (VVOS). I was interested in VVOS because it seems to be such a good illustration of how IT can enable substantial improvements in productivity.

As Jeppensen explains in their VVOS brochure (pdf),
VVOS utilizes advanced routing algorithms to accurately and comprehensively optimize each route for on-time arrival while minimizing fuel consumption and avoiding heavy weather damage. ...

Using sophisticated hydrodynamic modeling, computations, and highest resolution ocean forecasts the VVOS guidance system recommends speed and heading changes to manage ship motions to minimize heavy weather damage. ... VVOS includes a detailed model of ships’ motion, engine and propeller characteristics. This “virtual” ship accurately estimates speed made good under forecast wind, wave and ocean current conditions for a given engine power and propeller RPM, as well as ship motion limitations defined in the “Safe Operating Envelope” [specified limits on such ship metrics as roll, angle of pitch, and acceleration].

VVOS includes a real-time monitoring, recording and warning system for excessive motions and accelerations ... Once underway the system also monitors ship motion response and engine condition, and provides alarms if safe operating limits are exceeded. ...

Once at sea, ships simply download current ocean area forecasts via satellite communication. Routes are modified as new forecasts become available or operational requirements change during a passage. ... [T]he ship's crew is provided with decision support tools which allow them to run through various scenarios, selecting the one which best meets their specific operational objectives.
Jeppesen reports that one of their clients realized these results from implementing VVOS:
  • An 80% decrease in hours of delay due to heavy weather.

  • A 73% decrease in the number of structural damage claims due to heavy weather; the cost of claims went down 29%.

  • An 87% decrease in cargo damage claims due to heavy weather.

  • Fuel savings of up to 6% over the sample period.
Unfortunately, I found that the four white papers Jeppesen offers fall short of the standards enumerated by BNET that I referenced in my earlier post.

The basic problem is that two of the white papers, while informative, have not had the benefit of good editing, and the other two are repurposed articles that were written about ten years ago. Jeppesen would be well advised to rework and update their white papers so they really serve the purpose of deepening the reader's understanding of what VVOS does, how it does it, and what the benefits to ship owners and crew are.



Tuesday, August 25, 2009

IBM's Smarter Cities Predictive Idea Markets

One of the companies offering a platform for organizations wishing to set up prediction markets — Spigit — has partnered with IBM to run a series of prediction markets related to IBM's Smarter Cities initiative.

According to IBM,
SmarterCities is an integrated, multi-year program [that] is part of IBM's smarter planet agenda. The program was created to bolster economic vitality and the quality of life in cities and metropolitan areas by sparking new thinking and meaningful action across the city ecosystem — from mayors to citizens.
Hutch Carpenter of Spigit has provided a good overview of Smarter Cities in a blog post.

Once you have learned about the context — from reading Carpenter's post and/or browsing the Smarter Cities website — you can home in on the twenty questions for which IBM has set up prediction markets. For convenience, I've reproduced the questions below (lightly edited), along with the answers people are being asked to assign probabilities to. (The markets close on September 13 at 11:59 pm.)

The aforementioned probabilities are expressed in terms of the portion of an allotment of 100 tokens that a particular market participant decides to "invest" in each option for a particular question.

For example, for the first question below, a participant might invest 20 tokens in the first option, 30 in the second, 20 in the third, 15 in the fourth, and 15 in the fifth. This would indicate that she thinks the second option is most likely to improve education outcomes, the first and the third are somewhat less likely to do so, and the fourth and the firth are least likely to help.

The Smarter Cities questions ...


Which approach will be most effective in enabling better education outcomes within a major city?
  • Provide real-time information on student achievement to teachers

  • Provide individualized lesson plans and activities using digital educational content

  • Enable digital devices and access for students at home

  • Provide online teacher training and collaboration capabilities

  • Foster shared services and best practice exchange across school districts and higher educational institutions
In order to increase the proportion of the population completing high school by 10% over the next five years, major cities will begin transforming education in what way?
  • Provide an educational experience that combines traditional classroom learning with hands-on experience outside of the classroom (e.g., internships in museums and cultural institutions, media experiences, volunteer work, etc.)

  • Increase the use of online and/or remote education to increase access to a wide range of course offerings

  • Invest in health and social services that are integrated with education to assure students are prepared to participate fully in school

  • Decentralize decision making to the school level (for budget, hiring, curriculum, teacher training, etc.) and equip schools with decision-support and analysis technologies

  • Strengthen accountability for academic standards, curriculum, teacher quality, and allocation of resources at the City/Mayoral level to assure quality and equity of services, economies of scale and a broader range of services


Which company offers the best portfolio regarding Smarter Transportation?
  • IBM

  • Telvent

  • Siemens

  • Accenture

  • none of the above
In a major city, what will need to be improved in order to make transportation more efficient?
  • Public safety

  • The utility grid

  • Emergency healthcare services

  • University and school location planning

  • Government services (such as subway ticketing systems, road charging,
    department of motor vehicle system, etc.)
What enhancement can a major city make over the next year to be a global technology leader in public transportation?
  • Allow users to pay for transportation service (tolls, trains, buses, taxis, parking) through mobile devices

  • Launch citywide social networks for citizens to report conditions of roads, accidents, air quality, etc., to government and other citizens

  • Embed sensors in city infrastructure, utilities, and public transportation to monitor traffic violations, air quality levels, people congestion, etc.

  • Implement traffic modeling and prediction technology to inform transportation network operators and travelers of upcoming traffic conditions and route alternatives incorporating all modes of transportation

  • Faster public transportation that connects a major city with its suburbs
What transportation enhancement will a major city, like New York, need to make to relieve its traffic congestion?
  • Impose congestion fees for travel into the city based on city zones and time of the day

  • Integrate mobile devices with pay systems to pay for all types of road charging to avoid bottlenecks

  • Launch real-time social network systems that track and share traffic-related data with all citizens, offering choice of alternate routes

  • Increase transportation capacity by improving infrastructure (build more roads, bridges, and tunnels) and services (bus and train)

  • Implement a real-time parking system with highly accurate information to avoid traffic generated by circling for a parking spot


Which of the following will be the most important to the rapid deployment and adoption of Smart Grids?
  • Acceleration of the government stimulus programs

  • Alignment of objectives with regulators and policy makers

  • Technology maturity
Over the next five years, what changes should a major city first implement to reduce energy waste and use its resources efficiently?
  • Decentralize power generation so energy is close to point of use

  • "Instrument" demand and supply through smart meters [i.e., install meters that enable electricity customers to monitor their usage, with a view both to conserving and to shifting usage from peak to off-peak times]

  • Develop new energy models using renewable energy
Which of the following will reduce household energy consumption the most within a major city like New York?
  • Implement metering to furnish citizens usage statistics

  • Generate awareness and share tips related to energy consumption and waste

  • Promote energy-efficient appliances
Which of the following should be a primary objective for a major city over the next five years?
  • Become a low-carbon city (e.g., Chicago, Malaga)

  • Implement a smart grid (e.g., Malta)

  • Become a zero waste eco-city (e.g., Masdar)

Government Services

The current economic crisis will change plans for high priority projects in a major city in which way over the next few years?
  • High priority improvement projects will continue without any significant changes.

  • High priority improvement projects will be adjusted to make use of economic stimulus dollars to prioritize which get addressed first.

  • High priority improvement projects will be delayed until the economy improves and tax revenues recover.
If you were a mayor of a major city, which method would you use to assess the needs of your city, the business community and your citizens?
  • Comparisons to other cities on key metrics

  • Conducting surveys of business needs through your chamber of commerce

  • Surveying the needs of citizens through websites, email, or snail mail
In 2011, what will be the primary method for citizens to communicate with their smarter city governments?
  • Automated call centers (such as 311 service in New York City)

  • Internet Website (via forms)

  • Text messaging services (such as tweeting, instant messaging, etc.)

  • Automated sensor devices without human involvement

  • Visiting government offices
What immediate step should a major city government take over the next year to emerge as a leader in e-governance?
  • Provide a social platform to enable two-way communication between citizens and government

  • Model, analyze and predict changes to all parts of a city via a “dashboard” for decision support made available to businesses and citizens

  • Integrate a digital experience via mobile devices across the city (e.g., subway tickets, department of motor vehicle forms and processes, museums and cultural events, etc.)

Public Safety

Over the next five years, what transformation will large cities make to their public safety systems to reduce the physical/personal crime rate against people, property, and infrastructure by half (50%)?
  • Actively involve communities in data collection, neighborhood watch, and crime reporting

  • Deploy more police resources

  • Install widespread video surveillance to monitor crime and enhance situational awareness

  • Standardize data formats for smarter crime analysis, enabling faster response and predictive capabilities for crime hotspots and upswings

  • Integrate public safety systems with other relevant sub-systems, such as healthcare, transportation, and education, to monitor emergencies and anomalies
If a large city wants to improve its overall public safety position (i.e. reducing traffic fatalities, decreasing gang violence, improving emergency response capabilities), in which public safety area (or related “city sub-system”) should it target investment over the next year?
  • Transportation and highway infrastructure improvements

  • Education and after-school activities

  • Interoperable communications

  • Video surveillance to monitor activity

  • Crime analytics to more effectively deploy resources


Which of the following sub-system improvements will be most effective in providing immediate benefit to healthcare delivery for citizens in a leading smarter city?
  • Traditional education combined with services like healthcare

  • Consolidated view of public safety information (e.g., crime and surveillance, pandemic outbreaks, accidents, etc.)

  • A means to enable interactive communication or exchange of information electronically between citizens and healthcare systems

  • Green energy practices to reduce pollution and improve air quality

  • Deployment of technologies for remote diagnostics, etc., that will enable access to basic healthcare for all a city’s citizens
Over the next five years, what will major city hospitals do to increase efficiency and deliver better quality healthcare to citizens?
  • Adopt an electronic means of capturing patient information

  • Implement social collaboration tools for staff (such as instant messaging, wikis, social network sites, etc.)

  • Allow patient access to their electronic records and [electronic?] patient interaction with their care-givers

  • Increase the use of technology-assisted medical procedures by half (50%)


What are the top challenges large cities (population over 5 million) in emerging markets will face during the next five years?
  • Inadequate utilities (electricity, telecommunications and water)

  • Inadequate social services (healthcare, education)

  • Poor public safety / inadequate police, fire, and emergency services

  • Inadequate transport infrastructure (roads, rail, air)
What region will recover most quickly from the current global economic crisis?
  • Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia

  • Latin America

  • East Asia and the Pacific

  • South Asia

  • The Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa


Monday, August 24, 2009

Tim Tyrell-Smith's Job Search Ideas

Don't be put off by the fact that 30 Ideas: The Ideas of Successful Job Search, offered by Tim Tyrell-Smith as a free download, is 114 pages long. You can pick and choose which chapters you read, and the whole thing doesn't take more than a couple of hours to get through.

I've reproduced the table of contents below, with chapters I found particularly helpful in bold.

Job Search Strategy
  1. Do You Have A Job Search Strategy Or Are You Just Spinning?

  2. Job Search Advice. It’s The Same Stuff We Learned As Kids

  3. Warning! This Job Search Is Under Construction

  4. Laid Off — Like a Tornado

  5. 10 Reasons You Should Regularly Read A Job Search Blog

  6. Job Search Strategy: Are You The Tortoise Or The Hare?

  7. Running Through The Pain of Job Search

  8. I Can’t Be Out Of Leads… I Still Have Resumes Left!

  9. On The Job Hunt? What’s Your Angle?

  10. How To Measure The Success Of Your Job Search

The Psychology of Job Search
  1. Landing Is For Pilots, Not Job Seekers

  2. Out Of Work? Lucky You

  3. The Psychology Of Job Search

  4. Job Search… Like An Out Of Body Experience

  5. The Worst Days During Job Search

  6. How Irrational Fears Prevent You From Maximizing Job Search Potential

  7. How To Avoid The Stigma Of Being Unemployed

  8. The Danger of Being an Optimist in Job Search

  9. The Power Of Music During Job Search

  10. The Benefit Of A Quick Backward Glance

Smart Networking
  1. 11 Keys To Successful Job Search Networking

  2. Tell Your Job Search Network What You Want

  3. 9 Ways To Bruise A Networking Relationship

  4. Quick Tip — Network With Employed People

  5. Networking Tip — Always Pay For Lunch

  6. The #1 Networking Tool During Hard Times

  7. Networking Events. Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

  8. FlashCard™. Introducing A New Business Card for Networking

  9. When Your Elevator Pitch Has A Pitch Problem

  10. Hey, Mr. Life Of The Party. Shouldn’t You Be Networking?

Tyrell-Smith also offers eight free tools for download:

Watchlyst (.xls)
A spreadsheet in which you can enter key data for jobseekers in your network (e.g., contact info, desired job function, desired industry, etc.). This provides easy reference when a job possibility comes to your attention and you want to see who in your network might be a match.

SidebySide (.xls)
An organized way of comparing a job offer to the profile of your ideal new position.

SoloSheet (.doc)
A one-pager that abstracts the most actionable data from your resume (e.g., your accomplishments, work philosophy, target companies, etc.) for use at networking events, with recruiters, and with fellow job seekers.

Careerback (.doc)
Written in the third-person as though by a news reporter, this is a summary of your career background, a narrative of your work experience, a listing of your education, and a selection of personal details that will help a person know you better.

FlashCard (.zip)
MSWord templates for the front and back of a business card specially formatted for handing out to members of your network and to recruiters. The card contains not only contact info, but also such items as the address of your LinkedIn profile, your strengths, and your career objectives.

SIP (.doc)
A guide for interview preparation. For a complete explanation, see this Tyrell-Smith post.

BigPitch (.doc)
A guide for preparing the 30- to 60-second introduction you'll make at networking events that include intros of those attending.

Shortcuts (.doc)
Pass-along job search advice that you pull together after you've found a new job. You summarize what you learned from your job search and list the resources that were most helpful.



Sunday, August 23, 2009

Structured Radiology Reports

The subject of electronic medical records (EMR) is much in the news nowadays, and I know from one recent project I worked on just how complicated implementing a new or upgraded system is for a hospital. (I haven't had any direct experience with getting EMR up and running in a medical practice, but I have no doubt that the complexity and resource demands are daunting.)

The payoff from adopting a well-designed EMR system is also substantial, including as it does, more rapid. complete, and accurate communication among providers; better support of diagnosis and treatment planning; and reduced treatment errors. This is not to overlook caveats relating to privacy, security, and lack of standardization. It's simply to say that medicine needs to keep moving in the direction that other types of enterprises have gone, namely, taking advantage of the power of well-managed IT to increase productivity and quality.

(click to enlarge)
An example of a structured radiology report

As just one concrete example, I'd cite what is happening in the field of radiology. For some years now, radiologists have been moving toward use of computer-based structured reporting. A 2009 special report (pdf) from the Radiology Reporting Committee of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA)1 explains:
Construed narrowly, structured reporting means the use of predefined formats and terms to create reports; in this sense, structured reports are those based on templates or checklists. In a broader sense, however, structured reporting can integrate additional information collected during the imaging procedure, such as clinical data, technical parameters, measurements, annotations, and key images.
Not only does structured reporting help communicate findings clearly, but it also makes the information in reports searchable, which can assist with research, teaching and clinical quality improvement. Structured reports also help with regulatory and billing compliance. Finally, as the RSNA report notes:
Because information in a structured report adheres to predefined format and vocabulary, it is easier to integrate that informtion with generalized knowledge-based resources. Thus, one can more easily integrate structured reporting process with clinical guidelines, collaborative staging tools, educational resources, and decision support.
To stay apprised of developments in structured radiology reporting, you can follow the RSNA Reporting Wiki.

1 The RSNA's definition of professionalism was the subject of yesterday's post.


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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Radiologists' Statement of Professionalism

I am always on the lookout for good examples of how professionalism can be defined. Today I came upon the definition published by the Radiological Society of North America. It reads as follows:

Professionalism is the basis of medicine's contract with society, placing the interests of patients above those of the physician, setting and maintaining standards of competency and integrity, and providing expert advice to society on matters of health — in short, a contract that addresses issues of ethics, knowledge, and communication. In practice, professionalism encompasses a set of beliefs, values, and behaviors that reflect commitments to
  • Professional competence

  • Honesty with patients

  • Patient confidentiality

  • Maintenance of appropriate relations with patients

  • Sensitivity to patients of diverse backgrounds

  • Improvement of quality of care

  • Improvement of access to care

  • Just distribution of finite resources

  • Scientific knowledge

  • Maintenance of trust by managing conflicts of interest

  • Maintenance of appropriate relations with other physicians and healthcare professionals


Friday, August 21, 2009

Scenario Planning as a Mind Opener

On July 22, Knowledge@Wharton published an excellent overview of how scenario planning can help companies maintain a state of preparedness despite the uncertainties that figure so prominently in today's business environment.

My own copy of the article is so heavily highlighted that I know it's something I must recommend reading in its entirety — it's only about four pages. I'll simply highlight two main themes:
  • Scenario planning is a way of gaining strategic flexibility in the face of an uncertain future.

    "... some companies ...have developed a competitive advantage by leveraging scenario planning — first in stimulating discussion about potential outcomes arising from the swirling mix of trends shaping the world, and then in establishing monitoring mechanisms to identify which scenario is starting to unfold. In the end, the major objectives for these companies are to minimize surprises and to consistently anticipate — and act on — major emerging opportunities and challenges, ahead of competitors."

  • The leaders of a company need to be directly involved in the scenario planning process so that they are forced to examine their assumptions about how the world works and to experience what's involved in analyzing data with an open mind.

    The artcle quotes Kristel Van der Elst, head of the scenario planning team at the World Economic Forum: "You end up changing how people think. The long-term benefit is that you open up people's minds ..."
If you'd like to take a look at the sample set of scenarios cited in the article, you can find the paper in question — "Scenarios for the Downturn & Rebound," by Rob-Jan de Jong and Paul J.H. Schoemakerhere (pdf).


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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Job Specs for an Executive Position in Advertising

One technique I use to stay up-to-date on the requirements of various kinds of jobs is perusing position descriptions in recruitment ads. Having read a recent column by Paul Gumbinner, a recruiter in New York who specializes in helping ad agencies and companies fill executive positions, I realize how much additional detail I would be privy to if I had access to the sort of detailed job specs Gumbinner seeks from the people who engage his services.

For Gumbinner's purposes, a well-drafted job specification is "a thorough description of everything having to do with the job and the proper candidate." He offers seven tips for getting the job spec right:
  1. Make sure the job spec contains a complete description of the duties, responsibilities and nature of the job. Include the reasons why specified skills are necessary.

  2. State why the job is open. "Is this a new position? If so, what circumstances created the need to hire? If this is a replacement, what circumstances led to the need for change? Is the replacement an upgrade or a more junior position? What was lacking in the previous hire?"

  3. State all requirements that go along with the job, e.g., a need to travel a certain number of days per month.

  4. Spell out the pros and cons of the job and all the known issues the person filling the job will face.

  5. List a candidate's likely career path, as well as the complete reporting structure associated with the job.

  6. Explain how performance is evaluated.

  7. Check that everyone is in agreement with the job spec. "Ever get someone completely through the interview process only to have the candidate rejected on a final interview? Don't waste that time. Make sure everyone — including the final interviewer — is in agreement with the specs."
The preceding quote captures Gumbinner's main theme: "Inarticulate job specs result in too many unqualified candidates being interviewed and leave those rejected not knowing why they were passed over." Conversely, a detailed and complete job spec "should simplify the process and make screening more efficient by providing direction for the search."



Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Keeping a Negotiating Team in Sync

In the September issue of the Harvard Business Review, I lingered over only one article, namely, "How to Manage Your Negotiating Team," by Jeanne M. Brett (Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University), Ray Friedman (Owen Graduate School of Business at Vanderbilt University), and Kristin Behfar (Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California-Irvine). The article is a short five pages.

Brett, Friedman, and Behfer (BFB) note that "The payoff from negotiating as a team is clear. With access to greater expertise and the ability to assign members to specialized roles, teams can implement more complex strategies than a solo negotiator can ever pull off." The problem is that different members of the team are likely to have different priorities and different desired outcomes, so pre-negotiation prep needs to include specific steps to get and keep the team in sync.

BFB describe four steps to take to ensure everyone on the team is committed to common goals and a common strategy:
  • Map out the conflicts. BFB illustrate one way of doing this: Create a matrix that, for each goal of the negotiation, captures each internal party's interests and particular views concerning priority and preferred outcome. This helps clarify the trade-offs needed in order for the team to be able to "coalesce around the highest-margin proposal."

  • Work with all the organizational constituents to get them aligned. BFB note that if "constituents are presented with all the facts, ... they might be willing to concede more ground because they'll also see the bigger picture." Another possibility is "reality testing" — illustrating "the dangers of not working together to make a deal happen" by spelling out "the worst-case outcome for the company and individual units." This approach can concentrate minds and elicit cooperation to help ensure a better outcome. Alternatively, the team might be structured to include a senior executive (or other corporate representative) with authority to bring everyone into line behind a common plan.

  • Mediate any stubborn conflicts of interest. The mediator can be a team member or an outside facilitator.

  • Persuade with data. Present data that make clear the effect team members' constructive efforts would have on their departments. Take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the objectivity of the data is credited by team members.
Once the team has agreed on what they are aiming to achieve, and on the strategy for doing so, further preparation is needed to minimize the chance of deliberate or, more likely, inadvertent deviations from the plan. BFB recommend these steps:
  • Do a dry run in which you simulate the negotiation. Team members role play the back-and-forth to prepare for objections; to determine who should speak up when, and who should stay quiet; to anticipate different players' likely emotional responses; and to clarify who has authority to make concessions and decisions.

  • Assign roles to team members that take advantage of their strengths and interests. Help the experts on the team understand when they should weigh in and when they should let someone else do the talking, and ensure that there is a leader who will be "managing preparation logistics, making sure the team's strategy has been vetted by higher-level management or even the board, and finalizing roles and responsibilities for the bargaining session itself."

  • Establish a plan for intra-team communication during the negotiation. Heading off to caucus when private intra-team communication is needed is generally an unnecessarily dramatic signal to the other side that your team is making some sort of adjustment. Instead, BFB found that effective teams "established creative ways to communicate with one another, which ranged from the explicit to the implicit and from low to high tech." Such things as putting your hands on the table and stretching to signal to the team member speaking that he/she is headed off the rez, or arranging the team's seats so nudges and note-passing can be discreet. Geographically dispersed team members might decide to use text messaging. Etc.
If you'd like to read a more detailed report of BFB's research, you can do so here.


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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Learning from Positive Outliers in Healthcare

Back in December, I wrote a series of posts dealing with learning from "positive deviance." Positive deviants are people who manage to do a way-above-average job of solving a particular problem, despite having no more resources than others coping with the same issue.

A topical example of this approach to identifying good solutions to what can seem to be intractable problems is provided by an op-ed column published on August 12 in the New York Times, written by Atul Gawande (Brigham and Women's Hospital), Donald Berwick (Institute for Healthcare Improvement), Elliott Fisher (Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice), and Mark B. McClellan (Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform).

These four healthcare professionals report on a study they conducted in which they set out to find regions of the US that are "positive outliers" in terms of:
  • per capita Medicare costs

  • effectiveness, as measured by an array of federal quality metrics
From the 74 regions that fit their criteria, the authors chose ten to come to a meeting in Washington where regional healthcare leaders "could explain how they do what they do." The authors found a variety of successful approaches to controlling costs while maintaining quality:
  • "Some have followed the Mayo model, with salaried doctors employed by a unified local system focused on quality of care."

  • Some, with "several medical groups whose physicians are paid on a traditional fee-for-service basis," have been able to find "ways to protect patients against the damaging incentives of a system that encourages fragmentation of care and the pursuit of revenues over patient needs."

  • "The physicians and hospital leaders from Cedar Rapids told us how they have adopted electronic systems to improve communication among physicians and quality of care."

  • "The team from Portland told us of a collaboration of doctors, state officials, insurers and community leaders to improve care. For more than four years, physicians have been tracking some 60 measures of quality, like medication error rates for their patients, and meeting voluntary cost-reduction goals."

  • "Asheville, after gaining state support to avoid antitrust concerns, merged two underutilized hospitals."

  • "In Sacramento, a decade of fierce competition among four rival health systems brought about elimination of unneeded beds, adoption of new electronic systems for patient data and a race to raise quality."
In sum:
In their own ways, each of these successful communities tells the same simple story: better, safer, lower-cost care is within reach. Many high-cost regions are just a few hours’ drive from a lower-cost, higher-quality region. And in the more efficient areas, neither the physicians nor the citizens reported feeling that care is “rationed.” Indeed, it’s rational.
As the healthcare reform debate continues, I will be interested to see how much weight is given to the experience of the positive outliers whose approaches are outlined in above.


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Monday, August 17, 2009

Lile Jia, et al., on Increasing Creativity

It is always encouraging to find research support for techniques promoted by business trainers, since all too often trainers' prescriptions and advice are not backed up by solid evidence of effectiveness.

What I have in mind at the moment is the recently published paper, "Lessons from a Faraway Land: The Effect of Spatial Distance on Creative Cognition," by Lile Jia, Edward Hirt, and Samuel Karpen (JHK), social psychologists at Indiana University.1

The experimental results JHK report indicate that, for example, the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. brainstorming technique, the subject of one of my earliest posts back in 2006, embodies a cognitive principle that has a plausible theoretical basis for which there is growing experimental confirmation.

According to the authors' abstract of their paper,
Recent research ... has identified temporal distance as a situational moderator of creativity. According to Construal Level Theory ... temporal distance is just one case of the broader construct of psychological distance.2 In the present research, we investigated the effect of another dimension of psychological distance, namely, spatial distance, on creative cognition and insight problem solving. In two studies, we demonstrate that when the creative task is portrayed as originating from a far rather than close location, participants provide more creative responses (Study 1) and perform better on a problem solving task that requires creative insight (Study 2).
The JHK research came to my attention from reading a July 21 article at ScientificAmerican.com by Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman of Tel Aviv University. In addition to describing the JHK article, Shapira and Liberman outline how inducing other types of psychological distance can boost creativity. As Shapira and Liberman explain,
... previous studies ... demonstrated that distancing in time — projecting an event into the remote future — and assuming an event to be less likely (that is, distancing on the probability dimension) can also enhance creativity. In a series of experiments that examined how temporal distance affects performance on various insight and creativity tasks, participants were first asked to imagine their lives a year later (distant future) or the next day (near future), and then to imagine working on a task on that day in the future. Participants who imagined a distant future day solved more insight problems than participants who imagined a near future day. They also performed better on visual insight tasks, which required detecting coherent images in "noisy" visual input, as well as on creative generation tasks (e.g., listing ways to improve the look of a room). Similar evidence has been found for probability. Participants were more successful at solving sample items from a visual insight task when they believed they were unlikely, as opposed to likely, to encounter the full task.
As Shapira and Liberman point out, one of the implications of the JHK research is that actually traveling a significant distance from home might promote creativity, and there is indeed evidence that this is the case.

1 "Lessons from a Faraway Land: The Effect of Spatial Distance on Creative Cognition," Lile Jia, Edward R. Hirt, and Samuel C. Karpen, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 45, No. 5 (September 2009), pp. 1127-1131.

2 Shapira and Liberman explain, "anything that we do not experience as occurring now, here, and to ourselves falls into the 'psychologically distant' category."


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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tanglewood - Beethoven, Liszt, Ravel

Yesterday evening friends and I went to Tanglewood for one of the last concerts of the season.

The Music Shed and Lawn at Tanglewood
(lavij, for the Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The program, with André Previn conducting, included:

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, Opus 60
(first performed in 1807)

Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in A
(first performed in 1857)
Yesterday's soloist: Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)
"La Valse," Choreographic poem
(first performed in 1920)



Saturday, August 15, 2009

Jim Dickinson, 1941 - 2009

"Dinosaurs Run in Circles," which came out in May, was musician and producer Jim Dickinson's last release.
(Live From Memphis)

"There's no agenda or anything to hide behind with this record. The material all comes from a deep place. With my other albums, they've kinda been done in character; as James Luther Dickinson. But this record is just Jim Dickinson, it's just me." (from an interview published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on May 29, 2009)

You can read the obituary for Jim Dicikinson published in today's Commercial Appeal here.


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Friday, August 14, 2009

The Rural Finance Learning Centre

As a follow-on to yesterday's post, I'd like to call attention to the excellent training for microfinance organizations that is available at the Rural Finance Learning Centre. RFLC is
a web site hosted and managed by the rural finance specialists in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The RFLC is currently funded by FAO, GTZ [Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit], IFAD [International Fund for Agricultural Development] and World Bank as part of a project called "Improving Capacity Building in Rural Finance" (CABFIN). The project objective is to encourage wider access to the extensive resources which are available for capacity building and training in rural finance.
RFLC, publicly available since 2004, has collected and organized, by type and topic, a wealth of learning resources — 1,804 "knowledge objects" as of today. Visitors can navigate the site in English, Spanish, French, and Russian.

I've browsed through all the sections of the site and would encourage anyone with an interest in learning about microfinance to do the same. As examples of what's available I'd cite two of the online lessons RFLC has posted. The entire set of lessons is divided into four sections:

1. Basic concepts
1.1 New paradigm rural finance - what is it?
1.2 Microfinance - the hope and the hype
1.3 The importance of savings
1.4 Financial service providers and the law
1.5 Commercial banks and microfinance

2. Understanding client enterprises
2.1 The financial reality of enterprise
2.2 Collecting and analysing financial information from enterprises
2.3 Rates of return and the cost of money

3. Managing financial services
3.1 Understanding the accounts of financial service providers
3.2 Moving towards self-sufficiency — subsidies and profitability planning
3.3 Avoiding the "downside" of microfinance
3.4 Managing arrears and defaults

4. Choosing strategies
4.1 Using and promoting groups
4.2 Taking gender into account
4.3 Adopting a client-driven approach

The lessons I reviewed were 3.2 Moving towards self-sufficiency — subsidies and profitability planning, and 3.3 Avoiding the "downside" of microfinance. Both were exemplary in their use of accessible, colloquial language; incorporation of interactivity in a way that encourages active learning (snd without resorting to extraneous bells and whistles); and solid grounding in the practical aspects of microfinance.


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Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Downside of Microcredit

Two days ago I wrote a post concerning research studies evaluating microcredit programs in India and the Philippines. Right on cue, today's Wall Street Journal published an article by Ketaki Gokhale that describes how microcredit in India may be moving beyond what the researchers' found — a mixed story of effectiveness in mitigating the effects of poverty — to being positively malign for some communities.

The problems Gokhale describes arise from the shift of microcredit into what is called its "second generation" form. Microcredit began as a substantially philanthropic activity, with financing derived from various non-profit sources. Recently, profit-seeking investors have become actively involved, and a range of risky practices akin to those observed in recent years on a much larger scale in standard credit markets are showing up.

The basic problem is an overabundance of funds available for lending relative to the number of creditworthy prospects for microloans. The plentitude of funds, combined with microlenders' often paying their field officers on a commission basis, makes careless underwriting a powerful temptation. For example, borrowers may be allowed to lie about such matters as the intended use of the loan they're seeking and their existing level of debt.

There is also an issue of interest rates, which Gokhale reports are generally in the 24% - 39% per annum range. Once borrowers take out a loan at a high rate, if they do not put the funds to use to generate sufficient income to pay off the loan, they can find themselves in a spiral of indebtedness similar to that which afflicts many users of payday loans in the US.

Finally, there is a religious element to the story. Many Muslim borrowers in Ramanagaram, the city in southern India where Gokhale did much of her reporting, have stopped paying on their loans in response to direction from their mosque imams, who object to "the overindebtedness of the community, and the strains it's putting on family life." Gokhale reports that these complaints are viewed by some as a smokescreen for trying to disempower women, who are the majority of borrowers. This revolt against honoring loan agreements is spreading to other communities.


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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Daniel Willingham on Teaching Critical Thinking

A few days ago I wrote about Daniel Willingham's views on learning styles (he says research demonstrates that there is no such thing), and now would like to comment on what he has to say about teaching critical thinking.

In the Summer 2007 issue of American Educator, Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, talks about the difficulty teachers have when they try to help students strengthen their ability to think critically, by which he means "seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth."

Willingham's basic argument is that "[t]he processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thinking." Therefore, it "makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking devoid of factual content." And, in addition to acquisition of relevant knowledge, development of critical thinking requires considerable practice.

Willingham reports that experience with programs specifically designed to teach critical thinking shows that they are not very effective. Given sufficient practice, students learn how to apply critical thinking strategies to the particular areas of knowledge that the examples in the programs deal with. Outside of these areas, students are likely to know they're supposed to think critically, but not actually be able to do so because of too little specific knowledge and/or practice in different content areas.

Because of people's inability, even after considerable training, to consistently apply critical thinking in all situations where doing so is appropropriate, Willingham says that critical thinking can't really be classified as a skill. He goes on to say,
This understanding that critical thinking is not a skill is vital. It tells us that teaching students to think critically probably lies in small part in showing them new ways of thinking, and in large part in enabling them to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time.1
In Willingham's view, the need to have a knowledge base in order to do a good job of deploying critical thinking in an area like science, makes it essential to combine teaching of content with teaching of strategies for analyzing information and arguments critically. Willingnam cites a meta-analysis of forty experiments investigating methods for teaching scientific problem solving which
showed that effective approaches were those that focused on building complex, integrated knowledge bases as part of problem solving, for example by including exercises like concept mapping. Ineffective approaches focused exclusively on the strategies to be used in problem solving while ignoring the knowledge necessary for the solution.
In a sidebar at the end of the article, Willingham sums up his recommendations for teaching students to think critically:
  • Special critical thinking programs aren't worth it.

  • Instead, thinking critically should be taught in the context of subject matter. Also,"students must be given opportunities to practice — preferably in the context of normal classroom activity." This is something I heartily endorse, and I would hope that its successful implementation is picked up in tests such as the College Learning Assessment.

  • Critical thinking is not just for advanced students. "Virtually everyone is capable of critical thinking and uses it all the time ... The difficulty lies not in thinking critically, but in recognizing when to do so, and in knowing enough to do so successfully."

  • Student experiences offer entrée to complex concepts. "Although critical thinking needs to be nested in subject matter, when students don't have much subject matter knowledge, introducing a concept by drawing on student experiences can help." One example Willingham cites is illustrating the principle that "correlation does not imply causation" by discussing the high correlation between "consumption of ice cream and the number of crimes committed on a given day. With a little prodding, students soon realize that ice cream consumption doesn't cause crime, but high temperatures might cause increases in both."

  • To teach critical thinking strategies, make them explicit and practice them. Willingham suggests proceeding in three stages:

    1. "The first time (or several times) the concept is introduced, explain it with at least two different examples ... [L]abel it so as to identify it as a strategy that can be applied in various contexts, and show how it applies to the course content at hand."

    2. "In future instances, try naming the approrpriate critical thinking strategy to see if students remember it and can figure out how it applies to the material under discussion."

    3. "With still more practice, students may see which strategy applies without a cue from you."
Although Willingham is most directly concerned with teaching in schools, his advice is a good guide for business training, as well.

1 Willingham does observe in a footnote: "... it is important to note that for people with extensive training, such as Ph.D-level scientists, critical thinking does have some skill-like characteristics. In particular, they are better able to deploy critical reasoning with a wide variety of content, even that with which they are not very familiar."


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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Efficacy of Microcredit in Promoting Business Growth and Alleviating Poverty

In several previous posts I've discussed microcredit. These posts have all looked at programs that combine provision of credit with training in managing a small business and the revenue it generates. The key issue is how much impact these programs have on business size and on the standard of living of the people and communities involved.

Now some further research on the efficacy of microcredit in alleviating poverty and promoting business growth has come to my attention, thanks to The Economist, which published a one-page article on the subject in their July 18 issue. Two studies are described:
  • An investigation of the impact of access to microfinance in Hyderabad, India. The study compared low-income neighborhoods that were added to a bank's microfinance market area with low-income neighborhoods that were left out of the market area. Assignment of neighborhoods to the treatment and control groups was random.1

  • An investigation of the impact of access to microfinance in the Philippine provinces of Rizal and Cavite and in the Manila area. As in the Indian study, this Philippine study used randomizing to address the problem of self-selection, i.e., the problem that the most entrepreneurial individuals are the ones most likely to take advantage of microcredit, and providers of microcredit favor markets where such individuals are concentrated.

    In the Philippine case, it was individual credit applicants who were assigned randomly to the treatment and control groups. Those in the treatment group received loans, while those in the control group did not. All of the applicants in question were of marginal creditworthiness, so bank loan officers, not privy to the nature of the experiment, accepted (with a few exceptions) their computer system's decree as to whether or not a particular applicant should be approved, even though the decision was, in fact, random.2
Neither of the two microcredit programs was bundled with client training.

The Hyderabad study's findings, based on a survey done 15 to 18 months after the launch of the program, suggest that
microcredit does have important effects on business outcomes and the composition of household expenditure. Moreover, these effects differ for different households, in a way consistent with the fact that a household wishing to start a new business must pay a fixed cost to do so. Existing business owners appear to use microcredit to expand their businesses: durables spending (i.e., investment) and business profits increase. Among households who did not own a business when the program began, those households with low predicted propensity to start a business do not increase durables spending, but do increase nondurable (e.g., food) consumption, consistent with using microcredit to pay down more expensive debt or borrow against future income. Those households with high predicted propensity to start a business, on the other hand, reduce nondurable spending, and in particular appear to cut back on "temptation goods," such as alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets and snacks eaten outside the home, presumably in order to finance an even bigger initial investment than could be paid for with just the loan.3
The authors of the study note that it is
somewhat hard to assess the long run impact of the program. For example, it is possible that in the longer run those people who are currently cutting back consumption to enable greater investment will become significantly richer and increase their consumption. On the other hand, the segment of the population that increased its consumption when it got the loan without starting a business may eventually become poorer because it is borrowing against the future, though it is also possible that they are just enjoying the "income effect" of having paid down their debt to the money-lender (in which case they are richer now and perhaps will continue to be richer in the future).
microcredit ... appears to have no discernible effect on [children's] education, health, or women's empowerment [decision-making concerning household spending, investment, savings, and education]. Of course, after a longer time, when the investment impacts (may) have translated into higher total expenditure for more households, it is possible that impacts on education, health, or women's empowerment would emerge. However, at least in the short term (within 15-18 months), microcredit does not appear to be a recipe for changing education, health or women's decision-making. Microcredit therefore may not be the "miracle" that is sometimes claimed on its behalf, but it does allow households to borrow, invest, and create and expand businesses.
The Philippine study also used surveys to assess microcredit impacts. The surveys were conducted 11 to 22 months following an applicant's entrance into the experiment, and yielded these findings:
  • Individuals assigned to the treatment group did borrow more than those in the control group.

  • The marginally creditworthy microentrepreneurs who received credit shrank their businesses relative to the control group. The researchers suggest that this was a result of deciding to lay off employees who were not very productive. "[T]reated microentrepreneurs used credit to re-optimize business investment in a way that produced smaller, lower-cost, and more profitable businesses."

  • A rise in business profit does not translate into income and consumption changes. E.g., there were no significant effects on two key measures of consumption: food quality, and the likelihood of not visiting a doctor due to financial constraints. This could be due to the combination of increased business profits and decreased outside employment (with an increase in school attendance and perhaps related expenditures), thus leading to no change in total household income or consumption.

  • The treatment group reported increased access to informal credit to absorb shocks. This informal credit reduced the incentive to acquire formal and informal insurance.

  • There was some evidence that expanding access to capital (credit in this case) increases profits for male, but not for female, microentrepreneurs. Males seem to use the increased profits to send children to school; there is a concomitant decrease in household members employed outside the family business.

  • There was no evidence that increased access to credit improves subjective well-being — optimism, calmness, lack of worry, life satisfaction, work satisfaction, lack of undue job stress, decision making power, and socio-economic status. To the contrary, there was some evidence of a small decrease.
In sum:
"... increased access to microcredit leads to less investment in the targeted business, to substitution away from labor and into education, and to substitution away from insurance (both explicit/formal, and implicit/informal) even as overall access to risk-sharing mechanisms increases. Thus although microcredit does have important — and potentially salutary — economic effects in our setting, the effects are not those advertised by the "microfinance movement." Rather the effects seem to work through interactions between credit access and risk-sharing mechanisms [e.g., access to loans from family members] ... . At least in a second-generation setting [in which microcredit is provided by profit/sustainability-seeking institutions], microcredit seems to work broadly through risk management and investment at the household level, rather than directly through the targeted businesses. [emphasis added]
... treatment effects [e.g., on business profits] are stronger for groups that are not typically targeted by microcredit initiatives: male, and relatively high-income, borrowers... The overall picture of our results also questions the wisdom of targeting microentrepreneurs to the exclusion of consumers/wage earners. ... [O]ur findings highlight that money is fungible. Entrepreneurs do not necessarily invest loan proceeds in their businesses. Limiting microcredit access to entrepreneurs may forgo opportunities to improve human capital and risk-sharing for non-microentrepreneurs.
The Philippine researchers' concluding note is that "household financial arrangements in developing countries are complex ... [so] it is important to measure impacts on a broad set of behaviors, opportunity sets, and outcomes. Business outcomes are not a sufficient statistic for household welfare, nor even necessarily the locus of the biggest impacts of changing access to financial services."

1 "The Miracle of Microfinance? Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation" (pdf), Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, Rachel Glennerster, and Cynthia Kinnan, MIT Poverty Action Lab working paper, May 2009.

2 "Expanding Microenterprise Credit Access: Using Randomized Supply Decisions to Estimate the Impacts in Manila" (pdf), Dean Karlan and Jonathan Zinman, Review of Financial Studies, forthcoming.

3 "Among those who did not already own a business a year ago, the following characteristics predict the decision to become an entrepreneur: whether the wife of the household head is literate [a proxy for willingness to defer consumption], whether the wife of the household head works for a wage [which will reduce the return to opening a business], the number of prime-aged women in the household [also a proxy for willingness to defer consumption], and the amount of land owned by the household [a proxy for initial wealth]."


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Monday, August 10, 2009

A Dreamweaver Tutorial

I've been gearing up to author a new Streamline website, and in the process have been familiarizing myself with what I can do with Adobe's Dreamweaver software.

A tutorial I found helpful (despite its sprinkling of typos) is available at BestWebDesignz.com. The tutorial's eighteen brief sections cover the ten steps it defines for creating a web site with Dreamweaver:
  1. Define the new web site (Section 2 of the tutorial).

  2. Create a template (Section 3 of the tutorial) — Note that the tutorial does not mention the availability of predefined templates in Dreamweaver for users who do not want to begin from scratch. For more information, see Adobe's Help section on predesigned layouts.

    For users who do intend to start from scratch, the tutorial recommends first designing the layout in an image editor such as Fireworks CS4.1 As you create your template, you access your Fireworks images from wherever you have stored them on your hard drive.

  3. Design your template page (Sections 4, 6, 7, 8, and 16 of the tutorial) You need to understand the concepts of floating an element, clearing a float, defining classes, and repeating a background image.

  4. Design your CSS style sheet (Section 5 of the tutorial) — You need to understand the concepts of division and box. Note that Dreamweaver provides sample style sheets to help those who don't want to start from scratch.

  5. Insert editable regions (Section 9 of the tutorial).

  6. Create the pages of your site using the template (Sections 10, 11, and 12 of the tutorial).

  7. Link all the pages together (Section 13 of the tutorial).

  8. (optional) Create a form (Sections 14 and 15 of the tutorial).

  9. Check your site in the browsers you are supporting (Section 17 of the tutorial).

  10. Upload your site (Section 18 of the tutorial) — Note that if you're working with collaborators who may be editing the site files, you should enable checking in and checking out to ensure proper version control.
In order to be manageable, the BestWebDesignz tutorial covers only a basic portion of Dreamweaver's functionality. For more complete information, you can consult Adobe's online help. There you will find guidance on such topics as:
  • meeting accessibility requirements

  • head contentelements that describe the information concerning the page (used by search engines and for accessibility). Head content includes such items as page title, content type (i.e., document type), keywords, description of the page content, and author.

  • tips for ensuring that web pages created in Dreamweaver display well on mobile devices.
1 The "CS" in CS4 stands for "Creative Suite." CS4 is the current version for Adobe's Creative Suite family of software, which, in addition to Dreamweaver and Fireworks, includes Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Flash, Contribute, After Effects, Premiere, Soundbooth, OnLocation, Encore, Bridge, Device Central, and Version Cue.



Sunday, August 09, 2009

Show You Care

Today's New York Times contains one of the more interesting interviews with a businessperson that I've read recently. Below I quote the story with which Gary E. McCullough, CEO of Career Education Corporation, answers Adam Bryant's opening question, "What's the most important leadership lesson you've learned?" I encourage reading the whole interview because McCullough has much wisdom to share.
The biggest [leadership lesson] I learned, and I learned it early on in my tenure in the Army, is the importance of small gestures. As you become more senior, those small gestures and little things become sometimes more important than the grand ones. Little things like saying “please” and “thank you” — just the basic respect that people are due, or sending personal notes. I spend a lot of time sending personal notes.

I’ll never forget one of the interactions we had with my commanding general of the division in which I was a platoon leader. We were at Fort Bragg, N.C. We had miserable weather. It was February and not as warm as you would think it would be in North Carolina. It had been raining for about a week, and the commanding general came around to review some of the platoons in the field. He went to one of my vehicle drivers and he asked him what he thought of the exercise we were on. To which the young private said, “Sir, it stinks.” I saw my short career flash before my eyes at that point.

He asked why, and the private said: “There are people who think this is great weather for doing infantry operations. I personally think 75 and partly cloudy is better.”

And so the commanding general said, “What can I do to make it better for you?” And the private said, “Sir, I sure could use a Snickers bar.” So a couple days later we were still moving through some really lousy weather, and a box showed up for the private. And that box was filled with 38 Snickers bars, which is the number of people in my platoon. And there was a handwritten note from the commanding general of our division that said, “I can’t do anything about the weather, but I hope this makes your day a bit brighter, and please share these with your buddies.”

And on that day, at that time, we would’ve followed that general anywhere. It was a very small thing, and he didn’t need to do it, but it impressed upon me that small gestures are hugely important.

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

Rennie Harris Puremovement and Rachel Maddow at Jacob's Pillow

Melanie Cotton, Crystal Frazier, Kyle Clark, and Dinita Askew of Rennie Harris Puremovement in "Something To Do With Love – Volume One," choreography by Rennie Harris
(Christopher Duggan)

This afternoon, I went to Jacob's Pillow to see Rennie Harris Puremovement perform, and then, after the performance, to hear what Rachel Maddow has to say about the role of the arts in the US.

There were four pieces on Puremovement's program, one new (or, according to what I read, in progress) and three old. All drew on hip-hop movement as their basic medium of expression.

The new piece was the five-part "Something to Do with Love – Volume One," with a selection of smooth, generally down-tempo songs as its score — "Rain," by Henderson; Marvin Gaye's "I Want You," mixed by Kenny Dope; and songs by Vikter Duplaix, Ayo, and Nina Simone. The printed program noted that that the third section of the dance, "A Man's World," was co-choreographed with Emilio Austin jr, aka Buddah Stretch.

The older repertory pieces were "P-Funk," choreographed in 1992, the year Harris founded Puremovement, with music by Parliament Funkadelics (P-Funk) and Groove Collective; "March of the Antmen," also dating from 1992, set to spoken words and a score of the same name by Dru Minyard, rewritten by Darrin Ross and Grisha Coleman; and "Students of the Asphalt Jungle" (1995), with an electronic score by Darrin Ross.

After the first three pieces, which were all relatively subtle in their incorporation of break dancing into the movement, "Students of the Asphalt Jungle" pulled out the stops, which left the audience exhilarated as the lights came up.


Maddow was speaking on the Pillow's outdoor stage. Her main theme was that the arts are of vital importance as a dimension of a country's claim to excellence. You can pick up the gist of Maddow's views by reading a brief statement she contributed to the LA Times back in March.

After offering opening remarks, Maddow answered questions from Suzanne Carbonneau, the Pillow's scholar in residence, and from the audience, which was a couple hundred people, at least.

Rachel Maddow talking with Suzanne Carbonneau outdoors at Jacob's Pillow, August 8, 2009.
(Christopher Duggan)