Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘collaboration

Do You Just Talk About It or Can You Do It?

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I just finished reading Gravity’s Kiss, a new MIT Press book by Harry Collins. Professor Collins is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Cardiff. In his book, he details the process by which researchers detected and documented the presence of gravitational waves. Collins himself is a sociologist, but he has been part of the gravitational wave community for more than 42 years. He’s picked up the language and understands the principles involved in gravitational wave science quite well, but doesn’t have the knowledge and training required to advance the science himself.

Collins is the head of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science, so he can offer keen insights into his role in the scientific community. Specifically, he distinguishes between interactional expertise and contributory expertise. Interactional expertise, as the name implies, allows individuals to converse with experts in a field using specialized vocabulary and accurate knowledge at a reasonably advanced level. Contributory expertise, by contrast, entails sufficient training and experience to further the study of a field through analysis and experiment. It’s the difference between being able to talk about something intelligently and knowing what to do with that knowledge.

I’m in the iMBA program offered by the University of Illinois, which is an online master of business administration program designed for individuals who want to advance to the senior management and executive levels of industry. In that sense, the iMBA program is similar to an EMBA (Executive MBA) program than a traditional program, which I refer to as a “practitioner” MBA. For me, the difference is that students learn a variety of skills in areas such as finance, economics, organizational structure, and marketing. The goal is to provide us with the knowledge to make strategic decisions about a company’s direction and to understand enough of the basics in our focus areas to interact with subordinates in everyday charge of those functions. In other words, we gain a fair bit of practitioner expertise and a lot of interactional expertise.

As the owner of a small business, this level of interactional expertise translates to having more intelligent conversations with my accountant and investment advisers. On the practical level, my studies will help me make better decisions about the projects I take on. As a speaker and author, however, it means I will be relatively fluent in the language of business and have a credential to back it up. Now when I make contacts with individuals around the business world I will have the knowledge from my MBA, interactions with colleagues from industry, and experience as a business owner to draw on. Properly applied, those resources will serve me very well indeed in the coming years.

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Unexpected Rewards

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My first lynda.com course went live on August 25, 2009. As of this writing, very early in the morning on February 17, 2017, I have 48 courses available with two more recorded and in editing. As I told a good friend last week, I’m a sucker for round numbers and milestones. For whatever reason, odometers hitting the next thousand mile mark, new decades, and reaching the next ten on my writing projects means a lot to me. I figured I’d get a card or maybe a small plaque when I hit 50 live courses on lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning, but I wouldn’t have been upset if it was just my wife and I raising a toast the night number 50 went live.

Late last month, a couple of weeks after course number 48 was released, I received a package from a company I didn’t recognize. The package contained a lovely portable game set with chess pieces that looked like real pieces, checkers, dice, and a pack of playing cards, all enclosed in a good-sized box with a two-sided chess/backgammon board that hinged in the middle and was trimmed with the finest Corinthian leather. The package also contained a card from the LinkedIn Learning crew congratulating me on reaching 50 courses.

No, they hadn’t miscounted. I’d had two other courses published, but one had been retired because the online resource it described changed drastically and the other for a combination of reasons that are both esoteric and boring. Those courses no longer appear on my author page, but they do in the LinkedIn Learning internal database. I was going for 50 live, but the team in Carpinteria cared about 50 total.

Researchers who study motivation make the point that unexpected rewards can have a positive impact on worker satisfaction. I love writing and creating online courses, particularly with the LinkedIn Learning team. Their attention to detail and counting my courses in the most favorable way possible makes their gift that much more special.

Sometimes the Secret is Effort

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I was recently accepted into the University of Illinois’ iMBA program, which offers students the opportunity to earn an accredited MBA degree in a fully online setting. I’m currently in my fifth class, but have supplemented my reading with studies and articles on business topics outside of the required reading. As you might imagine, process measurement and management come up frequently; references to Lean, Six Sigma, and other methodologies abound in the literature.

These frameworks use precise measurements to analyze the defect rate, or the rate at which failures occur. Those defects could be missed deliveries, flights arriving more than fifteen minutes late, or products failing within the standard warranty period. Analysts spend hundreds of hours examining processes in an attempt to squeeze a bit more productivity out of the system, whether by reducing the number of movements autoworkers make when attaching a door to a frame, picking items from warehouse bins, or building algorithms to limit the number of miles traveled by delivery vehicles.

Even though these analytical methods have led to substantial process improvements, there is a lot to be said for the empirical knowledge you gain from working within a system. Long-time workers have often developed their own efficiencies (management-speak for shortcuts) they share with their co-workers out of earshot of their supervisors so they don’t get in trouble for deviating from protocol. One prominent example of applied empirical knowledge is the dabbawalas, or tiffinwalas, who deliver hot lunches in Mumbai, India. Customers who want home-cooked meals at work often can’t bring their own food because the trains are too crowded for the containers or because their water supply isn’t available in time for cooking in the morning. Rather than eat at the company canteen, they order their meals from cooks around town. The meals are picked up and delivered by the dabbawalas through an intricate system of hand-offs that uses trains, buses, carts, bikes, and human muscle to get the aluminum lunch containers (the tiffins) to their destination on time.

The dabbawalas’ marking system uses color and single characters to distinguish district, neighborhood, building, and floor, in part because most of the dabbawalas left school after their eighth year. Transfers happen quickly and with minimal errors. As a testament to the strength of their system, consider that a process is considered Six Sigma certifiable if its defect rate is less than 34 out of 1,000,000 opportunities. The dabbawalas’ miss a delivery target at a rate of 1 out of 6,000,000 opportunities. That’s astonishing. And, yes, the dabbawalas are Six Sigma certified, but they didn’t find out about the award until a couple of years after it happened!

To what may we attribute their success? Their system is amazing and has been the subject of numerous studies, but remember how the tiffins are delivered. Once the containers come off their final train ride, they’re transported by humans on bikes, carts, and the traditional method of grabbing a bunch of lunch pail handles and lugging them up several flights of stairs. And the walas work hard. When you watch one of the YouTube videos showing the process in action, you can’t help but notice the focus, determination, and sheer effort required to move the tiffins on and off trains, sort them accurately, and get them to their destination on time.

Less than 100 years ago, my grandparents worked in a shoe factory without the benefit of union protection. Steelworkers, pipefitters, plumbers, and construction workers work hard and for long hours at difficult jobs today. Along with the tradesmen and women who drive our economy forward, the dabbawalas reinforce the universal truth that the best system is worthless if you’re not willing to make the effort required for success.

Tay, Improv, and Artificial Intelligence

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Kristian Hammond, a professor of computer science at Northwestern University, wrote a guest article for MIT Technology Review that offered his perspective on how the spectacular public failure of Microsoft’s Tay chatbot could have been avoided. Hammond brings up some good points, but I believe his analysis is incomplete.

What…Happened???

Many of you have probably heard about Tay, the youthful-seeming chatbot Microsoft released into the wilds of Twitter. Within a very short time, malicious users took advantage of the bot’s learning algorithms and caused it to create homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic tweets. In a press release, Microsoft noted that they hadn’t had a problem when they tested a version of Tay in China, but I argue the team should have suspected the cadre of trolls on Twitter would take shots at the bot and try to make it produce offensive tweets. At the very least, the team should have built in a list of banned terms rather than use a strictly naive learning procedure.

Hammond, who is both a computer scientist and improv comedian, argues that using a combination of techniques inspired by Marvin Minsky and improv comedy could have helped avoid the worst effects of malicious targeting. I agree, and believe his notes assessing the difficulty of the AI problem Microsoft tackled are spot on. I do have some significant disagreements with his suggestions for how using improv techniques, specifically regarding show management, would help.

Improvised Doesn’t Mean Unstructured

Improv comedy groups, which rely on audience suggestions to make the show run, must determine how much control they want to grant the audience. Some groups are open to any and all suggestions, regardless of how offensive, and build the best scene they can given the subject matter. Other groups control their subject matter more closely. The trick is finding the right balance to do a show you’re comfortable with and that will attract an audience. But beyond attracting an audience, you must attract the audience you want.

Much, if not most, improv is done in bars. This consideration is especially true in the Chicago area, where Hammond works. That consideration means at least a portion of your audience didn’t know they were going to see an improv show, doesn’t want to see an improv show, and are drinking. A lot. Hammond notes that groups can manage their show by choosing which suggestions to ignore (perfectly acceptable) or by pointing out that it’s ridiculously obvious someone making deliberately offensive suggestions just wants to manipulate the show. He further states that a similar technique could work on Twitter:

Nothing neutralizes a bully as well as being called out. My guess is that if Tay pointed out that it knew it was being played in one-on-one interactions and provided attribution for newly learned “facts” when using them in public tweets, the shaming effect would have been enough to shut down even the nastiest attacks.

I believe Hammond is just plain wrong on this point. As Whitney Phillips, now a professor at Penfield College of Mercer University, discussed at length in her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Internet anonymity shields trolls from the consequences of their actions. Trolls do what they do for lulz, laughs at someone else’s expense, and either don’t care or get lulz when their unattributed Twitter posts provoke someone enough to warrant a counterattack. Alcohol provides a similar shield for audience members watching improv shows in bars. The bar makes money off drinks…entertainers are just there to attract audiences and help maintain a steady flow of orders. Many talented performers, whether improv comedians or musicians, have lost gigs because they couldn’t get enough friends to show up and spend money each week.

I also disagree with Hammond’s depiction of the consequences for a drunk twenty-something audience member who “scream[s] out obscene suggestions that she will regret for the next two years”. First: been there, feel your pain. Second: she probably won’t regret what she said because she won’t remember what she said. For individuals such as her (or him), this incident is just one of many similar nights on the town. You just happened to be there when it went down.

Conclusion

The team behind Tay failed to accurately assess the environment into which they released their bot. That said, Microsoft can move forward by using another time-honored improv technique: the Failure Bow. When a scene, song, or on-the-spot pun goes poorly, the performer steps downstage center, faces the audience, says “I failed. Thank you.” and bows. Acknowledging the moment helps everyone move on, most of all the person who failed.

To Be a Beginner Again

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When I think of what it means to “be a beginner” at something, I think of learning a new language or trying a new sport. I didn’t expect to rediscover the joys and struggles of being a beginner as a writer.

I had just finished Microsoft Excel 2016 Step by Step for Microsoft Press, my sixth Excel Step by Step book, when the publisher approached me to take on Microsoft OneNote Step by Step. I looked at my schedule, swallowed hard, and agreed to do it. I’d worked a bit with OneNote as part of my Office Online Essential Training course for lynda.com, so, while I wasn’t an expert, I wasn’t coming in completely cold. Besides, I’m a writer and course developer—my job is to tease out a program’s intricacies and make them clear to the reader or viewer. How hard could it be?

I’ll pause until you stop laughing.

You can write a book about anything if you do enough research, develop a few ideas of your own, and quote liberally from other sources. I just read a business book, Everything Connects, that did exactly that. The main author probably wrote a great proposal based on his experiences as a serial entrepreneur and meditation practitioner, took his advance, and wrote down everything he could about those subjects. My guess is that he produced about 150 pages for a planned 250-page book, so the publisher brought in (or had already hired) a professional writer as co-author.

I also turned to the supporting literature on OneNote for guidance, but there’s not a lot out there compared to the vast, rich resources on Excel. That said, I wrote what I could and discovered a lot as I went along, but I didn’t have an experienced user’s feel for the program. I’m fortunate Microsoft convinced Ed Price, formerly a member of the OneNote product team, to be the book’s technical editor. Ed knows the software in depth, both as a user and someone familiar with the broader customer base’s needs and desires. He added a lot of material I’d considered not important enough to include, changed the emphasis of certain sections of the book to improve its usefulness, and became, in all but name, a full co-author.

I’m grateful for the substantial help Ed provided and hope to make him a full co-author, with cover credit, when it comes time to refresh the book. As a writer it was good, though incredibly frustrating, to write about a program I hadn’t worked with extensively. I had 20 years of skill and discipline to power through a first draft we could use as a basis for critique, but I had several flashbacks to when I was just starting out and lacked the tools I have now.

I survived (with the help of Ed and others), the book will provide good value to OneNote users, and I was reminded how difficult a thing it is to produce a manuscript from whole cloth. I’m glad I agreed to help out, but I’m sure glad we’re done.

Book Review: MOOCs, by Jonathan Haber

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Title: MOOCs

Author: Jonathan Haber

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-262-52691-3

Length: 227

Price: $13.95

Rating: 90%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, offer free classes to anyone with internet access and a willingness to learn. As author Jonathan Haber notes in his recent MIT Press book MOOCs, this educational innovation is working its way through the hype cycle. First touted as an existential threat to traditional “sage on the stage” lecture-based learning, the media has inevitably turned to highlighting the platform’s flaws. How MOOCs evolve from their freemium model remains to be seen.

Haber is an independent writer and researcher who focuses on education technology. This book is based in part on his attempt to re-create a philosophy undergraduate degree by taking free online courses and, where necessary, reading free online textbooks. In MOOCs, Haber captures the essence of the courses, both through his personal experience as well as his encapsulation of the history, current practice, and impact of MOOCs in the social, educational, and corporate realms.

MOOCs as a Learning Environment

The allure of MOOCs centers around their ability to share knowledge with students who might not be able to attend MIT, Georgetown, Stanford, the University of Edinburgh, or other leading institutions. Students can watch videos on their own schedule and, if they’re not concerned about receiving a Statement of Accomplishment or similar recognition, they don’t have to turn in homework or take quizzes on time or at all.

Most videos are 5-10 minutes in length, though some courses that present complex content can have videos that stretch to as long as 45 minutes. Production values range from a professor sitting in their office and facing a camera (often with PowerPoint slides displayed at least part of the time the professor speaks) to videos including animations and location shots that take significant time and budget to produce.

MOOCs offer three general grading policies: quizzes and tests with multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions, computer programs submitted to an automated grader (very common in machine learning courses), and peer grading. There’s no possible way for professors to grade essays or computer programs from thousands of students, so they have to rely on objective mechanisms and peer grading to carry the load. Objective tests are acceptable, but many students dislike peer review even in cases where it’s clearly necessary.

Institutions sponsoring MOOCs go to great length to distinguish students who complete a MOOC from their traditional students. Certificates or Statements of Achievement stress that the holder is not a Wharton/Stanford/MIT student and that the certificate conveys no rights to claim such status. Most MOOCs also use much looser grading standards than traditional courses. For example, students are often allowed multiple attempts at homework or exams and the total grade required to pass a MOOC is often in the 60-70% range. These relaxed requirements make certificates easier to earn and probably increase retention, but the end result is a much less rigorous test of student ability.

Controversies

As with any disruptive technology, MOOCs have generated controversy. The first question is whether, despite their huge enrollments (some courses have more than 100,000 students registered), the courses’ equally huge drop-out rates. As an example, consider the following statistics from the September 5, 2014 session of the Wharton School’s course An Introduction to Financial Accounting, created and taught by Professor Brian Bushee (which I passed, though without distinction):

Number of students enrolled: 111,925

Number of students visiting course: 74,599

Number of students watching at least one lecture: 61,130

Number of students submitting at least one homework: 25,078

Number of students posting on a forum: 3,497

Number of signature track signups: 3,953

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment: 7,689

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction: 2,788 (included in total receiving SoA)

The ratios that stand out are that only 54.6% of enrolled students watched at least one lecture, 22.4% submitted at least one homework, and 6.87% of students earned a Statement of Accomplishment. That pass rate is fairly typical for these courses. While the percentage seems miniscule, another MOOC professor noted that, even with just 5,000 or so students passing his online course, his 10-week MOOC cohort represented more students than had passed through his classroom in his entire career.

Another concern is who benefits from MOOCs. Students require internet access to view course movies, at least in a way that can be counted by the provider, so there is a significant barrier to entry. Surveys show that the majority of MOOC students are university educated, but there are still large groups from outside the traditional “rich, Western, educated” profile. So, while many students appear to come from richer, Western countries, the courses do overcome barriers to entry.

Finally, MOOCs raise the possibility that courses from “rock star” professors could replace similar offerings taught by professors at other schools. For example, San Jose State University licensed content from a popular Harvard political philosophy course taught on edX with the intention that their own professors would teach to the acquired outline, not their own. The philosophy faculty refused to use the content and wrote an open letter to the Harvard professor complaining about the practice. A similar circumstance led Princeton professor Mitchell Duneier, who created and taught the vastly popular Sociology course offered by Coursera, to decline permission to run his course a second time. Coursera wanted to license his content for sale to other universities, which could save money by mixing video and in-person instruction. Duneier saw this action as a potential excuse to cut states’ higher education funding and pulled his course.

Conclusions

Haber closes the book with a discussion of whether or not he achieved his goal of completing the equivalent of a four-year philosophy degree in one year using MOOCs and other free resources. He argues both for and against the claim (demonstrating a fundamental grasp of sound argumentation, at the very least) and describes his capstone experience: a visit to a philosophy conference. His test was whether he could understand and participate meaningfully in sessions and discussions. I’ll leave his conclusions for you to discover in the book.

I found MOOCs to be an interesting read and a useful summary of the developments surrounding this learning platform. That said, I thought the book could have been pared down a bit. Some of the discussions seemed less concise than they might have been and cutting about 20 pages would have brought the book in line with other entries in the Essential Knowledge series. It’s hard to know what to trim away, though, and 199 small-format pages of main text isn’t much of a burden for an interested reader.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Theatre, Sensationalism, and Double Standards

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Like many of you, I was surprised to see Lindsay Lohan had been cast to play the part of Karen, the manipulative temporary secretary, in a London production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. It’s not unusual for British actors to shoot a movie during the day and do a play at night, but it’s different for Americans and I think of Lohan as a movie performer. There’s a huge difference between memorizing a few lines (that might have been changed two minutes ago) for a movie shot and preparing to do a major role in a live performance.

Lohan’s performance during the first preview appears to have been a bit ragged. Reporters at the performance agreed that she was nervous and messed up a few of her lines. That’s not unusual for a first preview…it’s the cast’s initial run with civilians in the house and everyone’s nervous. The pressure must be even more intense for someone who is trying to turn her career around. Given Lohan’s issues, I imagine the production paid a substantial sum for insurance against her ability to fulfill her contract.

That said, a few flubbed lines is nothing to be ashamed of in a first preview. My wife, another friend, and I saw several shows in London just before Lohan started her run. A very well-credentialed stage actor in Great Britain, a play based on the News of the World phone hacking scandal, jumped his lines twice in about ten minutes. In Richard III, Martin Freeman, the beloved actor who plays Dr. Watson in the popular BBC version of Sherlock, mushed his way through a line during a heated exchange and closed with “…or something like that.”

Both Great Britain and Richard III were well into their runs (in fact, Richard III just closed), so there’s nothing to say except that it’s live theatre — things happen. No one reported the other actors’ errors, so let’s give Lindsay Lohan the benefit of the doubt for a while. If she’s still missing lines after the show officially opens, then we can complain. Until then, let’s hope she can model her recovery after Robert Downey, Jr. and enjoy some success after a long string of bad decisions.