Sunday, September 27, 2009

Structured Interactions and Research Productivity

Anybody who has worked on large scale projects that involve, for example, large scale survey design, data collection, development of policy reports on top of the development of academic papers and intellectual development will know that there are a lot of challenges involved. One key issue is how communication is structured in the group. Some of this is "soft" in terms of good personal relations, day-to-day interactions but the use of technology is almost essential once one goes through a certain scale.

Some of the technologies I have found useful and some remaining issues are below:

(i) blogger is a simply great way of keeping general information flowing around and fostering an ideas culture as well as making connections to people outside a group who might be interested. I have not found it useful though for actual management of projects or internal project management though I would be surprised if it couldn't be adapted for this purpose.

(ii) Microsoft Project is good for initial planning and particularly for forcing one to define exactly what you are going to do. over time, you realise that this doesnt mean that the creative and academic part goes out the window. it just means you are forced to think hard about what you are proposing to do.

(iii) Basecamp is still the most useful software I have come across for managing projects with defined timelines and diverse groups. The reason basecamp is so useful is that anyone with computer literacy of even a basic level can figure out precisely how it works within ten minutes. I have been using this for over a year now and have all the projects I am responsible for programmed on it. Nerds will not like basecamp. The functionality is very basic but behavioural economists will really appreciate it as it "nudges" one very effectively into getting the working structure of a project operating smoothly.

(iv) Google is developing something called Google Wave that is worth looking at for structuring defined message streams. This may make it more easy to collaborate on defined sub-projects.

(v) Managing of email is something I have never fully gotten to grips with (see Andrew Gelman on this). During term, I get approximately 80-100 non-spam work-related emails a day, which is probably more than most of you but less than some senior people I have worked with. I have used things like "to-do" folders and so on but have never fully gotten to grips with this and am actively thinking of ways to do this. One thing I am toying with is the idea of having things like message boards for my courses and research projects and simply send autoreplies in cases where the message board is a better way of processing a query. If there are any nerds or potential product developers out there, feel free to use the comments to suggest your solution. Generally, very senior people in organisations have ways of dealing with this. But I would say that email management is still a huge issue for many of us who are trying to balance research and teaching. Perhaps Google Wave is the answer but for many projects you cant enforce a requirement that all participants have a gmail account. This is an issue also for Google calendar as a project management tool.

(vi) turning things like collaboratively generated project calendars and so on into actual documents that one could put into progress reports and research proposals is another issue I have struggled. Neither basecamp nor microsoft project really allow you to do this without a lot of hassle, which is actually a real shame.

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