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Mental Overtime


Previous Entry Mental Overtime Nov. 14th, 2004 @ 06:08 am Next Entry
Ugh... another night where my brain just wouldn't shut down for as long as I would have liked it to... so here I am, awake at 5:00am with no world to engage, and not enough energy to engage it anyway.

It's tough when you can't turn your brain off. Right now my head is spinning on friends, relationships, and technology... mostly technology. It seems to be one of the few things that it's actually really easy to wrap my mind up in for long periods of time. Almost everything I see becomes a possibility for betterment through technology.

A few examples that my mind is spinning on right now:

  • A system that helps manage roommate households. It would have a household events tool that would help everyone in the house know what's going on when (roomie going on a trip, plumber coming, rent due, etc.), a tool for helping track things that the household needs and contribute to getting them (toaster oven, dishwasher, new microwave, TV, Etc), and most importantly, contribute to the finding roommates, or helping a potential roommate find a new place. The last part is the most powerful... but I'm leaving out the most powerful details.
  • A tip jar and employee feedback tool for large corporations. The tip jar would let you "tip" someone that helps you in the company, giving some credit for contributing to another person. It would also allow for more extensive feedback about people throughout the company over the course of time. When it comes time for the usual annual review, the accumulation of tips and the feedback could be used to have hard proof and measurables for each employee's relative performance and contribution. It's better than most of the crappy review cycles out there where everyone is asked to provide feedback about someone's performance and contribution over the course of the last year. Most people don't think about the last year... it's only the most recent impression about someone that matters in such scenarios. So you can be crappy 9 months out of the year, but if you're great the three months leading up to review time, you'll look terrific on paper.
  • A knowledge management tool that tracks questions asked and the answers to those questions. Most companies seem so focused on the FAQ... "Frequently Asked Questions"... they don't have a system in place to help people get to what really matters... the most frequently useful answers. Moreover, they don't have a way to hook the millions of ways the same question can be asked to the single clearest way to answer the same question. Ultimately this becomes the single repository for knowledge in the company, and another way to track employee performance and retention need. Combine this with the tip jar, and you have instant access to your most valuable employees, your least, and everyone in between.

There are more ideas that constantly float through my head... but those are the big ones right now. There's more to all of these, including the idea of founding a company based on taking the second two to a huge degree... but it would render practically obsolete the training function of a company... and since they'd be the ones that would have to implement it, it's unlikely they'd buy it. What a contradiction, eh?

The hardest part of most of these is really money. If I had money, I could make almost anything happen... but when you're a programmer for an enterprise corporation, it's hard to focus at the end of the day on your own projects... your mental capacity for writing code or architecting things is practically exhausted. At the moment, I'm saving up as much vacation time as I can. My goal is to get to a point where I can take a month to a month and a half off of work (PAID, YAY!) and write something useful... and maybe get to a point where I'm no longer relying on "the man"... but am a slave to no one but myself.
Current Mood: restlessrestless
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Date:November 14th, 2004 09:38 am (UTC)
your ideas have merit, but in order to implement them well, you'd have to become proficient at those tasks yourself, naturally.

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Date:November 14th, 2004 11:14 am (UTC)
The third idea is huge in research these days. Question Answering interests the government (QUAINT is a DARPA funded project for Question Answering) and lots of private companies. Included mine ;). Natural Language technology is essential to the handling of the "millions off ways in which questions can be phrased" and matching Question and Answers is already hard, imagine when you actually have to construct the answer from natural language texts that you know contain the answer but in no particularly direct way. We can chat about this at lengths... that's what I'm doing research in these days ;)
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Date:November 14th, 2004 12:06 pm (UTC)
The fundamental need here is around the organic growth of the Q&A repository. If someone asks a question that the system already has an answer for, there must be a way to associate the question with the answer. If the system can't do it immediately and automatically, the best connection to the answer is questions for which that answer has already proven effective. Chances are the questions asked will have a natural relationship, and the more questions that are in the system, the easier it will be for the system to find the answer for a yet unasked question. Further, the system must also have a means of getting an answer for questions it believes it can answer automatically. The automated method of doing this is also a key component. We definately should talk about this. ;)
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Date:November 14th, 2004 03:59 pm (UTC)
A professor Thomas Malone at MIT did some work along these lines in the middle 1980's that I thought was pretty good. Alas, I haven't seen any adoption of his ideas.

There are two forces you need to struggle with to get to where you seem to want to go with institutional memory like that:

1. indifference. Unless there is commitment from the CEO on down to doing this and actually using the system, you lose. You can probably make it work on a department by department basis, but, again, only if the department head signs on.

2. active avoidance. Some people are valuable for what or who they know; this is why salespeople take their rolodexes with them when they leave. Same for clients of lawyers and advertisers, etc. People like that who have any notion of what their value is (and from whence it stems) will actively avoid putting any of that information in any system that they do not explicitly control.

I've spent a good deal of my career on electronic communications and collaboration, and I can tell you from experience that the right technology helps, but is not the whole answer.

Oh, one other thing: these databases must not be static, and it's not just a question of getting everyone to add their bits - it's also removal of the outdated bits, which is to say that someone has to periodically review the database. That's an extra cost, which you'll have to justify to the beancounters and/or the CEO.
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