#124 - Build centers of excellence, not temp agencies
Plus: Making your work clear to yourself is the first step in making it visible to others
One person I spoke to last week raised the fundamental issue of internal knowledge sharing. It’s so easy, they explained, for individuals or subteams to learn things during the course of the work that would be useful more broadly, but not really have any incentive or mechanism to share it with others. Or even to realize that it was important to do so.
This isn’t a small thing; it goes to the heart of what we do and how we operate as teams of experts. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to face this problem head on. If we as managers and leads don’t do anything about this, we end up with less a team than a bunch of individuals who have each learned cool things.
We want our team to be a centre of excellence, not a temp agency.
And our organization needs us to be a centre of excellence, too.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with temp agencies. They serve a real need, even in or around our line of work - heavens knows there’s no shortage of software development or bioinformatics agencies. But if what our institution wanted was a supply of temporary staffing for individual efforts, HR could run it, or it could be contracted out.
Key to operating as a centre of excellence is a practice of continually growing and developing a shared pool of knowledge. The skills, techniques, and knowledge learn as practitioners in research computing and data are widely transferrable, across disciplines and problem types. And they combine to be more valuable than the sum of their parts; problems that aren’t tractable with technique A or approach B individually can suddenly yield to A + B.
Sharing knowledge across our organizations is crucial to their becoming centres of excellence. It’s better for professional development growth of the individual team members, and it’s much better for the team as a whole. Team members’ knowledge grows more valuable when they can see how it connects elsewhere. It shows them how it could be combined with something someone else has just learned. Team members discover areas they can collaborate with each other on, or who they can get help on with their effort. As a side effect, it also mitigates the risk of institutional memory loss when a team member leaves.
Internal knowledge sharing can happen sort of organically and accidentally when there’s a very small number of team members. This is especially true when they are co-located. In larger groups or with people working from different locations, we have to actively nurture it, and put structures in place to encourage it.
There’s no one technique for promoting and enabling internal knowledge sharing. Instead, there’s a toolbox of methods from which we can assemble bespoke practices that work for our teams. Documentation can be great, particularly if we can take advantage of other process (like reports to the research groups). Internal chat and communications can be collected. Journal-club style meetings can be held. We can routinely give short talks to each other. Each have their place, and some will be more natural fits for the culture of a team than others.
I do want to highlight some advantages of giving short (~10-15 minute) talks to each other, though. Routinely giving short talks to a friendly audience (and getting feedback on them from peers and their manager) is a terrific professional development practice, especially for junior team members. For more senior staff, talks this short aren’t too onerous to prepare. They line up well with the culture of research institutions, so many staff are pretty comfortable with the idea of both giving and attending the talks, and they can be incorporated into other meetings, be stand-alone, or combined into short mini-conferences.
Whatever materials we generate for internal knowledge sharing may be very valuable for sharing externally. After all, another key piece of becoming a centre of excellence is not just nurturing knowledge internally but disseminating it. Short talks can often form the heart a talk at a local department’s colloquium or seminar series, or of a conference. Internal write-ups can often be polished into posters or blog posts or conference abstracts. 10-15 minute talks also a really nice length for sharing and distributing externally.
What approaches have you seen work (and not work!) for internal knowledge sharing? Hit reply or email me at email@example.com.
And with that, on to a short, getting-back-in-to-it, roundup!
Managing Your Own Career
A Simple Way to Introduce Yourself - Andrea Wojnicki, HBR
For earlier-career managers who suddenly find themselves involved in meetings with a number of stakeholders, introducing ourselves can be a little daunting. Wojnicki offers a nice, simple, professional script to introduce yourself at meetings:
Hi, I’m [name], and a short present-tense statement about yourself with relevant context to the meeting
Short statement about the past with a detail or two that might be relevant
A short statement about the future connecting you to whatever the meeting is about.
e.g. me introducing myself on the calls I mention above might sound like:
“Hi, I’m Jonathan! (1) I help research computing and data managers, new and experienced, with the challenges of these complex roles. (2) I’ve worked in a number of RCD teams myself in the past, and have worked with many RCD staff and managers of all levels and disciplines. (3) I’m looking forward to hearing from you today about your experiences!”
How do I make sure my work is visible? - James Stanier
The things you have to do to being managing thoughtfully and deliberately - which requires setting some intentions and keeping track of what’s happening - are also the things you need to do make your work visible to your stakeholders and boss. As Stanier says:
What was even worse was that I was doing a bad job at making my work visible to myself.
If you yourself can’t quickly describe what you’ve been doing and accomplishing, how could your boss or stakeholders possibly know?
Stanier suggests a brag document, but anything that you’re doing to keep track of your initiatives as a manager, see how they’re succeeding or not, and decide next steps will be perfectly good starting point.
A story of using DALL-E 2 to generate a logo for a project - this is a great way to generate ideas for a logo or other visual even if you have a human create the finished product. For that idea generation phase, the free Craiyon tool may be enough.
Learn SQL by solving a murder mystery.
Janet Jackson’s “Rythm Nation” could crash laptops even by being played near them, because a note in the song had a resonance with a particular model of 5400 rpm laptop hard drives.
A simple but comprehensive engine simulator that correctly generates engine sounds.
Friends don’t let friends make these visualization mistakes.
And that’s it for another week. Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share about the newsletter or management. Just email me or reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox.
Have a great weekend, and good luck in the coming week with your team,