PSEL: Caption Vendor Assessment

One stretch assignment I did early in the year was to lead a group to evaluate multiple caption vendors. I recruited and worked with a group multimedia and learning design specialists who had worked with the captioning process. As a group we developed an evaluation rubric which included parameters such as pricing, server security, guaranteed accuracy levels and other technical requirements.

After that we were able to contact a set of vendors to learn more about their services and then wrote a report evaluating their services. Originally the idea was to form a more centralized service, but for different reasons this has not yet been implemented. However, we did learn enough to make recommendations we could share with other units. I also learned more about the captioning process in general, and since this is so central to accessibility, I have more information to share with the community.

I guess the lesson here is that few “assignments” at Penn State lead to outcomes originally intended, but that no experience is completely wasted.

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PSEL: Have I Actually Improved?

We’re in the final stretch for the 2016 PSEL program and after a rough patch in the summer, I was wondering if I had actually improved in any area.

One area I am confident I improved in is understanding my strengths and weaknesses. For instance, I finally realized that as an introvert, a “networking” cocktail party won’t be something I will excel at. I can attend them and function reasonably well, but really I need to find different opportunities for interacting with new people. I also have to give myself more time to wait for the right chance.

So recently I have come to events with an expectation that I don’t have to interact if it doesn’t make sense. After all, I can learn a lot by listening too. And sometimes when I am feeling too overwhelmed with crowds, I give myself a break. Interestingly though, I am finding that by being more relaxed, I am apparently less intimidating (or at least less grouchy). More people are willing to speak to me in different situations. I also feel that I can be more authentic when I give myself a chance to wait for the right time to open a conversation. I will probably never be a world class networker, but I am finding less stressful and am truly enjoying chances to interact with people one on one.

A stressful, but also valuable part of the program are the evaluation tools we have used for ourselves. It was interesting to hear what others had to say…once I got over the embarrassment of asking. I also decided to focus some of my leadership interviews on people within my organization. It was also good from my management to hear what I felt I need to go in my career. I got some unexpected, but useful insights into how I could improve myself professionally. One of the better ones was to be more patient, and another from my father was to understand that there is no perfect leader. We all have strengths and weaknesses.

I will confess there were some challenging discussions in the summer where I was not on my best behavior, but for once I swallowed my pride and did apologize. After that, I felt like I was generally able to communicate more effectively. I always wonder how long a period of calm can last, but maybe it’s all about the practice in being mindful and communicating effectively. One step back and hopefully two forward.

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PSEL: Leadership Philosophy Final

Below is my first leadership philosophy draft:

First Draft

As a leader, I will rely on the expertise of my team and colleagues but provide vision and direction to move us forward. I will strive to maintain calm in the face of chaos and communicate clearly in a sea of noise. Above all, I will be honest with my team and “customers” and treat them with integrity and respect. I will always seek to learn more about leadership needs, especially from my mistakes.

I was happy with this draft because it captured the need for a leader to juggle many priorities while being generally composed (a positive trait in my mind). It also addressed somewhat the need to act ethically, but maybe my additions will also address the need to be humble as well. Being humble is hopefully one way to ensure you have a check on yourself and learn to listen to what everyone needs – not just the people sitting at a meeting table.

But everything can be tweaked a bit. Here is my latest draft.

Second Draft

As a leader, I will rely on the expertise of my team and colleagues but provide vision, direction and support to move us forward in a direction that serves the community and our principles as best as possible. I will strive to maintain calm in the face of chaos and communicate clearly in a sea of noise. Above all, I will be honest with my team and “customers” and treat them with integrity and respect and listen with empathy and understanding. I will always seek to learn more about leadership needs, especially from my mistakes.

In this draft I am adding thoughts about the need to understand and work with others to move forward as a group. Even though I am an introvert and really LOVE working independently…the truth is that I do live in a community and do need to learn to communicate and work more effectively with other people. No vision can really thrive unless other people can understand it.

Will this be my final draft? I expect not. I have made a lot of mistakes in being a “leader”, but I am learning that many leaders have made mistakes. It’s being willing to admit to them and learn from them that makes you a stronger leader.

P.S. I do have to stipulate that by “community” I need to define it as widest parts of my community. There are lots of ethical lapses committed in the name of “protecting the community”. Usually though, these protection only applies to just the “important” part of the community, leaving others to suffer.

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PSEL: Corporate Cultures (The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life)

My most recent book is Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life by Terence E. Deal and Allan A. Kennedy. First published in 1982 and updated in 2000, this is one one of the first commercially available books to discuss how anthropological issues of culture affects individual businesses.

For several years now, I have been finding anthropologically oriented works some of the most useful in helping me understand how to communicate more successfully and this helped me too…although I can see that some of the predictions from the 80s have not all panned out. But if you read the book carefully, it actually predicts that!

Basic Premise

The focus of the book is to describe how organizations build a set of beliefs, rituals, narratives with heroes and other cultural practices which must be learned in order to function well within the organization. However, because they are not always formally taught, it isn’t always easy to learn them. In fact, managers, especially managers new to the organization, may not realize they are in place and can therefore make major mistakes hindering projects when the rules are violated.

A simple example from Penn State is that most staff members have some sort of connection with Penn State. Many have lived in Pennsylvania and about the same percentage have either attended Penn State or are related to someone who has. As a result, many staff members were probably exposed to Penn State football and likely view Joe Paterno as a local hero. When the Sandusky scandal hit, a few people unconnected to the university may have felt Paterno made some errors, but admitting that in public would not have been recommended. The other staff members would probably have recited a story relating to Paterno’s commitment to the academic life at Penn State as well as to the football team.

Paterno as a hero exemplifies the Penn State value of supporting academics as well as other non-collegiate aspects such as the football tailgate. His willingness to forgo a large NFL salary also shows how Penn State often talks about providing a quality education at a lower price. This translates into the idea that a staff member may be less paid than in an urban market, but may still have access to good cultural amenities. People may want more pay, but it’s rarely discussed in public…unless the salaries have been frozen for a few years.

A ritual shared by many Penn Staters is watching the football games, even if it just the Bowl game. Even if a person does not follow football, one might want to consider keeping track of the season’s games and scores, if only to know how the mood of the town is on Monday. In fact, my grandmother supposedly recommended my mother learn football so she could at least follow the game somewhat. This came in handy when she met my father’s aunt and uncle for the first time…at a football game. It’s also good to know what the schedule is so travel on Saturday can be properly planned.

Multiple Cultures at Large Organizations

When an organization is as large as Penn State, multiple cultures with their own set of rules form. This can cause friction if the different cultures don’t understand each others rules. For instance, non-teaching staff assume that the days between Christmas and New Year are a vacation where no one will be required to work, but some faculty view this week as the time catch up on work. A few times this has meant that faculty are expecting some IT staff to be available in this period…even when they will not be. Oops.

The multiple cultures in place means that being able to learn more about them is critical to a person higher in the administration at Penn State.

Unconscious Behavior

Explaining the value of Penn State football is relatively simple, but a lot of other rituals behavior aren’t always so clear, but if norms are violated, then problems can arise. I realized that I have sometimes violated this when offering virtual meetings over Adobe Connect (or Zoom).

As a practical matter, meetings on Adobe Connect run more smoothly when it is virtual only. The moderator is one small space broadcasting (like radio) and all the other attendees are in their space. However, when the moderator is in a room with a live audience, the logistics are much more complicated and it’s much harder for virtual attendees to understand what is happening or participate. I tended to push the virtual-only broadcast model as a way to equalize the participation for everyone. But for one learning designer monthly meeting, attendance from University Park dropped because they valued their face to face time together as a community. The meeting lost some of its energy from this dynamic.

In fact, the need for the learning design community to come together has become an integral part of the annual TLT Symposium. Technically this is a education technology conference with presentations from different faculty members and attendance remains very high. However, I also know that a large percentage of the attendance comes from learning designers and multimedia staff from all the campuses at Penn State. People do attend sessions, but an amazing amount of energy is spent talking to each other in the halls or at meals, and people may skip sessions just to talk to one another. In fact, the lunch time keynote was eventually discarded because people wanted more time to network.

At this point, the purpose of the Symposium for many people may actually be to catch up with people across campus. Updates on new services may just be a nice bonus in some years. That doesn’t mean that the presentations should necessarily be cancelled, but their role may not be well understood.

Changing the Culture

A hot topic these days in business organization is changing the “culture”, but assuming that culture can be changed easily misses the point that when a culture is really well understood, it cannot be easily adjusted. Deal and Allen do give some examples of how a leader can adjust the culture, but generally speaking the leader must truly understand what is happening in that culture.

In almost all the examples, the leaders make a point to spend some time at particular working locations such as visiting or even working at a factory office a few hours or even days a week instead of corporate headquarters. At these locations, leaders are able to observe how people truly behave. Sadly, this is a behavior I do not see much at Penn State.

Another change issue that is often ignored is the need to account for how a change impacts the everyday lives of staff members…or else people will be tempted to fall into the same patterns that worked before. For example, Penn State has long advocated accessibility guidelines, but until training could be provided, staff did not always know what to do. In some cases new positions had to be created to help with testing requests. Even now, many people feel “too busy” for accessibility. And some tools built for the federal government remain too cumbersome to be useful in the higher education setting. Until these changes are realized, accessibility will probably not be fully adopted by all content creators.

On the other hand, when the ADA came out there was a lot of angst in organizations at fulfilling the mandates. Yet somehow people learned to design new buildings with appropriate wheelchair access…so change is possible.

A final lesson from the book is that change is gradual (sometimes generations long for some social issues) and can be so slow that people don’t always realize it is happening. The slowness of change can be frustrating in IT where people expect new products and methods to be deployed instantaneously. This may be possible in commercial cloud services, but again is more difficult in higher education which is subject to more regulations and more cultural baggage to overcome.

Ironically, Kennedy and Allan proposed that in the “future” (as in the current second decade of the 21st century we are now in), the work force would be less hierarchical and have more control over decisions. I have seen this advocated as a goal for Penn State IT…but we are still working in hierarchical silos where non-managerial staff have very little formal authority. This is not surprising considering that Penn State is an especially large example of a centuries old institutional model. The older the organization, the slower it is to change…exactly as Kennedy and Allan point out.

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PSEL: Dissecting Presidential Leadership

WPSU provided an unexpected opportunity to think about leadership when it ran a series of recent American Experience presidential biographies over the summer in “honor” of the 2016 Presidential Election. They were particularly interesting because we saw some of the mechanics of how the presidents rose through the political ranks and also how they organized their administrations to react to different issues and events.

I’m not sure I learned anything startling, but the biographies definitely emphasized different leadership issues that have come up in the past. A major theme from both my interviews and the biographies was the need to build relationships. In a democracy, even when you are the chief executive, you need to get consensus from different constituents, usually represented by the legislature. Similarly, international diplomacy requires building relationships with leaders in different nations (and requires cross cultural competence as well). And of course, building relationships with the party and the voters blocks.

Another theme I saw was how a President must maintain a delicate balance of all the different leadership tasks. Neglecting one aspect of the balance can make a person less effective or even derail an administration.

For instance, although Johnson was a master networker in the Senate, he actually sacrificed in populist values for many years in order to get elected. In contrast, Carter was more committed to his values, but was not very skilled at communicating them in a way the American people could always appreciate. Reagan was a strong networker, committed to his values and was excellent in communicating those values. However he didn’t like to focus on details and sometimes his staff would make decisions that were not always popular and led to different controversies.

A final lesson for me was understanding how each president, even the one-term presidents and the ones with colossal failures, had their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Carter was able to broker a lasting peace treaty in the Middle East. Bush (41) was able to negotiate a peaceful end to the Cold War and Johnson did commit to passing civil rights legislation. In the end, what they couldn’t do was explain their policies well to the American public.

P.S. Speaking of communication, I was very surprised to discover that Nixon actually has a very effective speaking voice. It’s no wonder that when he debated Kennedy, people listening on the radio thought he had won.

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PSEL: Recruiting Volunteers

Since I am supposed to be writing about stretch experiences…

My local embroidery group is part of a national organization with very formal rules, including election of board officers. In the past few years, we already “knew” who the officers would be because many were running on a second term.

But our bylaws do place term limits on offices, and as luck would have it, this year we are due to elect three new people to fill upcoming vacancies, including chapter president. The task of leading a nomination committee would be particularly challenging, but mysteriously, I volunteered to take charge.

This is a task that may be relatively simple for some people, but not for me. As established in previous posts, I identify myself as an introvert and am rarely confident in my skills of persuasion. But volunteering was a way I could help the chapter get to the next stage.

The good news is that it worked out well because of two strategies. I did of course send messages out through email and in person. I reminded people that this was an important change coming, but also promised that cocktails at meetings was an option. My second strategy was to rely on the group to do its own informal recruiting.

The current president offered to step in to another position, so really it was only two offices to fill. One member talked with her friend about being president…and her friend realized how much she could contribute and volunteered to be the next president. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly this worked out. That left only secretary which is a fairly light position. Soon enough (with additional promises of light duties and learning dark chapter secrets), another member contacted me to volunteer.

I’m not sure I can always replicate this, but I was glad this opportunity worked for me. At Penn State, many people without a title need to persuade people to volunteer to help with certain tasks. Explaining what the task entails is very useful to helping people make an informed decision. Pointing to potential benefits is also useful (this is a tip from an EI tutorial that has actually stuck with me).

This is also a time when you need to tap into your network. If your network isn’t as strong as it could be, you may be able to find others with good connections.

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PSEL: The Quasi-Reluctant Leader (Mid Year Checkup)

Why Leadership?

When I’ve been telling people that I was in the PSEL program, more than a few asked if this was something I “really wanted.” It’s a fair question because leadership done well is hard work and usually without immediate gratification. I will admit that I have been a little hesitant to become someone who often has to put out fires and who would have to talk to lots of people throughout the day. I’m also not sure I can bring myself to wear panty hose and high heels again either.

On the other hand, modern working life, particularly in higher education, presents tasks in which leadership skills may be needed, even if a person is not a “leader.” In particular, tech experts need to explain complicated issues and make recommendations for non-technical experts. They may even have to bring up potential problems to management and explain why it needs to be addressed. In a similar vein, an instructor may need leadership skills to envision and implement innovation in their classroom.

Some people may not want to be a traditional leader, but do want a seat at the table to help influence conditions in their workplace. But once you’re at the table, you may be exposed to issues in the bigger picture you hadn’t ever realized were there before. At that point you may need to adjust your priorities and strategies to focus on what works for both you and the university. In other words, being a good leader means having to think about the group and not just about what you want. Just because you are “in charge” doesn’t mean you can or should do whatever you want.

Mid Year Progress

I was trying to assess where I am and if I have made any progress. I can say that the programs and reading have made me think more critically of what it means to be a leader. Even though I think of myself as being analytical, I was actually thinking of leadership in terms of getting what I want rather than thinking about the needs of the team/organization.

An interesting benefit for me is that I am learning to understand leadership as a function of anthropology. A good leader understands his or her culture and uses it to leverage a more positive outcome. For instance, a common mistake in asking students to use technology in their coursework is that it will be “intuitive” to them. However, I have seen from past experience that technology is far less intuitive when it’s related to a course. More documentation for using Facebook in a course is needed than using Facebook in general in order for students to succeed.

Having observed this, I also have a leadership challenge to explain to faculty why they do need to provide additional support, even make sample documentation for them. Using anecdotes or my personal teaching experience can help bring enough social capital to make my case. Being confrontational or dictatorial definitely will be counterproductive in this case since faculty generally feel they should follow their own instincts.

Have I put this all into practice yet? I’m still working on learning to express myself calmly. When it gets hot and humid, it gets very difficult and even knowing it’s a trigger point doesn’t always work. But I am getting better at reflecting what I should do the next time. Because there is always a next time.

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PSEL: The Cultural Labyrinth

This entry is a book review about Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders (Eagly & Carli, 20007), a book I found both satisfying and frustrating. The premise of the book is that even though many obviously legal and cultural barriers for women in the workplace have been removed, more subtle challenges (e.g. women still do more housework than men) cause the path to promotion to be more convoluted for women than for men.

I found the book very helpful because it identified many challenges I had personally encountered but did not realize might be gender related. A lot of challenges stem from an unconscious cultural assumption that men are “natural leaders” and, as a corollary, women are “natural caregivers”. Many workplaces assume that a leader should be “firm and decisive”, but that women aren’t expected to behave like that. Even worse, in many situations, if a woman behaves too much like a traditional male leader, she is viewed negatively. What may work well for a man, may not work well for a woman. I mention this because some well-meaning supervisors have told me that I need to be “tougher” with people. The reality is that there are limits to how autocratic a woman can be in most settings – a “softer” approach typically is the best approach.

Other challenges mentioned in the book is that women may miss out on opportunities for social networking if an organizational culture includes too many “masculine” pursuits such as sports or evening happy hours (which could interfere with child care). There are also dominance challenges such as women being interrupted more frequently or men not acknowledging women as the source of an idea (yes, I have experienced both). I think the most interesting challenge was that women were sometimes handed “impossible” assignments. We’re seeing that now in Britain where Theresa May will become the next Prime Minister after her male colleagues in the Party declined to work on a post-Brexit strategy to leave the European Union.

This is rewarding in the sense that I can see that I’m not imagining some of my workplace issues, but also frustrating and dangerous if it leaves me feeling like a victim. The book does not mean to leave women feeling like victims, yet it is a little more focused on fixing the system than providing individual tips other than to balance the “masculine” with the “feminine.”

One highlight of the book is that it brings evidence that the traditional autocratic leadership model is not necessarily the most effective model, and smart male leaders have known that for some time. For men though, being more collaborative is often seen as a sign of intelligence and having good “people skills”, while in women it can be perceived as weakness…unless she is able to balance it out with confidence. In other words, both men and women have to work to strike a balance.

What’s my next step? An obvious one to me is to observe how successful women leaders function. Fortuantely, there are more and more examples in modern America. In fact, I would argue that there have been lots of successful women leaders in many walks of life for centuries, including the military (Joan of Arc). Although most traditional political and public positions of power have been filled by men, there have always been exceptions ranging back to Ancient Egypt (Queens Hatschepsut and Cleopatra). There have also been many very powerful leaders in traditional female places including mothers, nurses (e.g. Florence Nightingale) widows, political wives (e.g. almost all First Ladies) and leaders in female cleric posiitons (e.g. Mother Theresa). In fact there are so many examples, I am amused/outraged that we feel we need to seek them. They are hiding in plain sight.

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A Visit to Maker Commons

This post documents the experience of getting a print from the Penn State Maker Commons service.

The good thing about Maker Commons is that you don’t need direct access to a 3D printer nor do you need to learn how to load plastic media or make sure the nozzle is properly cleaned and aligned, because the Maker Commons staff is there to do that for you. However, you will still need to interact with some media software, most of free and you will need to an investment of time, especially for your first print. And there are some restrictions you might have to keep in mind.

Build a Model in Tinkercad or Wherever

If you’re interested in building a basic model, you may want to get a free Tinkercad account. It’s a cloud service which lets you build a model from scratch or import and edi a model/vector graphic file. MakerCommons has some Tinkercad tutorials on their tutorials page.

Another non-cloud option is Google SketchupMake. Maker Commons also has tutorials for this service. Or you can find and download a 3D model. Or you can use a graphics program which allows you to export a 3D model.

Edit in MakerBot

No matter how you create your model, you will need to import it into the free MakerBot Dekstop editor. This software is designed for the MakerBot printer and will let you resize your image, set print quality and export it for print.

It’s important to follow the guidelines from MakerCommons or your print could be rejected or ruined. An important one is a relatively new 100 gram plastic restriction. Another is a size restriction of 9.9 inches L x 7.8 inches W x 5.9 inches. Finally, your Quality setting needs to be “Low” or “Standard.”

You also need to make sure the print is to be centered and lie flat on the print bed. The guidelines show you exactly how to do this.

Submit the Print

Here you will need to submit your model file through Makerbot Innovation Center with your Penn State email address. This will allow you to choose the model and even select the color plastic you want. Again, it’s important to follow all the instructions.

Ready to submit? Then click the Submit button on Maker Commons site. You will receive a message when the print file is submitted to the queue, when the job begins to print and when the print is complete.

Pick up the Print

Once you receive an email that the print is ready to be picked up, head to either Patee/Paterno at University Park or a location at another campus. You will need to bring your Penn State ID as verification.

If all has gone well, you will receive your print in a clean brown paper envelope. Take off the “raft” and enjoy.

Orange Hindi E on top of can of peanuts

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PSEL: When You’re an Introvert….

For my leadership learning, I wanted to read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. My initial impulse was because I’m an introvert and have found myself frustrated by U.S. corporate norms that often favor extraverts. Can I find information to help myself succeed in this environment? Well yes and no.

One insight I got was that I am not as much as an introvert as I thought I was. For instance, the idea of speaking in public does not terrify me as much as some people. I also realized that I have some skill in public “small talk” needed to create a happy social environment. However, I am definitely an introvert in that I am not always in the mood to that and that I have a tolerance limit.

Ultimately, what makes an introvert an introvert is the need for “quiet time” by oneself. Cain points out that a number of introverts have made creditable leaders, negotiaters, performers and public speakers (including Cain herself) , but that these individuals often desire some “alone time” to recharge. Unfortunately, this can result in a person being perceived as being aloof or timid.

To be truthful, I already knew a lot of this before reading Cain’s book. I think the more important insight is how important “alone time” really is to the psyche of an introvert. Having heard for 15+ years that people need to ALWAYS collaborate/learn in a community, Cain brings in research to show that the solitude is an important aspect of learning and working for many people. For instance, if you believe that “10,000 hours of practice is mastery” (or at least “practice makes perfect”), chances are that some of the practice will be in solitude.

According to Cain though, modern business culture often assumes a 100% extraverted model where “brainstorming” is restricted to semi-public group discussion with no individual reflection. Although group brainstorming has its benefits, Cain argues that the result is not always optimal. In some situations, allowing introverted staff time to reflect on a problem could result in more creative solutions.

Another issue Cain mentions is the trend for completely open offices. If these spaces become noisy, many introverts may become too distracted to work productively. But if spaces can be designer where introverted staff are allowed some time in a truly quiet space, they may be more creative and better charged when they are required to be in an group setting.

These issues are important in a higher education setting or IT setting where it is likely that many instructors and other types of staff are, in fact, introverted. They may also be a little bit cranky at constantly working in an extroverted environment.

P.S. Appreciating Extraversion

I have to end this blog post by saying although Cain and other introverts can sneer at extraverts, we introverts do have to appreciate the social skills that extraverts bring to the table. Having a co-worker help you out with a cheerful attitude or ask about your day with genuine interest is truly a lovely thing. And truly nothing colloborative could happen without someone reaching out first.

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