Listing, listlessly

October 6, 2011 1 comment

I’m not very good at making lists.  Actually, scratch that – I’m great at making them… I just have a terrible habit of making lists that can never be finished. This is a quick post about lists, and what goes into a good one.

1. Make it accessible. There is no use setting goals for your workday if you leave them at home. That productivity app might be awesome, but it is useless if your phone goes flat. Synchronising lists across a bunch of web apps is a great idea, unless you need to rely on a shaky internet connection to read them.

2. Make it achievable. All my failed lists have one thing in common: nebulous, subjective tasks that will never be objectively finished. Sometimes I start with them. Sometimes they hide further down the page. Regardless of where they live, they don’t belong on the list. “Refine chapter X” and “Read more on theory Y” are important, but without a bit more detail they quickly move from being milestones to millstones hanging about your neck. A good list helps you to get things done. It shouldn’t just add another layer of guilt about what you haven’t been able to finish yet.

3. Make it important. Finishing things is a nice feeling, but unimportant stuff doesn’t belong on that list – it obscures the important stuff, and helps you to avoid doing the real work. I’ve started putting the most immediate and important jobs up front, and the important-but-not-urgent stuff further down the list. I tend to enjoy doing the not-urgent stuff a bit more, and often do it first… that’s fine, as long as you keep momentum going to tackle the urgent jobs in time.

I find the Urgent/Important designation very useful, too. If something is in neither category, it shouldn’t be on the list at all. Urgent/Unimportant jobs don’t deserve much of your time or emotional investment: they are things required by others, and don’t have much worth to you. Get them out of the way, and save your energy for the things that matter.

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Another look at Qualitative data analysis for Mac users: Dedoose

August 17, 2011 82 comments

Technically I’m not meant to be looking at data analysis right now: it’s writing month, and the last thing I need to be doing is getting lost in data. However, the Qualitative Data Analysis Software for Mac – A Brief Look post that I wrote last September is still getting a huge amount of traffic every day, and I thought it was time to write a quick update.

What’s changed? Lots. I recently discovered a tool called Dedoose. Like the other tools that I’ve come to rely upon (Zotero for managing references, Scrivener for writing) it’s not an incremental upgrade that adds bells and whistles to an existing product. I like things that are built with a researcher’s workflow in mind, instead of a list of features that you need to work around. It’s also browser-based, so can be used from almost any computer with an internet connection.

The main advantages that I can see are:

  • Cross-platform (so I can use it on my Mac without needing to buy and install Windows and Parallels or VMware Fusion! That already saves me a few hundred dollars)
  • Online data storage, so I can access and work on the project from any computer, and have online backups available if my computer crashes.
  • I’m hopeful about it having a more intuitive interface than NVivo 9, as a shallow learning curve was one of their design goals
  • For projects involving multiple people (i.e. most things except a PhD), it’s a product built around collaborative tools, rather than bolting them onto an existing product
  • Lots of visualisation tools (which can also export to various formats). I think visually, and that will help me to understand what’s going on within and between my different case studies.
  • Licensed by the month, and at competitive rates with other options on the market.

For me, the downsides are:

  • Storing my project data online will require an ethics variation form, as my current ethics approval requires me to store digital copies on RMIT servers. However, Dedoose uses encrypted storage so the variation should be a fairly straightforward bit of paperwork.
  • Requires an internet connection. My home internet has been increasingly flakey over the last few months, and I don’t like my productivity tied to whether Virgin Broadband has decided to work that day.
  • Less support available in the university. It has two black marks against it in an RMIT context: it’s new, and it’s not NVivo. There’s a very established NVivo community here, and a lot of organisational resistance to change. However, there seems to be a lot of online support, so I can teach myself how to use it.
  • No local copy of the project, but you can export your data whenever it’s needed.

I think that a PhD project is a good place to start trialling it, as I don’t need to convince a group of co-workers to give it a shot. There’s a 30-day free trial available, and I’ll see how I go from there. If it works well, I’ll look into using it for collaborative projects later on. I’ll keep you posted.

Have you tried it out? Any experiences to report, or things I should look out for?

First draft, one week on

August 11, 2011 1 comment

It’s been a week, so I thought it was time to post a quick update.

Forming new habits and breaking old ones is hard. I started off making lots of progress, after an initial burst of writing at the GSBL ‘Shut Up & Write‘ meeting last Monday. If I’m in a conversational kind of mood, I can write very easily – between working at home and running forums over the last decade, writing feels more natural than speaking. But the type of writing is beginning to change as I make progress.

At first, there were lots of loose ends to tie up, or half-formed ideas to follow. Those are perfect for a regular, short timeslot dedicated to writing a lot, like the 25 minute ‘pomodoro‘ sessions that I’ve been using so far. It’s relatively surface-level thought, and they read like a blog post. No real surprise that Jonathan has been using it successfully to draft his Research Whisperer posts so far…

But that initial source of ideas is beginning to run out. It’s not that I have any shortage of ideas to write about. The problem now seems to be that I’m running out of low-hanging fruit to pick, and all the different concepts that I’ve begun working on in Scrivener have begun to get more complex.

Perfect material for a PhD thesis, right? Sure, but now I’m being hit with that familiar emotion that every thesis writer seems to encounter: wondering how the hell I’m going to know enough to do the writing justice. There are worlds of theory out there that I only know the tiniest bit about, and whenever someone says “Oh, so you’d be using something like X then?” I feel that sudden panic. I’ve never heard of that one before. Should I be using it? Do I need to start another literature search, and teach myself that area from scratch? Is it going to be a gaping hole in the thesis that examiners spot immediately? It’s a quick road to madness, I think.

So, plans for the next week:

Throttle back, and write at a more steady rate. This is more of a marathon than a sprint, and I need to find a steady rate that I can sustain for the next five months. I think that 800-1,000 words a day is an achievable goal… at the moment I’m aiming higher, but as the depth and quality of the writing becomes more important, that word count will change.

Find time for a second wind, or ways to help me stay on task later in the day. Early starts have been good, but I’ve been going write-write-write-crash and losing productivity in the afternoons. What I want to do is write, find one area I need to follow up on, read a bit, and then write again before going home.

In the next few weeks, I will need to work on a complete chapter instead of disparate chunks. I read a comment on Twitter about how supervisors need to start seeing completed chapters at some point, because those will make any gaps in the argument much more visible. I agree, but that’s probably another week or two away.

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Project: First Draft

August 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Have you finished a draft yet?” asked my second supervisor. It’s a question I’ve heard (and largely ignored) from many different people over the last two and a half years, but now the timing and questioner are a bit more significant. “You do know that it takes about six months to go from first full draft to submission, right?

I didn’t know that, but it carries an ominous ring of truth. It’s August. I want to finish in February. I haven’t written much in the way of thesis work, yet – my time keeps getting eaten up by posters, papers, conferences, travel, and other work. But it’s time to buckle down and write.

This has always been the intended time for doing it: it’s a month until I start the final round of interviews for my project, and I’ve just arrived back in the country from ICWSM (which I’ll write about soon, I promise!). I have the time set aside, and I think it will take me about five weeks to get a draft together – obviously missing a lot of analysis and the entire final stage of fieldwork, but showing enough direction and ideas to explain exactly where I think the project is going. The target is about 70,000 words, with the completed thesis needing to fit into 90,000.

To do that, I need to write. A lot. Almost 3,000 words per working day, on average, if I am going to take some days off to spend time with Louise (and our new cat, who doesn’t take kindly to being ignored). That will take a lot more structure and discipline than I’ve managed so far – I’m a multi-multi-tasker at heart, and focussing on a single job of this size is something new to me.

Here are the basics, which I’ll be refining as I find what works and what doesn’t:

Structured time. I need to do a lot of different things each day, so I want to make sure that everything has its place in the schedule. Writing time is for writing – not for re-reading articles, looking for extra references, dabbling in new theories, etc. Those things are important, but they need to be done after the words are on the page. I’m planning to write in short bursts, with time for following up material planned for when my writing brain is dead.

Early starts. I can get in to the uni at 8am each day. My department mostly teaches in the evening (JD and MBA subjects), so it’s a ghost town before 10am. That gives me a good environment for working in. I’m more of a late-night person by nature, but have been much more productive in the early starts I’ve had lately – perhaps that eight-hour jetlag is good for something after all.

Regular breaks. The quickest way of burning out on a big project is to avoid taking breaks. Writing something this big is more like a marathon than a sprint, so keeping to a sustainable pace is important. Also, I need to be able to go home at a reasonable hour, and see family and friends on weekends. Where other commitments steal time from my schedule there will be a few late nights, but those need to stay in the minority.

Wish me luck! If you want to see how I get on, I’ll be tagging my writing entries over the next few weeks with “first draft.” I’ll make time for blogging as I go, as I’m sure this will be useful to look back on later.

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But I actually like ramen noodles…

July 10, 2011 3 comments

From PhD Comics.

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Communities & Technologies 2011

July 2, 2011 2 comments

My brain is ready to explode from all the new ideas that have been crammed into it this week, so I’ll vent a bit of steam by writing about it over the next few days. I’ve been in Brisbane this week for the 5th International Conference on Communities and Technologies, and loved every minute of it – it’s an event that will probably shape my expectations of conferences for years to come.

Optimice provided a great network visualisation tool for the event – left running on a computer in the foyer, so people could see who else they shared some interests with. I didn’t have much of a chance to look at it during the conference, but it’s been handy after the fact: looking at the network map and seeing if there’s anyone else I ought to contact.

I had two events that I wanted to attend, both before the main conference program got underway. On Wednesday I joined ten other PhD students from around the world for the C&T Doctoral Consortium: an opportunity to present and discuss my research with a panel of the conference’s guest speakers, and to tap into the experiences of students from a range of backgrounds and disciplines. It was a very diverse group, with people from anthropology and sociology, urban planning, business, media/comms and computer science – all looking, in some way, at how communities engage with technology.

I left the workshop with a few new perspectives and ideas for my project. I think I stumbled into a bit of a minefield with social media definitions (something I hadn’t realized were quite so contentious), so I’ll need to be careful when introducing exactly what I’m trying to study. I also left with some new friends and contacts into research communities from around the world. I’m surprised that I have any voice left after four days (and nights!) of talking about social research online, offline, and in those complicated places where the two collide.

Thursday involved a full-day workshop on Organisations and Social Network Sites. A misprinted blurb originally saw me going elsewhere for the first session, dabbling a little in speculative design and ethnographic fictions. The #comtech2011 twitter stream alerted me to the fact that my original workshop was in fact about the topic I hoped to attend, and I changed rooms after the break – joining in for a discussion about public sector social media projects, and some design lessons from unsuccessful attempts to engage an audience via local government sites. Michael’s presentation on internal micro-blogging use in large companies was derailed a little by a discussion about context collapse, as work/family/friendship groups merge online – not entirely helped by Google launching their new Google+ social platform during the conference…

It will take a few days to really digest what went on at the conference, but I’m leaving it with some extremely positive experiences. Right at the moment I’m flying back to Melbourne, where the next week promises a frantic few days of preparation for the next trip: Barcelona, for the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. I’m looking forward to the next trip, but I should warn you – C&T has set my expectations pretty high…

 

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Finding that gold mine…

June 21, 2011 Leave a comment

If you have ever sifted through a stack of academic journal articles, I’m sure you’ll be familiar with just how tedious it can be: after hours of searching for the damn things, many will turn out to be less interesting than you had hoped; following tangents that don’t interest you, or stopping short and leaving you to wonder “so, where’s the rest of your study?” On the flip side, you’ll also know how great it feels to finally stumble upon something that really clicks…

I have two articles in that category on my desk at the moment. One has been there for a while, and I only just got around to reading it. The other, like so many things I’ve discovered in the past few years, came up as a random suggestion from Google Scholar. I like them for quite different reasons.

Exploring the types of SMEs which could use blogs as a marketing tool: a proposed future research agenda, by Adeline Chua, Ken Deans and Craig Parker, is the paper I’ve been meaning to read for a while now. As the name suggests this is an agenda-setting paper, looking at particular marketing strategies and processes that might be suited to blogs, such as branding, managing reputation and trust, gathering market intelligence and promoting an online presence – proposing a series of research questions that could help to explore each of these areas. None of these are unique to blogs, and they should be applicable to the range of social media services used in my case studies.

Chua et al focus on specific strategies and business characteristics, rather than considering SMEs as a homogeneous mass – something that makes a lot of sense if you’ve worked with small business owners, but not really reflected in policy or in most of the literature. I’m interested in finding out what works for specific businesses in their particular context, and how social media tools have been used to address those needs. This paper is thematically very close to the work I’ve been reading over the past year, and I found it reassuring to flip through six pages of references and recognise the majority of them – it makes me think that perhaps I’m on the right track after all…

Individual trust and the development of online business communities, by Terry Nolan, Ray Brizland and Linda Macaulay is the second paper that I’ve enjoyed reading this week. Unlike the previous paper, this is mostly new territory for me – I haven’t yet delved into the literature about online community development, and the paper should help me to get started on that. Nolan et al have conducted a three-year action research study into the development of an online business community, comprised of SMEs, information providers and business experts. I’m particularly interested in their focus on multiple notions of what a business community is: Communities of Commitment, Interest and Practice, and Networks of Practice. Power and authority in each community type is applied differently, and affects the degree to which people participate in these communities.

Communities of Practice (after Lave & Wenger, 1991) value their members according to what they bring to the community: expertise, sharing information and openness are more important than any external status. Sound familiar at all? If you’ve been active in an arena like Twitter (or forums, or blogs) that’s a good description of the things that those communities place value upon. Nolan et al propose a model of trust in online communities that incorporates risk, benefit, utility value, interest, effort and power – intended as a tool for constructing snapshots of the human, informational and technological aspects of an online community.

What have you been reading lately? Found any gold mines?

References:
Chua, A., Deans, K. & Parker, C.M. (2009) Exploring the types of SMEs which could use blogs as a marketing tool: a proposed future research agenda. Australasian Journal of Information Systems, 16(1): 117-136.
Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Nolan, T., Brizland, R. & Macaulay, L. (2007) Individual trust and development of online business communities. Information Technology & People, 20(1): 53-71.
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