Longs days and little sleep make it likely that I’ll forget important details from the 2012 CRC conference, so I thought I’d write a few quick thoughts while they are still in my head…
I flew up to Sydney early on Tuesday morning, for a day of student training workshops with the other research students. Student numbers seemed down a bit on previous years due to a few scheduling clashes (ANZMAC in Perth, OZCHI in Canberra) but we still had 34 PhD students in attendance.
The major theme behind this year’s workshops was “creative leadership”, with sessions run by Ralph Kerle from the Creative Leadership Forum. We also heard from Paul Boustead about his journey from CRC researcher to director of the Interactive Voice group at Dolby, a keynote from Stuart Anderson (Sydney Capital Partners), and some advice from Natalie Chapman (Gemaker/Smart Services CRC) on idea evaluation, protection and commercialisation.
I enjoyed Ralph’s session on the FourSight thinking profiles (built on Gerard Puccio’s work at Buffalo State University). Despite having a very biased group (almost all PhD students, engaged in some kind of technology research) we were relatively close to the global norms: slightly more Ideators, and a good mix of Clarifiers, Developers and Implementers. The FourSight archetypes are an interesting tool for looking objectively at team composition, and examining the strengths and weaknesses of groups and individuals.
Natalie’s session seemed more relevant to the CRC researchers than the IP workshop we saw a few years back: covering some of the same ground, but in a more accessible fashion. People asked questions about their own work or that of their colleagues, and saw the range of options available when trying to take an idea to market. It’s not always about patents or copyright! There are lots of tools available, and situations where each might be the most appropriate.
Late in the day, we tried a group exercise where teams of eight students proposed a series of business ideas, picked one, and worked through a series of stages: identifying what IP would be involved, ways of protecting it, a pathway to commercialisation, and a description of the product and business model. My team had plenty of ideas, but struggled a bit on the details of how to mange the interim stages – possibly because we’d ended up with a team almost entirely filled with ideators, and lacked the developers or implementors who would work on those areas. I love team challenges – another reason why I need to finish my damn PhD already, as the endless solo work is wearing me down…
Wednesday involved the formal start of the conference, with research presentations, a great keynote by David Harrison from Freelance.com, and the student poster sessions. The room layout did no favours to the students: poster sessions were held during meal breaks, with the food in a different room. Few people made it to the far end of the main room where I was based, so the opportunity for conversation was pretty limited. I think the 2009 conference was the closest to a format that really worked in that regard – while those sessions were far too long, at least we spent all day talking instead of hoping that someone might come over for a chat. Still, the few conversations I had this year were all valuable.
An oft-mentioned research strength in the CRC has been our combination of technology and user research: understanding user motivations and behaviour, in order to design better products and services. While that’s broadly true, I think that we still have a ways to go on that front: the CRC contains sharply contrasting research groups, and “social” research is obviously not a priority for some. For me, that was probably the only sour note in the conference: talking to people with bold, world-changing ideas that risk going nowhere at all, because their products require widespread adoption from a group of poorly understood potential customers. I firmly believe that the users of a technology should be placed right in the middle of the design process: understand what they want, how they will use the technology, and why they might not use it in the way you had imagined.
Ignore the users and you risk them ignoring your technology: regardless of how great its potential benefits might be. Having seen a glimpse of what those futures might hold, it would be a shame to see them never realised.
Maybe that should have been “blog late, blog often” after all.
It’s been a very busy week. An interview on Monday night in the city, another interview in the eastern suburbs on Tuesday morning, and a trip to Brisbane for the CRC participants meeting on Wednesday. Then back to Melbourne for a local CRC meeting on Thursday morning, a library workshop, and trying (unsuccessfully) to catch up on all the work that’s piling up.
I really enjoyed the meeting in Brisbane. I gave a short presentation about my project in the afternoon, titled Exploring Small Business use of Social Media – made up of a quick project overview, three brief case studies, and some future directions. It seemed to go down well, and sparked off some interesting conversations with other attendees during the breaks. All told, I feel much better than I did after last December’s conference…
I also got to catch up with some of the PhD students I met last year, and meet some new ones. I hope I’m not misrepresenting their projects or mispelling their names here – it’s late, and my memory is hazy. If there’s anything I should change, let me know!
Monika Kowalewski (QUT) is looking at Decision-Making in Microfinance Lending. When people with bank accounts apply for a loan, everything is very high-tech and quantitative: credit ratings and histories let the lender crunch numbers and calculate risk. For unbanked people, often in rural communities and developing countries, a “high-touch” approach is needed – taking lots of qualitative information to assess the application.
Jan Seeburger (QUT) spoke about Mobile Services for Public Places. He’s currently trialling an iTunes plugin app (letting you find out about the bands that nearby people are listening to) to explore ways of getting people to communicate in public spaces – instead of just putting in their headphones and blocking out their neighbours.
Barbara Gligorijevic (also QUT) talked about Ratings and Recommendations Websites in the Travel and Tourism Industry. She’s looking at how sites like TripAdvisor and the Lonely Planet’s Thorntree community affect decision making for online purchases, and will be branching out into other areas of the internet soon.
Jeremy Weinstein (Swinburne) is one of the newest PhD students, looking at a Collaborative Film Studio. He wants to know what tools are available to let documentary film makers collaborate online. Projects like Life in a Day (YouTube channel here) crowdsourced the filming, but still filtered it through a small group of editors. What if you could enable mass collaboration among the editors as well?
All the talk about social media and collaboration got me thinking. I keep hearing the same warning from people giving advice to students: “A PhD is a very lonely journey.” It’s hard enough when you’ve delved into a specialty, 6-12 months in. It’s worse when you’re a cross-disciplinary type, without much common ground with supervisors or co-workers. It’s even harder if, like many of the CRC group, you’re new to the country.
We’re not just trying to solve problems in an academic vacuum. We’re also learning how to enact change, and use what we know to make a difference. In my case, I’ve been helping to manage online community forums for the last decade. I’d like to start up an online community for the CRC postgrads; geographically separated, but sharing lots of common interests. Hopefully, it will get people talking outside their departments and universities; building links for future collaborations, and making friends in cities they would otherwise be strangers in.
I’m in Sydney at the moment, waiting for my excruciatingly slow mobile “broadband” so I can check my email and look up a few things for tomorrow’s panel discussion: ironically, one where I’ll be speaking about the National Broadband Network. Truth be told, I’d kill for something a bit faster than the 23kbps I’m getting right now…
Tuesday was a very full day, packed to the gills with training sessions: media skills, a commercialisation ‘boot camp’, intellectual property law and pitching/presentation training. Some of the workshops suffered a little from being trimmed-down versions of longer presentations, but I found all of them worth going to. I wish I’d had that kind of preparation before the Business Plan competition pitch, but it’s still useful for applying that 20:20 hindsight.
We wrapped up the day over at the Rose Hotel, where I found that assembling a bunch of random PhD students doesn’t necessarily make a very good pub trivia team (we don’t know enough pop lyrics…). Fortunately, we redeemed ourselves in the second half of the trivia night. Next time, we ought to shanghai someone who can answer the sport, film, TV and music questions 🙂
Despite getting up a little after 5am, I still only got a shade under three hours’ sleep after getting back to the hotel room. Not the best way to get ready for a full day of poster presentations…
Today’s poster sessions seemed fairly quiet, without many people stopping to talk about the project. That wasn’t entirely unexpected: location (hidden in the corner) and subject (a qualitative business study in a room filled with technology projects) left it on the fringe in more ways than one. So I was quite surprised to win an award for the most popular thesis, based on votes from the industry partners – not something I saw coming at all.
Feedback on the project has been excellent: particularly in terms of new areas to explore, helping to develop a stronger direction for the research, and highlighting groups that could benefit from the research outcomes. The project feels much more substantial than it did about twelve hours ago.
Right now, I need sleep… six hours over the last two nights is enough to function (barely), but it’s not going to get me through day 3. The panel discussion is on first thing tomorrow, so I’ll need to be awake for that one!