Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Chasing down the predator

I followed a furious blast of robin-noise this morning, and caught sight of three robins chasing a sparrow hawk. The hawk silently darted on arrow-wings around the corner of the house and swiftly was out of sight, the robins following behind. Chicks are fledging now, and will soon be making their first forays out of the nest. These babies are vulnerable. The parents know it, and so do the predators. Hence, the angry, noisy parents.

Then I got to thinking; three robins? Robins nest in pairs, and are territorial. What bird was the third? Sure enough, I googled it, and I found out that robin parents will collaborate to chase a predator out of territory. Makes perfect sense to me.

I noted also that predators, though noisy at other times, (the sweet whistle of the sparrow hawk and the raucous calls of the magpie come to mind) are deadly silent when on the hunt.

The lessons for us in all this? Feel free to call on your neighbour to repel a common threat. Watch out when predators go quiet.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Diarizing changes perception

When I was first diagnosed pre-diabetic, I indulged in three months of intensive tracking and diarizing; my blood sugars, my diet, and how I felt. This sort of furious activity temporarily impresses the professionals. I come in to my appointments with my reams of charts and graphs. So organized. So, dedicated. So... geeky. I don't keep it up forever, though. My inner hedonist wrestles free in time.

Those three months did me a valuable service, though. The connection between my eating and how I felt could no longer be ignored. I began to look at sweets and sugary drinks in a whole new way. They now blaze red flashing signals of misery. I easily pass them by.

My perception of portions and what full means were permanently changed as well. A good portion of meat shrunk to the size of a pack of cards. Vegetables swelled to half my plate. I no longer kept eating until I could hold no more. I became much more aware of my body and at interpreting it's signals.

My recent flurry of diarizing, to track medication and exercise and their effect on my blood sugars, yielded similar results. Again, I'd avoided the obvious. Regularly portioned exercise directly improves my ability to process sugar. My body aches were cries for more exercise, not a call to relax.

Which got me to thinking of the value of diarizing. Not all of us can do it all the time. But it pays to set aside a packet of days to pay attention. The exercise may just change your perceptions.

A great online tracker can be found at http://thecarrot.com. Registration for the basic service is free, and you can track through your iPhone. There are dozens of trackers to choose from, and you can select those you are following now.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The other side of Yahoo! - complexity simplified

I hope to have the opportunity to implement a few e-records structures this winter that should resolve whether a heirarchal, designed file structure is needed at all. I've heard both sides of the argument; records professionals arrayed against chaos, and IT gurus challenging why we bother at all.

What inspired me to write twice in one day is a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes on page 141 of David Allen's book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity - Oliver Wendell Holmes

I believe it may be possible to implement highly simplified structures for an organization, made up of no more than a dozen major categories, and a few places for non-record creations like drafts, reference materials, and templates.

In order to implement simple, however, the organization has to be committed to following clearly outlined business rules, such as regularly filing and keyword indexing business commitments. Everyone must understand what their obligations are in order for all this to work.

Why so much emphasis on the basics? Because with a tightly defined definition of a record, large volumes of incoming information can be cut out of the flow, being redirected to non-record buckets like Reading/Research. I figure with a good definition only about 5% of incoming information needs to be filed. With a reduced volume to organize and structure, records managers and business users have some hope of managing their business through an e-records system.

Building a New Habit

I am so excited that I am successfully incorporating a new habit - regular exercise - in to my routines. A measurable, positive effect of this change is that I have managed to reduce my A1C from 7.0 to 6.6! My doctor says that most often patients are unsuccessful at incorporating lifestyle change, and that the family doctor usually adjusts by modifying medication. I credit the group instructors of Force and Zumba at World Health, Darcy at the Primary Care Network, and the lay instructors for "Live Better Every Day", Bill and Lorraine, for enthusiastically supporting me towards my goal.

I've targeted regular exercise as my chief bugbear since hitting the third habit in Stephen Covey’s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ”. This third habit is “Put First Things First”, managing yourself. The idea is that before you can be effective and influential in your job - out there - in the world - you need to conquer your internal, personal world. Covey asks the reader,

What one thing could you do (you aren’t doing now) that if you did on a regular
basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?

Covey’s book, originally launched in 1989, was hugely influential and often quoted. I’ve heard anecdotally that fewer people have actually read it from cover to cover. When I read the book in 2008 I found it to be hugely helpful, but I put the book down for a few months when I hit the third habit, putting first things first. The book demands action, and I wasn’t ready to make the change.

That question for habit three put me on hold. I believe it is Covey's call to change personal habits that makes the book difficult; not that the principles themselves are hard to understand.

Once I began the journey to conquer my personal new habit of fitness and exercise, I was able to finish the rest of the book in a few weeks.

Starting new habits and breaking old bad ones is tough. Our bodies quickly get comfortable with routines, and resist change. But regularly raising the bar and incorporating new habits builds strength and invigorates the mind. Have you seen those spry eighty-seven year olds? Wonder how they do it? They’ve incorporated this important lesson of continuous self-improvement.

These days, when the "powers that be" recognize a social problem, their first plan of attack is to educate the public. But personally, I don’t need more education. I know what is good for me. The problem has always been a matter of application, the incorporation of new habits.

My recent discovery is in the application of some tried and true practices to help me build new habits. I attended a once-a-week, six weeks course called “Living Better Every Day ” sponsored by Alberta Health Services, and developed by Stanford’s Chronic Disease Self-Management Program . The tools I practiced in the past six weeks have effectively helped me build new habits in to my daily routine. Here are ten steps gleaned from my learning and living in the past few years and months:

  1. Are you ready to change?
  2. Develop a SMART action plan for the next week.
  3. Write your action plan down.
  4. Keep a log or diary of your progress. I use the carrot.
  5. Recruit accountability partners (family or friends).
  6. Review and reflect on your progress weekly, and make adjustments as needed.
  7. It takes about twenty-one days to turn your new activity in to a new habit.
  8. Continually review your action plan and targets to keep away boredom, and within a few months you have established a new routine.
  9. Remember that relapses happen to nearly everyone. Anticipate possible causes for a relapse (i.e. interruptions to routine like holidays) and adjust your plan. After a relapse, create a new action plan without guilt.
  10. Trust the process. To keep from being overwhelmed, focus on the next action rather than the ultimate goal.

That's it. The work is in the doing, not in the reading. Steps one and two, I would say, are the most critical to success. Be ready and set small, achievable goals and you are well on your way. Occassional intensive diarizing has helped me connect behavior with consequences; first with food, and now with activity. I can no longer brush off that achey, lazy feeling as being "tired". My body, rather, is begging for movement.

Whatever stage you are at in your change journey, I wish you all success and great supporters along the way.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Pulling Together Through the Tough Times - Apple vs Microsoft

Having recently purchased my first Apple toy and then lost it, I've felt the effects first-hand of the uneasy marriage between Apple, Microsoft, and Google. The failure of these giants to speak to each other in the clinical language of machine code has caused me more agony than a new business owner should have to bear.

I also learned first-hand that my inability to manage without a mobile electronic calendar and contact list verges on obsession. On the other hand, should a business owner tolerate the breakdown in service and communication that have consumed my last few days?

First of all, I love my Apple iPhone. Installation of apps of all sorts and description, is screamingly easy. My favorite personal management tools for my iPhone include:

All of this worked wonderfully until the iTunes store on my Microsoft PC stopped operating. Something about the security settings. Which I failed to find after days of searching. Which was OK because I could continue to download directly from my iPhone. I was starting to suspect that the sync with Microsoft Outlook was imperfect, as the in-box on my 'phone and PC did not match, and my 'phone calendar entries were not picked up by Outlook. Then I lost my beloved iPhone.

I asked Apple if with the built-in GPS if they could locate the phone for me. The service call cost me $25 only to find out that they cannot...unless I had first installed MobileMe. A little hard to install after the fact. After I dried my tears, I got myself another iPhone and tried to bull my way through the failure of iTunes Store on my PC. Failing that, I installed iTunes on my laptop. Which meant switching my e-mail to the laptop, too. Which is where the calendar and contacts list failed to upload, Outlook to Outlook 2010. I found an online user group where I commisserated with a dozen others. It was small comfort that I was not alone in my frustration.

To keep this story short, my calendar and contacts now reside on google apps. I found an app for my iPhone which synchronizes with google, calengoo.

Can you feel my frustration as a small-time customer, squeezed between giants who just don't get along...perfectly? Now, I am not one of those people who believes that big equals bad. I staked my career with a big organization, faults and all. There are good, hard working people in large organizations. With size also comes standards and influence, and the glory of mass production. If a large corporation fails to capture it all, however, it ends up with at least one rival. I call it the Coke and Pepsi effect. Both are big enough to resist absorbtion by the other. Competition can harden in a no-holds-barred, give-or-take-all hostility that sucks energies away from cooperation and improvement. Customers respond by taking sides, praising in the advantages of their choice over the other guys. We have ourselves a granfalloon.

I suggest that this failure to cooperate is damaging to everybody in a hard economy. Whatever is happening behind the scenes for these big organizations, it is high time they get over it and get along. I am reminded of the history of the small town of Blairmore in the Crowsnest Pass, which once was considered a prime crossing point for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. A dispute arose over the ownership of a prime bit of real estate in Blairmore. By the time the dispute was resolved in the courts, an alternate route through the Rockies had been chosen. Little Blairmore is permanently bypassed by the commerce highway.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Fast, Cheap, and Beautiful But Never All Three

So wrote a designer on planning a kitchen. You can build it fast and cheap, but it won't be everything you dreamed. You can build it fast and beautiful, but it won't be cheap. Or, you can build in everything you ever wanted and at a fair price, but it will be a long, slow process. I love this description because it warns the buyer that there will be compromises, but they still have the power to decide which way they want to go. (Here's a book on kitchen renovations that looks like it provides decent value for the money, Kitchen Redos, Revamps, Remodels, And Replacements: Without Murder, Madness, Suicide, Or Divorce )

Another favorite slogan of mine, from Shel Busey, home repair guru, is "Good, Better, Best". When offering solutions to a caller on his Saturday morning show, he gives them the good, better and best options, and what they get for their money. Again, the power is left in the consumer's hands, and they get a sense of what they are getting for their money.

I wonder as records and information management professionals, if we fail to engage our customer when we demand that the offered solution (such as an ECM implementation) have a perfect score. It may be that the consumer can settle for a less than perfect solution, if it meets their needs and budget. Which leads to the question, can we provide a heirarchy to the principles that an offered solution must meet up to?

I think we can, and while reviewing the eight principles of Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles (GARP), I propose the following order of criticality - Availability, Integrity, Protection, Retention, Disposition, Accountability, Compliance and Transparency.

Why did I pick availability as the most critical principle? At the end of the day, if you can't find what you need, you might as well pack it in. This is the reason businesses buy in to our solutions. But even within this principle, we need to engage our customer to find out what level of availability is critical. Can they tolerate delays in locating some types of information? How long can it be; seconds, minutes, hours? Very likely though, if some information falls in to the black hole of "never found again", the proposed solution fails.

About integrity of data, if we can't trust that what we put in stays the same, the system fails. I might point out that even in the paper world, we've never achieved perfect integrity. Check out files that have aged more than ten years. Check the quality of heat-sensitive paper like the receipts from the store, or ageing, brittle newspaper. We have coffee stains. We have bleeding markers. We have illegible handwriting, bad copies, ripped pages. If we have always lived with some degree of failure, can't we tolerate at least the same level of risk in the electronic world? Of course with data, errors loom large. A slip of a key and thousands of records can be lost.

All systems need some protection against unauthorized access. When I relate to levels of protection, I think of the various online registration processes out there. The general process is to provide your e-mail address, some personal information, and a password. Some verifying information is asked for, such as your mother's maiden name. An e-mail is sent to the provided address, confirming the person and place. When you respond by the link provided, you are registered. It is the registrant's responsibility to keep the password private. As hackers and 'bots have gained sophistication, new verifying elements have been added, such as those funny wiggly words.

I'm fairly comfortable in the e-world, and have registered and shopped all over the web. I've breezed through some registration processes, and wept bloody tears through the painful ones. If you would like to sample my pain, try out the Canada Revenue Agency registration process. You will be asked verifying personal information to a degree that reeks of paranoia. Can I even remember the name of my first love? Perhaps their degree of protection is justified. I wouldn't want my tax refund to go to someone else.

Applying Shel Busey's good-better-best principle, a consumer must evaluate their risk of exposure. If there is no money involved, and the personal information mundane (Harry registered for a fishing license), the level of protection does not need to be as secure.

I rated retention and disposition next, for the longevity of the system and protection of the organization in case of litigation. Contrary to the pack rat's base instincts, it is usually not in the organization's best interest to have random aged records hanging around. Once hit with litigation, all disposals are halted, and these bits and pieces of ancient history become potential evidence. Besides the high cost of managing, cataloguing, and referencing this old information, there may be bits of embarrassing comments buried in the muck. So there has to be a facility to retain records only as long as is needed for business purposes. As information professionals, we should be encouraging our businesses to develop simple retention schedules, easily applied. The simpler the schedule, the simpler the application developed to support it.

Accountability, compliance and transparency all have to do with the human element of managing a system. Here are the systems to make sure everyone knows what their responsibilities are and are doing what they are supposed to be doing. They are all critically important in supporting a high quality information management system. If these principles are critical, why did I rate them last? A consumer is not buying a product to be a watchdog on their own behavior. The assumption always is that everyone knows what they should be doing, and are honorable in fulfilling those duties. Checks and balances are there to catch the exceptions to the rule, the cheaters. Aside from audit logs, the checking of behavior is a matter of good written policy, consistently applied. Don't fault the system for a human failing. Businesses who are dealing with money, personal information, or attractive assets, must have more stringent checks and balances.