tisdag 24 juni 2014

On creative environments (part 1/2)

My sabbatical at UC Irvine is coming to an end. This week marks the end of my kids' school year and  consequently also the end of me showing up in the lab that has been my regular work environment since January. Sitting in an open office environment instead of in a room where I can close the door has been a new experience to me. This blog post contains some reflections, some mild critique and a comparison of the physical and social research environment I have been part of for half a year versus the one I belong to back home at the Royal Institute of Technology. First some observations of lab habits (which also includes my own habits):

- The lab director works from home. His lives nearby and for the most part drops by the department (only) when he has a specific reason to do so. Such reasons can include weekly lab meetings, advising ph.d. students, other meetings, lunches, talks etc.
- Only a minority of the people who belong to the group and who work in the lab show up on a daily or semi-daily basis. Except for me, two or three other persons show up regularly (i.e. most days of the week). People work from home a lot.
- I usually arrive to the lab between 8.00 and 8.30 in the morning since we get up 6.45 to get the kids to school (which starts at 8.00). I'm the first to show up 80-90% of the time (I don't work well from home). I almost always begin the day by picking up a coffee on the way and then spend an hour sipping coffee and reading a book. During the spring, my choice of books has often gravitated towards academic "tomes" that has taken a lot of time and effort to read. Taking the time to read serious stuff, well, that too has been an important part of being on a sabbatical for me!
- Some master's students hang around in the lab now and then to work together in (most often) group projects. A few master's students have also participated in some of the weekly meetings. I have to say that they are a lot better at inviting and integrating master's students into research groups here that we are at my department (note to self: we should think more about this at my department and in my research group).
- People have spontaneous and scheduled meetings in the lab all the time. I would say that the lab is silent about half of time that I'm there (and I'm alone there most early mornings). I initiate conversations relatively often. My own meetings are for the most part conducted right there, in the middle of the lab through Skype (e.g. everybody hears only my side of the conversation (oftentimes in Swedish)). Everyone in the lab has - as a general survival tactic - a private source of music so as to shut out noise. People are often very concentrated at what they do in the lab (e.g. more or less oblivious to what goes on around them).
- People usually don't have lunch together and people never have communal coffee breaks ("fika"). Some might schedule a meeting with two or three persons over a cup of coffee at the café right next to our building (for example a ph.d. student meeting up with his/her advisor), but there are no regular coffee breaks that are open for everyone and that function as a social mixer.
- I have had far-ranging intellectual conversations in the lab, but for the most mostly only with one person; Six Silberman. I've also had great meetings/conversations regularly with professor Bonnie Nardi and to some extent with professor Bill Tomlinson, but these have always been scheduled in advance.
- The one-hour weekly meetings always follow the same format; there are usually 6-8 persons present and we go around in a circle where each person talks about what he/she did last week and what he/she will do the next week.
- My colleagues in Sweden are on the job (at the physical workplace) a lot more than people are here. They might be gone (lectures, meetings), but they for the most part come in the morning and leave in the late afternoon/early evening. People bump into each other a lot more in Sweden despite for the most part sitting in separate private room (or at times in shared rooms with two or sometimes three or more persons). Only a few of my colleagues only show up at work when they absolutely have to and while not exactly frowned upon, it is also not encouraged by "management" who want people to for the most part be present/available.

My problem with the UCI setup is that it is not very conducive to spontaneous, unplanned interaction between group members. While people meet regularly (for example at the weekly meetings), I can't really see that the set-up of these meetings or that the larger "social rhythms" of the group moves the group forward to become a more cohesive "we" over time. To me it instead feels like the group for the most part consists of a number of individuals who move in parallell and where some of these individuals sometimes (or often) cooperate with a few selected others - but where most don't. While individuals can be brilliant, I can't really see that the group over time can or will become brilliant as a group, and, while individuals can be creative, I can't really see that this is a creative environment or that the the activities of/in the group will lead to the creation of a creative environment. This is therefore very different from what we are aspiring to do in my own research group at KTH Royal Institute of Technology (MID for Sustainability, MID4S). We have together set up a relatively large number of goals for the group for this year (2014) and several of these goals relate to our ongoing attempt to meld a number of individuals into a great research group - with shared goals and a shared vision.

It's not that I object to how the group here is set up. One of my personal goals during my sabbatical has been to write a lot of academic texts. Had there been a lot of interesting ongoing conversations around me, I would have gotten less time "on my own". I would have gotten less time to concentrated on my stuff - but I might have gotten a lot more new ideas. I've also skipped the vast majority of talks at the department during the spring in order to get more time to read and to write. There is of course a trade-off between what can be accomplished in a limited amount of time, but I personally think that people (professors, ph.d. students; in both Sweden and here) in general spend too much time doing their own thing (perhaps behind a shut door or away from the lab) without necessarily progressing as much as they would have if they instead had spent some more time discussing things (or discussing their things) with sympathetic, helpful others who are familiar with their work.

Not satisfied with just establishing the facts (above), I have been thinking a bit more about why things are the way they are here. It seems to me that people here are more compartmentalised and that most professors and ph.d. students (and master's students) belong to one group (lab) - and one group only. At my department each person has to belong to at least one research group and many belong to two groups. Some people thus float between two groups and cross-pollinate and convey information between these groups. It feels like there are less of a hard limit around each group back home and more of a "membrane" that people can float closer to or pass through (or pass in and out).

The structure here also seems to be more pyramid-like with a professor (or two) at the top, perhaps a post-doc or two (or a visiting professor) below, then a bunch of ph.d. students and then another bunch of master's students at the bottom of the pyramid. The base (master's students) changes quickly and will look quite different from one year to the next. The middle will shift relatively quickly too - if I came back to visit the lab two or three years from now, there would for the most part be a different set of ph.d. students here. I haven't figured out how long it actually takes to complete a ph.d. here (there are so many exceptions). It seems to most often take 3-4 years and that is definitely shorter than in Sweden - not the least because our ph.d. students have excellent job security and social benefits and many choose to start a family (have children) during their ph.d. which then easily can stretch to 6 or even 7 years (4 person-years to do the ph.d. + some (optional) teaching that stretches the ph.d. "project" out to 5 years + a baby or two).

This more pyramid-like structure differs a lot from the composition of members in our sustainability team at KTH. There is a list of members on our team homepage and while that list should be updated, the team has - according to that list - 17 members:
8 professor (assistant, associate, or full), 3 ph.ds ("post-docs"), 5 ph.d student, 1 researcher.

A better way to gauge who belongs to our group is to instead look at who has actually showed up at our team meetings. I looked at our blog and found eight blog posts about team meetings during the spring term (there has been more meetings, but they didn't make it all the way into blog posts). Adding myself to the list of group members despite not having been to the team meetings lately, the MID4S team currently (spring 2014) consist of 14 persons:
7 professor (assistant, associate, or full - Daniel, Åke, Teo, Henrik, Cristi, Cecilia, Ambjörn), 2 completed ph.ds ("post-docs" - Elina, Hannes), 4 ph.d student (Malin, Björn, Hanna, Ulrica). Note to self: we really should recruit more ph.d. students to our group and at least invite students who write their master's thesis in our area to our meetings!

The composition of our group is thus very different (much, much more academically top-heavy). This must surely have many consequences for group dynamics and many other factors. One example is that most people in our group have know each other for quite some time. A lot of people have know each other for 5 or 10 years or longer. These long-term relationships could in a best-case scenario be leveraged into possibilities of doing and accomplishing different things compared to a group with a higher throughput of members. I personally think that the effect of a larger proportion of longer relationships and stronger ties for the most part must be beneficial for the group (including for "junior" members who joined recently) if (and only if) these ties can be leveraged into... something (see my next blog post on this topic). Having know each other "forever" could of course also create a stagnant environment where few new ideas make it into the group and this is naturally something we have to be aware of and guard against, but that's what exploration and research and going to conferences or a sabbatical is all about...

I went to UC Irvine because I wanted to work with a group of people who are "my people" (with shared concerns and shared research interests). While I have accomplished that goal and feel that I have forged relationships that will endure, I also assumed that I would become part of a vibrant environment with a high volume of exchange of exciting new ideas. That has actually not happened to the extent I had imagined beforehand. Since I'm on a sabbatical, I have all the time in the world. It's all too easy to forget that other people are usually very busy - having deadlines and courses and meetings and more deadlines, e.g. the same as would be the case for me back home at KTH. I am first and foremost thankful and grateful to my hosts for welcoming me and giving me the opportunity to come to to UC Irvine - despite for the most part often being very busy. All in all, both me, my wife and my family have had a totally awesome time here!

Summing things up academically - after having been here for half a year - I feel a certain sense of hope (perhaps even hubris) that there are no reasons whatsoever for why our MID4S team at KTH could not accomplish, or even surpass the achievements of the group I'm visiting here at UCI within the next few years in terms of academic impact, i.e. in terms of the quantity and quality of papers accepted to prestigious academic journals and conferences, successful applications for research funds etc. It feels like MID4S is taking off right now (this, next academic year). My visit here as spurred me to aspire to get our group to do great things when I get back to Sweden and during the next academic year!

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