Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.

Expect the unexpected

Step-changePosted by Dan Engström Fri, February 03, 2012 00:46:08
You know how I’ve blogged about visualising texts in order to better communicate the message? I know – it’s something architects have been doing with spaces for ages and ages. My point here is that I want to communicate R&D results to colleagues that aren’t trained to bring out the gist of a long text. Visualising my long text – showing and explaining images in person – will give them a sporting chance to understand my point. They certainly don’t have to agree with it, but if we are to discuss the research we’re doing, my colleagues need to understand what I’m doing. From understanding we can work with the results, give and take comments and opinions and make them happen on site. This should be important for any industrial researcher. Is our job mainly about writing reports or are we actually making a difference?
The main concepts of this blog in Wordle format.

Together with some other nerdy types at work, I have started learning. It’s fascinating stuff and good fun. We’re basically testing tools that are readily available and seeing what comes out of them. Getting the hang of it is a learning process that I’ve only just begun, but the basics are easy to grasp. Here’s a test or two.

Let’s assume that I want to describe to you the contents of this blog without you having to read it all. Well, we could visit and enter the URL. After playing around with the layout and colours, we would end up with something like the image above the (better resolution here). You'll note that the sizes of the words are directly linked to how often they appear in the blog. Even without me explaining it in person, with a glance you'll see what the blog is all about.

We could also copy the whole text of the blog, stroll over to and paste it. Wordsift shows us the main contents of the blog, lets us zoom into whatever word we like and investigate its meaning, and even suggests multimedia for it. Try it for yourself. Copy-paste this blog post into Wordsift.

Or maybe I want to summarize a great book I’ve just read: Measure What Matters To Customers – Using Key Predictive Indicators by Ronald J. Baker (Wiley and Sons, 2006). It would probably take me a while to bring that message home to someone who hasn't read the book. Writing a summary would certainly take me quite some time, and you would probably not read it anyway. But by writing down the key words while reading and then pasting them into Wordle, I got this (better resolution here).
A whole book in one image. My take on Ronald J. Baker's Measure What Matters To Customers.

That took me less than ten minutes to do. By showing that while talking about the book, I can easily give you a basic understanding of the author is trying to tell us. And how extensive the description of the book will be up is up to you. We’d talk very briefly or for as long as you want. As opposed to a written text, where I decide how long time you will spend on my summary, this image makes the time you spend on the message your call, based on your available time and your level of interest.

Even creating multimedia by the use of web 2.0 tools is not that hard. There are plenty of resources out there too. Try this for starters. So let me give you a final example of contents in unexpected format. As content, I used my poem Up and Down the Piano (available on page 4 in this document).

Up and Down the Piano
My fingers walk left on the piano keys
They sail the breeze on the Chinese seas
To where notes are really low
To a place I like to go
To the far left is where my granny’s house is at
I fight some scary notes on my way there,
take that, D flat!

On to the other end, far up top, almost out of sight
From the deeps of left to the very right
After a climb towards the mountain sky
A walk where notes are silver fountain high
To my other granny’s house,
there’s no one finer I wager
And to get there, I walk a C minor
and then G major

According to, if you can type, you can make films. So I did. This is an xtranormal rendition of the same poem: Text in video format. Quite cool and unpredictable, way easy, available and completely free. I have as yet no idea what to use that particular tool for, but hey – I’m just learning so far. Even as an industry researcher I have been in the business of writing reports, but am now heading into unknown territory - making a difference. Expect the unexpected.

Images: the main concepts of this blog and Ronald Baker's book, illustrated in Wordle formats, made by yours truly.

Pull on this.

Step-changePosted by Dan Engström Thu, January 05, 2012 01:24:21
Let’s assume you’re done with a research project or a development of some sort. You now have a data set for your colleagues to understand. It might be the interaction between actions in a product development process, the number of sick days for employees in different business units of your company or the connections between your key performance metrics. It might even be the connections between the characters in Les Miserables, which is what they did in the graph below.
It doesn’t look like much, I know. And just showing a static version of it doesn’t do it justice. It’s interactive, you see. You get to manipulate it. It’s so cool and opens so many opportunities. Since my blog medium is very basic, I’d like to you to do something for me. I want you to leave my blog for a minute or two and play around with it (link here). Let the cursor point to a spot of colour and see which character it is. Click on a spot of colour with only a few strings attached and pull. Then click on one with more strings attached and pull on that. Go do that and then read the rest of this post. Knock yourself out. I’ll wait for you here.
OK. Have you done it? No cheating. It’ll only take you a minute. If you work where pure evil decides what you can and cannot view on the web, play with it at home. Seriously. This is amazing stuff. Go do it. In the meantime, I’d be happy to play you some elevator music.
Now have you done it? Good. Cool, wasn’t it?

It’s a force-directed graph. It shows you the relationship between a set of points and how manipulating (yes, pulling on) a certain one will affect the rest. Pulling on one with many connections will affect the whole data set. Pulling on one with only one connection will do very little. The width of the possible uses for this I can only begin to imagine.

This force-directed graph template is just one of many data driven documents available for download at D3.js, a small, free JavaScript library for this sort of graphs. D3.js is meant for people like you and I to find the perfect templates to use as pieces in our own jigsaw puzzle. You pick a suitable template for a data-driven graph, let it read your data from a source file (which can interact on command with your original research results data if you like) and then you get an image that was meant to be manhandled. It was designed to be used by an active group, not looked at by the lone ranger.

At the page for the Les Mierable graph, you’ll find the source file to be a certain miserables.json file. As of yet, I have no idea what format that is in or how to fill it with my own information, but I am sure going to find out.

So imagine a workshop where you use this to show the results of your project. Will your audience be interested? Will you make them curious? Will you make them write down the graph URL and go back to their office in order to be the cool guy that shows it off? Hell yes.

These graphs give us the tools to take responsibility for the implementation of our project results. They let us quit being consultant researchers that take the jobs thrown at us, that send reports and move on. They allow researchers to take active part in business. That’s not a bad thing.

And here’s the key. When we have collected some form of data, which is a key ingredient in R&D, we look at it from different angles, write the text and then develop suitable illustrations to suit the text and data. Very respectable, but it doesn’t make anything happen in the minds of business people.
I suggest industrial researchers turn this established procedure upside down and do the exact opposite – develop the project from the graph. Work on what can be illustrated in a meeting room, instead of trying to make everything you’ve worked on come across. By all means write a report too. Just remember that if we have to present a report for the people in the room to be able to decide whether to take any sort of action, we’ve likely failed. Our R&D project is dead in the water and a good deal of the investment wasted.

But then again, maybe you don’t write shelf warmers. Your reports are so frequently used by others that you want to stick to sending people a 37-page pdf document in the mail beforehand.

No. I thought as much.

Well, if you don’t yet believe in the power of the image as primary medium for collecting and examining data, go to this post at the blog and have a look around. Check out, say, how the world is feeling right now through and you’ll be ready to write a blog post just like this one.

Credits: Force-directed graph from d3.js. Images from Flickr Creative Commons: bored by roy costelly, Muzak dial by Ryan Harvey and Turn The Whole Thing Upside Down by Melissa Gray.

Leave your mark

Step-changePosted by Dan Engström Mon, December 26, 2011 01:07:45
Implementing industry research in construction. We've been doing poorly for years. Arguably, one problem is that when we look for solutions, we stay inside the paradigm that created the problem in the first place. It is time we changed that. It is time we made our mark on our sector. It is time we introduced something unexpected.
Before you ask: No, I don't know how. Not yet. But in anticipation of my New Year's resolution to change the world I have collected a handful of methods for getting us started. Feel free to download the list here as a Christmas gift from me to you:What happens if we deliberately set out to develop a breakthrough? Directly in the new year, my colleagues and I are starting down the road towards the answer to that question. We want to know if the we can make a radical improvement of our R&D in construction.

Arguably, something similar will be happening over in your hunting-grounds too. Because when the best option really only is the least bad one, it is high time to create a step-change. Let's help each other out with it.

Image: Strange Things Are Happening These Days! Flickr CC by Koshyk.

Let’s change the world forever

Step-changePosted by Dan Engström Fri, December 23, 2011 14:57:21
Let’s change the world forever. At least the way we develop and implement new knowledge in construction. It can be done. We even have a plan to back that up.

Here’s the thing. We’re doing it all wrong. Have done for decades. Small wonder that our colleagues in construction are looking at us researchers like we were from Mars. Our plan is to scrap the report.The issue

Here’s the thing. My job is industrial research. That means I do research and development in order to help my colleagues improve their business. I’m not primarily trying to make good business for my own unit of engineers but for the units that actually build stuff. You know; houses, bridges, that sort of thing. My main job is to do research that help us understand how we develop and package building products, wherein I mainly work with how we cut costs while still improving the product quality.

Much of the empirical knowledge we use in our research comes from a number of short-term development projects. We analyse a problem here and test small developments there. Every year, people like me produce quite a substantial number of reports and articles from such projects. Let’s have a show of hands, those of you that have you read them.

No. I thought as much. That’s my whole idea here. Research is presented in the format of text and images on paper. That’s how we develop, disseminate and deconstruct the logical argumentation. Because the very reason for research is to produce new knowledge. In sharp contrast to this, the reason for industrial research and for those short-term development projects is the improvement of someone’s business. Some researchers create new knowledge because a knowledge gap invites their curiosity to explore it. Some researchers, like me, work to fill that gap because filling it means that their colleagues will make better business.

Even though in our sector they converge over time, there is a big difference between the two. There is a difference in how you design your research, how you measure success, and most of all in how you use the results. The issue, which is my main subject today, is that there seem to be very little difference in how we present the results. We are researchers, so we send pdf documents in the mail and hope to make a powerpoint presentation after which we leave a pile of reports and papers behind. We do the project and then think about how to tell people about the results. That is no good.

Redesign your R&D

We design our projects after what should be included, like the good researchers we are, not after the recipients can be expected to take in. At that crucial meeting where we present our project results, we go through the memo and report that we sent and unfortunately, no one has had the time to read it beforehand. We stand there with our reports and are faced with the task of getting a complicated message across understood quickly, in real time. We have the knowledge and the understanding we need to convey the message quickly, but we are not prepared for presenting it quickly.

I tend to say to my students that they should not write so that they get all information into that email or presentation, but so that everything they write is taken in by their audience. Imagine if we do exactly that with our industrial research projects, and even take it a step further. Imagine if we design these projects to contain only that which can be taken in during three minutes. If we do that, we need to go to demonstrations instead of reports. It is likely we can only use media like images, video clips and models.

Let’s take Lego as an example of a useful tool. A new product or process can easily be mimicked in Lego. Like a real World Cup football match or the concurrent design and assembly of the Harry potter Hogwarts Great hall, brick by brick. Maybe we want to demonstrate a functioning Lego sniper rifle or a Lego domino row building machine. Have a look at one or two of the links above. I think you'll agree that videos make it easy to convey even complicated concepts quickly.

Lego even helped us with the virtual building software tool we need; the Lego Digital Designer and made their own business based on it (an on the creativity of their customers), Lego Design By Me. Our job is to be prepared for using that kind of media. We only need to be creative in choosing the best possible way to convey the new knowledge we gained in under ten minutes. We should aim for no less than everyone dropping their jaws.

Cut to the chase

Even complicated concepts can be conveyed in a very short time, so that it is possible for the recipients to make an assessment of what it would mean to them to adopt it. Except understanding your recipients needs (which is a different blog post), the key is that you decide the medium very early. You work in that medium and with that medium in mind for the workshops and dissemination of the new process. You bring the model or show the clip. You will be surprised by the interest you will get from having used an unexpected medium.

Now you’re working like you were in advertising; you are making your colleagues understand the essence of your message quickly, think about the potential of it and maybe even want more. You’ve turned a difficult meeting situation around to a great opportunity. You have active participants who actually have understood the gist of the project results. Because the gist is all they need at this point. You can now enjoy the opportunity to discuss the reason why you did the project in the first place: the business that should come out of it.

I know that you are bound to have any number of documents in writing on your servers. Don’t throw them away, silly. I mean scrap the report as the main carrier of the information. Those documents on the server are not the ones that you bring to the meeting. Leave them there. They are backup, they contain the knowledge needed AFTER that crucial meeting.

You need the written reports and data when the decision has been made that you should go on with the next stage of developing the new process or product. But you do not need them to introduce your results. You do not need them to make that first impact that is so crucial to the implementation of your hard work.

Scrap the report.

Images, Flickr Creative Commons: Editing a paper by Nic's events, Papers by mortsan, Lego generations by ansik