The role of social media in astronomy

I’ve been pondering what role social media should play in an observatory’s outreach and marketing efforts.

If you exist and serve customers, people expect you to have a web site. These days, they also expect you to have a social media presence as well. At a minimum, astronomy facilities must have an online social media presence to publish their latest news bits, press releases, pretty pictures and so on. This is the bare minimum we must do. Additionally, some observatories also engage users in contests for telescope time, tours of the facility,and other such promotions. These additional efforts offer some slightly enhanced return, but there is still more to be gained. Social media offers us an opportunity to develop messages that target specific stakeholders.  The interconnected social aspect of these media streams will help us naturally deliver targeted messages to the right groups.  We can also therefore targeted advocacy for the observatory depending on what the current needs are. This apporoach can help activate passive stakeholders and help neutral stakeholders become more vocal advocates.

Social media can also be used to gather public opinion. What are people saying about us? Which of our messages are they sharing? This information can provide valuable feedback to evaluate our general performance, reputation, and the effects of our communications.

While these additional considerations offer even more return than the basic press release approach, there are even larger gains to be had from a fully developed social media program. The real gains from social media come from taking advantage of the unique  power of social media – the social aspect of it.

The real power of Social Media lies in tapping into its unique social networking aspect.  Image from

The real power of Social Media lies in tapping into its unique social networking aspect. Image from

People turn to social media not primarily to get news from companies and organizations that interest them, but to engage socially with people and develop relationships with both old and new friends1. The next step in gaining from social media is to find ways to help people connect with each other that provide a benefit to your organization. Following an article I recently read in the Harvard Business Review by Moktaj Jan Piskorski (Social Strategies that Work, November 2011), firms can extract more from social media by developing strategies that get them something of value by helping people build or establish their social connections if they do some free work for the firm. For example, a credit card company might offer elite customers a discount shopping day at a store of their choice with the amount of the discount dependent on how many friends (with the same kind of credit card, of course) the customer gets to shop along. In this case, the company would be reducing their customer recruitment costs and increasing sales by offering users the chance to connect with old and new friends by getting them to recruit new customers. The elite customers get something of value (a discount) and an excuse to make new and old contacts while they recruit more people to join them for their day of shopping.

So, how does this model apply to astronomy? What social connections can we offer our community that will inspire them to do something of value for us?

The GLORIA project, is one example. The GLORIA team is building a network of small telescopes equipped with useful instrumentation and offering them free to the public. By investing in the hardware and developing communities of users with scientific interests in using this hardware, GLORIA gets science output for free. They don’t have to hire any researchers, write any observing proposals, or pay any page charges. They actually get the public to do work (deliver science) for free. GLORIA gets free labor; its online users get access to hardware and a community to explore with. GLORIA gets the power of social networking.

How can we tap in this potential to both increase the number of engaged users and get free labor in the process? First, we need to find ways to attract and motivate users. What do people want? What need besides providing basic information can we fulfill? Second, we need to encourage people to form identities within our platform. Allowing users to take on specific roles engages them more fully and promotes a real interactive community. Third, we need to channel their attention to tasks we want done. Maybe it’s analyzing data, measuring performance metrics, developing growth plans or strategic visions, advocating or fund-raising, or who knows what else. Next, we need to incentivize users to do these tasks – using the social needs we identified earlier. We can provide recognition for achievement, methods to bring in new friends and contacts, and/or the sense of being involved in the thrill of scientific discovery, for example. All these things could be used to fill users’ needs and incetivize them to do the desired tasks. Finally, we need to monitor the results, being careful to resist attempting to control them completely. Sometimes it may be best to let the community evolve, even if it ends up on a different path than we originally intended.

Any ideas on what we try first?

1Although I did recently attend an excellent seminar on social media which said people actually DO get their news from social media. However, they don’t go looking for news; they expect news to find them. That is, they expect their social network to provide the news that is important to them. So, organizations who want to get their news out still ought to be thinking about how to create a social network that will naturally propogate its news to those most interested in receiving it.

Scot is not a terribly active social media user, but he does see the significant potential in it for many companies and yes, even observatories. He is still taking classes and learning lots of other real world techniques that can be applied to improve the business and management of astronomy – if only he had more time to write about and practice them! You can follow his occasional posts on twitter via @GScot.

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Give yourself time to think

Why is it we schedule time for meetings, but not time for thinking?

Take a look at your calendar. If it’s like mine used to be, it’s a series of scheduled meetings with some blank space in between for more meetings to eventually be scheduled.  As I said in a previous post, meetings are (or at least should be) real work, but there is some work you sometimes have to do by yourself.  Like thinking, for one.  We scheduled time for meetings, we sometimes schedule time for doing, but we rarely schedule time for thinking.

As a result, I now look at my calendar a little bit differently. Instead of viewing it as a list of meetings and times available for meetings not yet scheduled, I now directly schedule in times for doing and thinking along with times for meetings.  I regularly block off 1.5 days a week for working – with no meetings. I also schedule an hour a day for thinking.  This time sometimes ends up being used for doing, but I do often use it for thinking.  I try to use the time to think about how I might apply some business world technique or strategy to astronomy.  I think about our observatory’s strategic needs and how we might better address and fulfill them.  I think about our competitive environment and how we might better connect with our stakeholders.  More often than not, these hours result in some obvious, quick action items that result in making progress on long term objectives that would not normally see the light of day in a calendar filled with meetings and slots for potential meetings.

I still don’t have enough time for doing as I would like, but these brief thinking sessions help my doing time be more productive and they help me better formulate tasks I end up delegating, helping them both start off on the right foot and ultimately contribute to a larger strategic goal.

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Some thoughts about commitments

No, this Blog is not dead. I think about it often; I just don’t have as much time as before to update it. I started taking some remote classes (what was I thinking?) and they are pretty much devouring every spare second I have, so this blog, along with most of the rest of my life, suffers.

I am learning lots of neat new things that apply to astronomy management, though, and I am anxious to get them up here eventually. One concept I am pondering now is the use of hard commitments in astronomy. In the real world, a hard commitment is used to signal your intentions to competitors. It is designed to get them to act on your intentions and as a result, it is characterized by three things: visibility, understandability and irreversibility. For example, if you make a press release saying you are going to expand production, that is visible and understandable, but fairly easily reversed. On the other hand, if you invite the press to witness the unveiling of your new $26M factory, that adds a level of irreversibility to your signalled intention. Your competitors are going to have take your increased capacity into account when they plan their strategies.

There are lots of applications of this concept in astronomy management. For example, if a manager asks you to join a new working group to address issue X, or join the team of project Y, you may be wondering if it will be worth your while to do so. Will your eventual solution to issue X ever get listened to and implemented? Will project Y ever really happen? What if, instead, that manager told you that project Z was killed so that project Y could get have the resources it needed to succeed, or that the chair of the new working group is a new employee whose full time duty is to solve issues like this? Wouldn’t you be a little more convinced that your time would be well-spent? Showing real, hard to reverse signs of commitment to a project helps others commit to it as well.

You can apply this concept as well to claim scientific capability ground in telescope operations and instrumentation. I still think we should be cooperating more with each other, in general, but there are also appropriate occasions to clearly signal your intentions if you want to make something actually happen on a desired timescale. A hard commitment is one way to do so.

Stick around, and I may some day write about how a hard commitment helped make a dream happen at our observatory.

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Is being “busy” a good thing?

Ask people from Gemini how they’re doing and the response you’ll most often
hear is “Busy”.  This response begs the question: Are we really busier than
other observatories, or do we just like to think we are?  I suspect it’s a
little bit of both.  (I’m picking on Gemini and exaggerating a bit here,
but the same thoughts apply to many workplaces, I’m sure.)

It’s true, people are busy, but it’s more than that. Being busy is part of
our culture. There’s an advantage to that. If you’re busy, you’re working
hard and progressing your company.  On the other hand, if you’re busy, you don’t
have time for everything on your plate; you’re more free to select items
you want to do and discard the rest.  If you’re busy, you don’t have to
take the time to think about long term goals and strategies; you’ve got
plenty on your plate that’s due now.  If you’re busy, you don’t have to
take the time to communicate and explain your plans; people who need to
know will know; the others don’t need to be distracted.

Clearly there’s a tactical advantage to having a culture of being busy.
Yet, as I hope is obvious, there is a strategic price to pay for this cultural state
as well.  Some tasks don’t get done and there can be little control of
which ones do and which ones don’t. Tasks that seem important now often see
more activity than tasks that might make the observatory a better place in
the future.  Sometimes easy tasks that can be done now get worked on before
harder tasks that have a later payoff.  People stop informing others about
what they are doing and there is therefore less alignment and buy-in for
some activities than there might otherwise be.   People who facilitate
communication and joint problem solving through significant social
interactions  can find themselves under-appreciated and often leave to find
a place where they can work to bring people together as a team.

There is clearly a cultural reason for Gemini’s busyness, but is there
another cause? Are we simply doing more with fewer people than are other
observatories?  Gemini’s staff size is larger than those of other
observatories by some measures, comparable, by others. Our queue system and
need to support two facilities on two significantly different locations
might justify some increase in staffing compared to other similar
facilities.  As a result of the UK pullout from Gemini, we are reducing our
staff size and this effort will certainly mean some people are asked to do
additional work while our transition to a leaner operating state is
underway.  So, there may be some truth to the idea that our staff is
imply too small, but I want to consider what alternative explanations might play a role as well.

It might also be that Gemini staff are simply doing (or attempting to do)
too much.  Comparing Gemini to other facilities, though, it’s not obvious
that we are doing a whole lot more than anyone else is. Yes, there’s the
queue and our dual-site support need, but this effort is pretty much
accounted for in our staffing levels. (Although it is possible we aren’t
staffing as much as we need to do in these areas.)  If we assume, though,
that we’re not staffed too small and we’re not doing more than other
observatories, is there another possible non-cultural cause for our

One key difference between Gemini and the other 8-10m telescopes is its
ownership.  While the users of the other telescopes are largely dependent
on that telescope, Gemini’s communities either have access access to other
comparable facilities or a small enough percentage of Gemini’s time that
they don’t feel they own the observatory.  With no direct sense of
ownership of Gemini, the external Gemini community is less involved with
the observatory than they might otherwise be.  The fact that our governance
is complicated and areas of relative responsibility can be poorly defined,
makes it even more difficult for Gemini users to know how to contribute to
the observatory, even if they wanted to.

Gemini’s procurement structure also inhibits our community from feeling
ownership of Gemini.  We end up partnering less with our community members
than we do working as a customer of their services and products.  As a
result, our development efforts require more internal resources than they
might if we had more in-kind support form our community.
New instrumentation for Subaru and Keck, for example, are often initiated
by the universities that use the telescopes – not normally the case for
Gemini.  Instrument teams for the other telescopes often support instruments
in operation and write reduction software for end users – all things Gemini
usually does itself.

The cultural aspect of Gemini’s busyness has a good side – a dedication to
the observatory and a willingness to work hard. If we could keep that
aspect of our culture and add long term strategy formation, efficiency
improvements, and community, communication, partnership, and engagement,
then you have a pretty exciting observatory.

In addition, to better leverage our strong community, the next partnership agreement
could be structured with in-kind contributions and direct in-kind
community investment in Gemini, rather than cash contributions and a Gemini
obligation to distribute development money back to the partners in the same
percentage as it was contributed, as we do now.  This approach would help
build a sense of community ownership of Gemini and will allow more work to
get done for Gemini, but not directly by Gemini employees. This approach
will also engage our community more fully with our staff and encourage more
communication and strategic thinking.  Gemini can lead its class, but we have to not only modify our culture of busyness, but find better ways to leverage the utility of our community.

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Resource Management: Focus on the workers, not the managers.

Inspired by the Norm Smith talk I recently heard (see previous post), I purchased his book Got Progress? and highly recommend it. I now have words to describe some of the unease I’ve been feeling about my workplace’s current project management and resource allocation approaches.

The brightest light bulb went off when Norm bold-faced (and I’m paraphrasing): Build project management structures for the people doing the work, not management. In particular, Norm revealed that he rarely found a resource-loaded project plan very useful and integrated master plans even less so. Why? Part of the reason, is these things are usually done for management, not for team members.

Where I work, we spent a lot of time developing a system to let management know if we have enough resources to do the projects we want to do. We’ve evolved from rough estimates to complicated spreadsheets to an online project task and resource tracking tool to a interwoven combination of all these tools. We have reports that go from project managers to a resource review committee to upper management. In short, we have a very complicated system that ensures resource estimates and allocations are properly conveyed from project mangers to upper management. The problem is, the average employee would agree with Norm Smith in saying it’s great the management knows (or at least, thinks they know) where resources are allocated, but wouldn’t it be nice if the project team members (also called Project Implementation Specialists, in PMBOK speak, I just recently discovered) also knew where they were allocated?

We’ve built a very details system of resource tracking mechanisms for management, not for project members. We have tools that tell management that every staff member is fully allocated to the necessary projects, yet when I talked to several random project members recently, they admitted to not knowing everything they are supposed to be doing. Clearly, the complex system derived to let management know that everyone is properly allocated to the projects to which they should be allocated, is failing to make the resources themselves aware of what’s expected of them.

Crazy idea: develop the system so that project members each have a clear understanding of what their tasks are and let over-allocated resources (conflicts) rise from below. If employee-X knows what tasks are expected of him and doesn’t have a problem getting everything done on time, what more does management need? Similarly, if employee-Y realizes she can’t do all of her project work on the schedule required, she can raise her concern upstream without complicated structures and calculations put in place to detail her exact level of loading.

Our goal is to get the work done. It does no good for management to look at an integrated master plan and see that everyone is assigned the right percentage of time for the right tasks if the employees themselves don’t know what’s expected of them. Build a system that makes it clear what is expected of them (and that system would ideally be tailored to the individual, team, and particular project), and you have a system that has buy-in, accountability, and self-policing. If the work is getting done and conflicts are identified and highlighted by those doing the work, management can focus on only the conflicts that arise, and the project implementation specialists can concentrate on getting their projects implemented!

Speaking of project implementation specialists, Scot found Norm Smith’s book so useful partially because it clearly represented real-world experience with project management. Textbook project management, like the PMBOK, for example, provides a fine framework for project management, but needs to be implemented while taking account of real project complexities and not treating each project as if were the ideal project. Like the frictionless pulley, Scot suspects the idealized PMBOK project doesn’t exist.

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Additional Random Bits from the NASA PM Challenge, 2012

The annual NASA PM Challenge is a really good meeting. The speakers are generally excellent and the material covers a wide range from project management fundamentals to the latest great and innovative management ideas. The ratio of outstanding talks to duds is excellent at this conference. Following up on my last post about Norm Smith’s talk at this meeting, here are some additional random ideas, lessons, and thoughts I noted from various talks at the conference:

  • Be wary of SPI: it does not care if the work performed was on critical path or non-critical path items. Your project may be more or less on track than SPI indicates.
  • For typical projects, CPI does not change significantly after 20-30% of project completion. If the CPI is not good at that point, significant intervention is likely needed to correct it.
  • Good PM risk reduction technique: ask “If I gave you some $, what risks could you reduce for how much?”
  • Listen to learn.
  • Think “I get to” vs. “I have to”.
  • Contracts need to acknowledge and provide for iterative and collaborative risk management.
  • Contracts should support and provide for strategic as well as tactical collaboration.
  • How many technical innovations from the past 20 years do you use daily? How many management innovations from the past 20 years do you use daily?
  • Sometimes you have to cast away past successes to reach new ones.
  • No one comes to work wanting to do a bad job.
  • Adapt to your team, not v/v.
  • Starting a new online platform? Seed it with content before going live. People won’t come back if there’s no point the first (few) visit(s).
  • Take your job seriously; don’t take yourself seriously.
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Managing Cost, Schedule, and Scope is not enough.

Project Management 101 teaches the need to actively, and simultaneously, monitor and manage a project’s cost, schedule, and scope. Project Management 102 might add risk management to the list as well. These ideas have become fundamental tenets of project management and have been around for decades, yet projects still fail. Are project managers simply not learning these lessons and not actively managing this crucial project management trinity? Or, perhaps, is there something more that’s needed?

I certainly agree that a project must manage its cost, schedule and scope. I’ve even written about the importance of doing so, but this alone, as countless delayed, over-budget, and failed project have told us, is not enough to ensure project success. A project must first be addressing the right issue. Is the result of the project what is needed? A project also needs a project sponsor who can provide support when needed and work internal and external stakeholders to develop a consensus for and enthusiasm about the project. Additionally, a project needs overall stakeholder involvement and buy-in. And finally, a project needs good change management. Change will happen; it’s how it is handled that can make or break a project. Without properly addressing these items – project purpose, sponsor and stakeholder involvement, and change management – even proper managing of cost, schedule, scope and risk will likely still result in a failed project.

Norm Smith, in a recent talk I attended, (you can read more about Norm Smith and his ideas at his website:; I definitely recommend watching Norm’s brief video via that link), broke this list down (and improved it) as:

  • Situational Awareness
  • Enfranchisement
  • Boundary Maintenance

Situational Awareness is understanding where you are in the project, where you started, and where you are going. Schedules and project plans are often the tool used to create this awareness, but they don’t always work for that purpose and they are often used more as a means to themselves, and not as a tool designed solely for situational awareness. Norm stressed the importance of using a schedule to the detail needed to provide the right amount of situational awareness. You don’t always need each work package broken into half-day tasks to successfully manage a project and maintain situational awareness.

Enfranchisement is fairly simple – getting your team and stakeholders (including the project sponsor, which I had separated out, above) united in the project mission. This task is crucial if you are to efficiently deliver the right products and overcome unexpected surprises thrown at you along the way.

Boundary maintenance is akin to scope management and change control. It is making sure the project does what it is supposed to do, not more, not less. It is also responding appropriately to the change which is inevitable for most projects.

In this new light, managing cost (ex., Earned Value Accounting), schedule (ex. Work Breakdown Structures, Microsoft Project), and scope are simply tools used to create the situational awareness and boundary maintenance that are the real core components necessary for a successful project. Don’t let these tools control the project. They are not the essential tools for a successful project; they are simply tools, and not the only ones available at that, that may help you create the real elements needed for project success.

If you’re interested in project management, especially as it pertains to large projects, Scot highly recommends the annual NASA Project Management Challenge meetings. Some of the best talks he’s ever heard have been at these meetings.

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On systems, processes, and paperwork

Lately, I’ve come across several proposed new systems, processes, and forms —  all developed to address an assumed real, but unstated need.  In most cases, I could see a useful purpose for the new system/process/form,  but it usually wasn’t provided to me explicitly.  I didn’t know if my interpretation of what this new proposal was all about was shared by those directing it so I often feared I would be wasting my time by doing something that wasn’t what was actually wanted.

Developing a common framework and tools for management tasks makes sense, but there must be a system behind them, else you just end up creating a bureaucracy instead of an effective, efficient system.  I see several things to address before implementing a new system, process, or form:

  1.  What is the purpose/goal? What problem are you trying to solve?
  2. Who is your audience?
  3. What are the requirements needed to fulfill your objectives within your target audience?
  4. What are the implementation costs?
  5. What are the costs of non-implementation?
  6. Given all the above, is implementation the right approach?

There’s nothing terribly new here, but the items above make a good checklist to go through before starting a new formal process.  If you don’t address the first three points, you may end up spending a lot of time doing something which propels you no further down the road.  In addition, if you don’t evaluate the costs of what you’re proposing against the current incurred costs in light of your available resources, you risk spending too much time on something that is ultimately not going to improve your situation enough to be worth it.

Large projects need a fairly broad framework in which to operate.  They also, typically, staff a project office sufficiently to help produce and support this framework.  While smaller projects can also benefit from this same framework, typically the cost of doing so is prohibitively high.  So, smaller projects must think carefully about what it can do, what it can’t afford not to do, and ignore the things it can afford to not do.  Going through a similar checklist as above ought to help decide into which category a proposed new system belongs.  (Actually, I’m sure this same approach works for large projects as well — we are all resource-starved these days.)

Speaking of checklists, Scot found the book “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande a very good read and a great strategy for helping to ensure routine tasks are done correctly every time. Packing for trips, as an example, got immensely easier once checklists got involved.

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