An ideal environment for research

October 5th, 2013

I’ve been very fortunate to work in a number of research institutions over the years. These are places set up specifically for people to work on new discoveries and developments – in my case, mostly in engineering, though it applies equally to many other fields. I really, really love good research institutions, and this evening I’ve been musing on what would make an ideal one. Here are my thoughts.

Firstly, you want the right people. It is, after all, mostly about the people. You want people that are interested and committed, and who have a varied range of skills and experiences. You’ll want several flavours of researcher from different fields, and then to support them with enthusiastic and helpful support staff. However, don’t employ too many – I think that about 200 people is the largest practical size. Why?

Firstly, geography – you can fit 200 people and all their stuff into one sprawling building, or a cluster of interlinked ones. You really don’t want to be having more than one building, or worse a split site with half the institution several miles down the road. This results in two institutions and not one. Most people can get to know 200 people and remember their names (mostly) within a year or two, given the right environment. Any bigger than this and you start to think of your colleagues as functions (“Purchasing”, “Geophysics”, “IT Support”) rather than as people, which really hinders collaboration.

If possible, you should provide opportunities for people to have casual conversations. These provide the vital cross-connections between people working in different offices. The key to ensuring casual conversations are two concepts from the world of retail – footfall and dwell time. Footfall is the number of people who pass through a space. If all your offices radiate from a central lobby, that lobby will always have high footfall as people move about the building, making it more likely that two people will meet in the lobby. However, if your offices are arranged into corridors by department, with the corridors interconnected at the central lobby, most people will only move about within their departmental corridor and the central lobby will be mostly quiet. In this situation, you can improve the chances of people meeting by increasing the dwell time in the central lobby. Put a coffee machine, a tea kettle. or a water cooler, and some chairs and tables in the lobby. People passing through will be encouraged to stop by, and people wanting coffee or water will come to the lobby deliberately and hang around. Increased dwell times mean more casual conversations.

Another great place to have casual conversations is in the canteen. You should definitely have a canteen – you don’t want your staff to disperse at lunchtime and not talk to one another, or worse to sit in their offices eating packed lunches whilst surfing the web. You should offer a choice of various types of food. You should allow people to eat their packed lunches in the canteen if they’d rather bring their own. You should have only just enough chairs and tables, so that people have to sit with other people that they don’t know when the place is busy. I think that having rectangular tables that seat four, that can easily be moved around, should be encouraged – these tend to then form a few long refectory tables for the gregarious types, whilst also providing quieter tables elsewhere. Make sure that the food is good and not too expensive. Make sure your catering staff are enthused and motivated – and perhaps even consider employing them directly rather than contracting out. For bonus canteen action, serve breakfast snacks mid morning and cake in the afternoon to encourage people to go, eat, talk and discuss their work with one another. If possible, make your canteen a through space, with multiple entrances to different parts of the building, so that it forms a natural meeting-place.

Now, the introverts reading this will say “but I need a place to think!” which is indeed very true. People need space to think and concentrate at times, without distractions. So, I’d recommend that you provide a number of tiny “carrels” – little quiet rooms with a desk and a chair and plenty of light – that people can book to use when they need a small, private space to work. Providing access to carrels means that you can continue to put your staff in shared offices – perhaps 3-4 to an office – which makes for better group-working than individual offices.

You’re also going to want meeting rooms of various sizes. Again, make these bookable by everyone, rather than reserving them for particular departments.

Now, on to the thorny topic of support staff. There’s always a reticence to employ support staff because they’re a “fixed cost” and seen as “not contributing directly” to research output. This is a fallacy. You have brilliant researchers, you want to enable them to do stuff they’re good at and give the stuff they are lousy at to other people that are better at it. Speaking as an engineer, I would strongly recommend that scientists are discouraged from building their own equipment without help from engineers! Huge amounts of time and resource can be wasted while people reinvent wheels or build Heath Robinson apparatus because they’re unaware of techniques or equipment that come from other fields. Likewise, good technicians are worth their weight in gold. Good mechanical technicians can make things out of bits of metal in an afternoon that would take me a week. Good electronic technicians can wire up cabinets neatly, and solder delicate components without damaging them. Employ good technicians, pay them properly, make them feel valued.

Give your research staff a briefing on how to use the support departments effectively. This isn’t rocket science, but a surprising number of people don’t get it.  The simple rules for dealing with support departments are:

  • Be polite.
  • Ask nicely.
  • Explain clearly what you want, and when you want it by.
  • Be reasonable.
  • Say thankyou afterwards.

If you do this as a researcher, you will find that your support staff will go the extra mile to help you when you find yourself in a difficult situation. If you take them for granted, they’ll get jobsworthy.

As a manager, please don’t ask your support departments to charge internally for their time. This causes two levels of evil – firstly, the researchers go “how much!?” and then try to do the support task themselves badly, or circumvent it by some other method to avoid paying. Secondly, your support departments become less helpful, because the response to “can you help me with this?” becomes “what’s your charge code? it’ll cost you!”. By all means have your support staff keep job logs, so you can see which individuals/departments are making heavy demands on support departments if you think they are being abused.

Information is the lifeblood of research. You need to know what is being done elsewhere, and also crucially what has been done in your institution in the past. So, you need access to books, journals and conference proceedings. A lot can be obtained electronically but you probably will still need a library to keep physical media in. This also provides another useful quiet workspace. Please have everything in some sort of electronic catalogue or portal page so that staff can easily find out whether the institution has access to the particular paper they’re looking for. Consider partnering with a university library to buy information services from them, or to allow your staff to have “visiting scholar” access if required.

Almost as critically, make sure that you retain information within your institution. Knowledge that doesn’t get published in peer-reviewed journals should nevertheless be held onto within an internal publishing system. I’m strongly in favour of the BBC’s system for doing this, which is called the Technical Note. TNs can pretty much contain any content you like and be of any length, though most are 10-30 A4 pages. When a member of staff writes a TN, it is signed off by their Head of Group and circulated to all the other senior managers and anyone else involved in the work. It is also archived and catalogued. The distribution of TNs ensures that information flows between departments, via the managers, and crucially provides some helpful validation for the researcher in question when senior people meet them in the corridor and say “Oh, I found your TN very interesting!”. TNs are also a convenient, measurable deliverable thing that results from any piece of work – a few hours of exploratory research, a new proposal, the outcome of a brainstorm – all these things can be captured, archived, and distributed around the institution.

Provide great facilities, the best that you can afford. Make sure someone take responsibility for looking after them – research labs often suffer “crisis of commons” effects where valuable equipment gets damaged through lack of experience and training. Provide “general” lab space, and make sure that you avoid departmental turf wars over lab and bench space. If you are constrained for lab space (and who isn’t?), I suggest a leasing system – a bench is “leased” to one project for a given period (weeks or months) and the lease is then reviewed when it “expires”. If the project is continuing, a new lease can be issued. This avoids the problem of dead projects squatting facilities that are needed for new ones. Some sort of “warm storage” facility would be nice – then you can put equipment into store that may not be used for a few months, rather than have it sit there gathering dust in the lab.

Administration is necessary and helpful, and admin people should not be looked down upon as lesser beings. On the other hand, you should not allow your administrators to dictate business processes for their own benefit! Make your purchasing and budgeting systems streamlined. If possible, provide regular updates to budget holders about how much money they have committed from their budget to purchase requests and how much has actually been paid out against invoices. Most accounting systems I’ve seen only keep track of payments and not budgets, so nearly every manager I’ve ever worked for has run some sort of parallel accounting system in Excel to work out how much budget they have left. This is a waste of everyone’s time – build the budgeting into the purchasing system and make it work for everyone. Train your research staff in how to interact with the admin and business processes, and make sure you have guides to common procedures in a staff handbook or on an intranet.

To summarise – hire awesome people, help them work together, with excellent facilities and well-thought-out processes. Produce excellent research. Profit!


“Principles of Scientific Management”

October 1st, 2012

Summary for those not wishing to read 1000 words: a book published in 1911 and mostly concerned with the performance of men doing backbreaking physical labour continues to have a disconcerting influence on management today.

If you go to a bookshop, or surf through the pages of Amazon, you’ll find a colossal number of books for businesspeople. Most of these are about leadership and productivity – how to be better at your job and (often) how to get other people to do better at theirs. This blog post is about the grandfather of all of these books – “The Principles of Scientific Management”, published in 1911 by Fredrick Winslow Taylor.

Taylor was an American, a mechanical engineer, and had worked his way up from the shop floor. His book still shapes a lot of corporate thinking today, and yet very few people I meet have ever heard of him. Here’s a short summary of what he has to say.

He argues that the interests of employer and employees are in fact aligned – both should be interested in the continuing prosperity of the company: the employer in terms of dividend, the employee in terms of wages. He also points out that good management should help each employee find the work that best suits them, and help them develop their skills. However, his main point concerns the problem of “soldiering” as it was called in the US: workers in factories trying to do as little work as they can get away with during their working day. This practice was particularly widespread at the time – a culture developed amongst factory workers that greater productivity per worker would result in some staff being laid off (on the basis that the amount of work required was fixed) and that those that were able to work quickly should slow down in order to protect the jobs of those that could only work more slowly. Taylor points out that supply and demand economics generally means that higher workforce productivity results in lower sale prices and increased sale volumes, meaning that demand for the product actually increases, making more work, not less. In this regard, he is almost certainly correct! Taylor raises his voice against the trade unionists of the time, who were largely responsible for curtailing the productivity of their members. Of course, there was also an issue of fairness: if all workers are paid the same, why would you work harder than your colleagues?

Taylor goes a step further and notes that most workers could work faster if they needed to, but they try and conceal from their employers exactly how fast the job really could be done…

In the main part of the book, Taylor notes the lack of standardisation within most trades. This is logical – skilled workers at that time learned through apprenticeship, by copying an experienced master. Each had their own methods that they passed on to their apprentices. Taylor points out that in a factory with thousands of workers, standardisation of the best method must take place in order to achieve the best productivity. So, how do we do this?

This is the essence: study the methods using the tools of science – observation and experiment – to determine the best method. Teach that method to every worker, and train them to do it well. The management should “heartily cooperate” with the workforce to ensure that the work is done according to the method. Finally, “the management take over all the work for which they are better fitted than the workmen” ensuring “an equal division of labour between management and workforce”. By this last statement, Taylor means that all of the planning and organising of the work should be taken on by the management (whereas traditionally the craftsman worker would have done it himself). The idea here is to remove from the workforce the responsibility for determining how best to do their work – instead, they should do as they are told by the “planner” or manager.

Taylor illustrates his point by describing the work of pig-iron handlers in a steelworks. The pig iron handler “stoops down, picks up a pig weighing 92lbs (that’s 40kg), walks for a few yards and drops it onto the ground or on a pile”. He says “the work is so crude and elementary in its nature that the writer firmly believes that it would be possible to train an intelligent gorilla so as to become a more efficient pig-iron handler than any man could be.”

Taylor then goes into a long explanation of his “experiment” with the pig-iron handlers. He essentially determined that by having a manager stand over the workforce with a stopwatch, telling them when to work and when to rest, and (crucially) by paying the men more to participate in the experiment, he improved their productivity dramatically.

Most of the rest of Taylor’s book is taken up with the details of exactly how much work can be extracted from manual labourers. This is early ergonomics stuff – how big a shovel should you use to shovel coal?

At the end of the book, Taylor counsels against the blunt application of his system, warning that many workers will resent a system that dictates their work so precisely unless there’s something in it for them, in the form of higher wages and a good relationship with management.

However, viewed with the benefit of a century of hindsight, we can see why Taylor’s book was a success: his approach reinforces the prejudice of the management that workers are merely interchangeable parts in the vast machine of the firm. So much of his methods relates to managing teams of men doing backbreaking physical work like lifting 40kg iron bars (to give you an idea, under British safety legislation any item weighing over 25kg is considered a two-person lift) or shovelling iron ore. These jobs are better done by machines – and indeed they soon were. Whilst Taylor correctly grasps the importance of the idea of the “best way” to do a job, the idea that determining this best way is solely the role of management is a pervasive and unhelpful myth. Where Taylor is right is that the system of work is the responsibility of the management, and that providing the most efficient system possible is best for the company. But improvements to the system need to come from both the management and the workforce, with the workforce being motivated through encouragement and not through fear.