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Archive for March, 2012

Researching Research…

Posted by sanstechbytes on March 31, 2012

In a world of rapidly developing technologies, the citizens that shape up the technology landscape require a combination of at least a two or more skills:

a)  Hard (Technical) Skills
b)  Soft Skills (Leadership, Motivation, Emoti. Maturity, Communication etc.)
c)  Ability to acquire new skills.

I strongly believe that the third skill  above, is significantly enhanced by research and have experienced it myself. Given the complexity of nature of interaction of components, different subsystems and speed with which the technology landscape evolves or changes, the ability to acquire new skills to relate to that landscape, is a key attribute for anyone.

What is research after all? We often hear the word ‘research’ being used in R&D organizations and academia, and also not so often in Service Organizations. In a very literal sense, in R&D organizations and academia, research mostly refers to the first-class research that’s driven by the the sheer new idea, and the efforts converging to a well-defined charter and eventually, resulting in filing of a patent, in publications, in research journals etc. It’s mostly used when there’s a talk about the work based on some innovative idea. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it, In a very literal sense, when the work done during research draws attention of or is submitted to, the body constituted by a group of people registered as experts in the that field, that have the authority to approve or disapprove that work. In Service Organizations, it’s used in the context of prototyping task with lot of unknowns to start with, in the context of troubleshooting an issue or improving performance of a system. One of the myths, is that, research is an activity with no realistic goal or objective.

As Uday Khedkar of IIT Bombay, puts it in one of his presentations on the topic: “Research could involve any of the below or none of the below activities in our world like – Building a new device, Writing a new software, Repairing a device or Debugging a software, Drawing a conclusion from a lot of data, Proving a theorem, Formulating a theorem”. With different meanings attributed to the word ‘research’,  research, in essence, is a game of innovative ideas that are significant. The significance of ideas could lie in any of – Beauty, Utility, Enhancement of Knowledge.

The ingredients of good research are:
a) Innovation
– An idea that changes one’s behavior contrary to invention that doesn’t change one’s behavior. Idea is the most generated entity in the world. But, if doesn’t change one’s behavior, although it
embarks a new way of thinking and highlights a new way of building things, it remains as an invention.

b) Aesthetics
As Henry Poincare puts it, “Scientists study science not because it is useful, but because it is
beautiful. Here I do not talk about the beauty of appearance or beauty of qualities . . . Here I talk about that profound beauty which comes from a harmonious order of parts . . .”. Take painting or any design activity.
c) Other important aspects viz., Completeness
– Rigour
– Empirical demonstration
– Effective communication

Rigour removes imprecision and adds concreteness. It makes an idea very immune to personal interpretation. Empirical demonstration is through an evidence acquired by observation and experimentation. It opens up new channels for innovation. At an abstract level, it’s about capturing the interaction of  systems with each other; and drawing conclusions based on consistency in the type and nature of interactions. Humans beings can be considered to be made up of some ‘systems’ as well!  When research is not effectively communicated, the innovative ideas, research is not termed as real research by the field.

In Service Organizations, the rigour is often lacking in the way people deliver software, when they give excuse of client deadlines, to hide their inability to learn to work with rigour for delivering a mediocre quality code or software.

When we talk about the process of research, we talk about parameters like The Spirit of Inquiry, Breadth vs Depth, Ability to Abstract and Modularize, Moving from Confusion Phase to start with to Conviction Phase in the end, Research in Academia vs. Research in Industry,

The Ten Commandments of Creativity in Research
1. Seek extension of an earlier known solution
2. If you have a solution, find a problem
3. Find out the right questions to ask
4. Seek generality by removing specificities
5. Seek symmetry by testing for duality
6. Observe patterns in ideas
7. Distill the essence, refine your ideas
8. Distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant
9. Build levels of abstractions and migrate between them
10. Mix deep thinking with routine mechanical work.

Research is often seen as a major source of ideas and by implication, of innovation. One can  internalize ‘research’ nature with practice. Research makes a researcher, a better learner. Although grooming this nature is a leadership attribute for one, to build efficient and quality teams and build robust and long-lasting systems, it’s also of paramount criticality to develop the skill or the ability to switch to different mindset in order to thrive in a dynamic nature of business, especially in service organizations.

Recommended Reading:
1. An Article to clear up some Misconceptions about the nature of Research
2. Richard Hamming on Research
3. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Creativity and Flow

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