Monday, April 11, 2005

Passionate about research?

I don't normally bother with the whole blog-rolling thing. There are plenty of smart people out there discovering and linking interesting things far more assiduously than me. An exception today, though.

Shelley recently linked to Kathy Sierra's creating passionate users blog. I've been reading for a few days now. Great stuff! I haven't read any of Kathy's team's books yet, but I certainly plan to. If they're anything like the quality of writing in the blog, they should be very, very good.

A recent post on Kathy's blog was You and your users: casual dating or marriage?. I won't repeat the stories here (go read them for yourself, you'll enjoy the experience), but the take-home is that making your users passionate about your product turns them from just customers to active advocates for your business. Great! I can really see how that applies in a commercial context. But. But I work in research. Corporate research, to be sure, not academia, but nonetheless I've been wondering how Kathy's ideas might apply in a research context. Because the essence of an academic-style research training is to be dispassionate. To take ideas, pull them apart with the surgeon's tools of statistics, peer-review and analytical cynicism, and lay them out on the slab for inspection. Reports written in the third-person passive-voice, striving for the measured tones of the respected sage.

In one way the comparison is clear: when we try to get other parts of the company interested in the ideas we're working on in the lab (what my friends at BT Labs call down-streaming), I can see that our internal customers could get passionate about the research we're pushing. Even then it's slightly different because the stuff in the lab is usually not finished. There isn't a great pair of skis to try out, though we may have a completely new and half-finished shoe clamp (NB I know absolutely nothing about skiing, except that it involves gravity in some way). Worse, often what we're actually asked for is a set of slides to summarise our work. I don't believe that anyone ever got passionate about a PowerPoint slideset. Ever.

But even more of a puzzle is how to get passionate in peer-reviewed research. Or even if that would be a good thing. I have to say, though, that most of the conferences and workshops I attend, even the good ones, are pretty dreary things. Maybe it's the format. Maybe it's the type of people who attend. Maybe it's some kind of cultural meme we all get innoculated with. But I often wonder how much value the delegates really get from such events. Especially when, as is all too common, the audience sits mutely through a presentation, says little in the Q&A, and then carps in the corridor afterwards about the poor assumptions the presenter made.

It certainly is possible to get excited about research ideas. A number of times I've had the mind-expanding experience of reading a paper and getting a real sense of new avenues of exploration, or products, being opened up. It's a rush, but it doesn't happen very often, more's the pity. Something to work on.

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