Category Archives: Business

Chasing Earned Value

Recently, I was given the task of writing a short (4 – 5 page) paper on the basics of Earned Value Management (EVM), and why it’s useful for medium to large organizations in managing their projects. The idea was to deal with the “why”, not the “how”. I worked in a large aerospace organization for over two decades and we used EVM extensively. It is, after all, a requirement for all government contractors.

Earned Value Terminology

A Plethora of Acronyms Revealed

Having retired from that industry a little over four years ago, I was a bit rusty. However, you can’t have that stuff drummed into your head without it engraving itself fairly deeply on your consciousness. It didn’t take me long to come back up-to-speed. In fact, the biggest problem I had was knowing where to stop. EVM is full of acronyms and formulae (BCWS, BCWP, ACWP, SPI, CPI, etc., etc., etc.), all of which I’m fairly certain are useful . . . when used intelligently. As with most things, how valuable they are depends a great deal on what you’re trying to accomplish, how prepared and disciplined you are, and how well you execute over time.

Now this brings me to a somewhat vexing problem and the reason I’m sharing this. I could swear there’s a good argument somewhere as to why EV is not a very good method for managing a project. However, when I searched for problems or reasons not to use EV, all I could find were lists of where organizations go wrong because they don’t plan properly, they don’t pay attention to detail, or they don’t use tools as they’re designed to be used.

So I have a question, which I am now going to throw out into the aether. Assuming some who read this actually know about, and have experience with, Earned Value Management and maybe one or more of the systems used to facilitate its proper application, are you aware of any reasons NOT to use EVM and, if so, could you point me to a resource or school me on the subject? Thanks.


The Crowd, The Cloud, & Working Out Loud

A couple of years ago, in response to a request from the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce, I conducted (as I recall) twice-monthly seminars on the use of social media for small businesses. They were called “Facebook Fridays” and you’ll never guess what day of the week we held them on. They started out as presentations on various aspects of the technology and the philosophy behind their use. However, after a short while it became clear that people had lots of specific questions they wanted answered. In response, I changed the nature of what I did and started each session off by opening it up to questions.

It worked quite well for nearly a year but, toward the end, attendance dwindled and I grew somewhat weary of doing the necessary preparation and having to show up twice a month. The Chamber found someone else willing to continue the work and I moved on. By that time I was becoming disenchanted with the direction I had chosen to attempt building a useful business and was looking to other areas of endeavor as well.

Recently, I had lunch with the CEO of the Chamber and we decided it would be useful for me to bring back what I had done before, the difference being the subject matter would be a little less focused on marketing and a lot more focused on business model, business process, technology, and cultural transformation. Today was the first of what I hope will be many such events.

I used a vehicle I have not used before to conduct this 50 minute webinar – Google Hangouts on Air. I’m not sure it’s the best way to conduct something like this, but viewership is unlimited and the session is both recorded and automatically placed on my YouTube Channel. I’m embedding the session below. This really was somewhat of an experiment and the subject was quite broad. I’d love to get some feedback. Don’t be shy now.


Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication

 

In an effort to improve my “working out loud” chops, I’m learning from a friend who has begun sharing the text of (not links to) his blog posts on Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as on the blog he’s had for a very long time. <Light Bulb!> This one’s a kind of reverse emulation, as this is something I shared on Facebook first.

Simplicity - Da VinciI have found an interesting difference of opinion on the subject of simplicity versus complexity, but it seems to hang on what dimension of endeavor we’re looking from. From an engineering design perspective – especially wrt products for the consumer market – there’s evidence complexity (think shiny objects) is actually a better seller than simplicity.

It seems to me, however, that da Vinci was looking a little deeper than marketing prospects and was more interested in the aesthetics of design . . . all kinds of design.

So . . . I’m thinking of it in terms of this software tool I am now representing, called World Modeler, which is used to model the elements required to make important and quite likely expensive organizational decisions to better . What we (Quantellia, LLC and I) can do is transform highly complex decision models (involving numerous decision levers, external factors, intermediate effects, interconnections, and even qualitative assumptions) to graphically (and quite simply) show how they will play out over time given certain values. The goal is to render the complex simple, not to simplify that which is complex.


What Is Decision Intelligence?

World Modeler Logo

World Modeler adds a Systems approach to Project Management

In my last post I took a stab at defining, and explaining, the concept of Decision Intelligence. I’m willing to bet you’re going to be hearing a lot about it in the not-too-distant future. So you don’t have to click back and forth, I’ll copy over what I wrote about it in that post:

This is the term Quantellia now uses to describe what it is we do. NB – The term is not “Decision Analytics”; there’s a reason for this. Perhaps it is best understood when one looks at a part of how decision modeling is accomplished. Part of the raw material available today for making decisions is what we call “big data”. There’s an awful lot of attention being paid to the field of predictive analytics, which uses big data as its raw material. We at Quantellia prefer the term predictive intelligence. This is because predictive analytics uses past performance (data) to project trends into the future. We like to think we take the concept a bit further.

While we believe analytics are useful and important, they lack the dimensions of human knowledge and understanding that can more completely predict how the past will play out in the future. A subtle distinction? Perhaps, but I find it a valuable one. Unless we’re talking about the future activity of a machine designed to perform a very limited set of instructions or actions, our activities involve human understanding, emotion, and interpretation. There are times when these attributes can dramatically change the course of an organizational effort, rendering previous decisions moot or, at best, only partially useful or correct.

By providing a method whereby human understanding, intuition, and wisdom can be incorporated into the decision model itself, we believe we can more intelligently predict the future. We are well aware there is no such thing as infallibility. However, we also know the more useful and actionable information and knowledge we have available to understand what has happened − and is likely to happen − the better our decisions will be.

Now, having had some time to think about it – it’s been over a month since that post -and having discussed it a bit with Quentellia’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Lorien Pratt (@LorienPratt), I’d like to add a little something to both the definition and the description of what World Modeler has to offer. Keep in mind, as with many things, perhaps even more so with something truly emergent and reasonably new to my experience, both my understanding and my ability to explain are evolving; developing structure and nuance as I learn more theory and encounter more examples of real-world situations.

I consider systems thinking, or the ability to see systems — and systems of systems — as the most effective way to understand what is happening within any one or more of those systems, as well as have a chance at affecting the outcomes of the ones designed to produce value and realize valuable results or consequences of their workings. The more elements of a system that can be modeled, the more likely you will be able to understand downstream effects of your decisions, and the more likely you are to see the unintended consequences of actions before you take them.

Here’s where Quantellia’s World Modeler™ excels as a decision modeling — and making — tool and enabler. Consider Predictive Analytics, the practice of extracting information from existing data sets in order to determine patterns and predict future outcomes and trends. PA usually returns fairly simple, pairwise relationships, e.g. these customers in this demographic, with this amount of revenue, etc. are likely/not likely to churn or devoting a certain amount of energy to customer retention is likely to affect/not affect customer churn.

World Modeler, on the other hand, allows you to create a highly complex systems model. This means you can look at numerous elements and their interrelationships to see how they work together, e.g. customer characteristics, customer retention efforts, likelihood to churn, total customers, revenues, and even business rules that might have to be taken into consideration if certain levels of activity are reached. Furthermore, when you don’t have data for one or more of these elements, you can use human expertise, the tacit knowledge of your employees or the group to fill in the gaps. When you have real data, if you later are able to gather it, you can then plug it into the model and continue going.

One more thing. World Model is a highly flexible, iterative navigation mechanism. It allows you to predict without complete or perfect knowledge, then pivot and change the model as new and/or different knowledge, information, and data are gathered or encountered. You can do this repeatedly over the course of months or years, whatever’s necessary to help you make the best decisions for achieving your desired outcomes. So success doesn’t depend on long-term predictions. Rather, it depends on navigation and alignment between the organizations systems, processes, and the humans that employ them.

Now . . . having learned all that, aren’t you interested in seeing how this tool works? You can get a free evaluation copy and all you’re giving up is a little contact information. There’s no obligation. Click on this the link to download a fully-functional two-week evaluation copy of World Modeler. Give her a Whirl(d)!


What Did I Say I Did?

Biz Card

You Read it on the Internet, so it Must be True!

Anyone who knows me, knows I am quite the stickler for clarity and correctness in communication. I have proudly held myself out as a Senior Inspector in the U.S. Grammar Police, as evidenced by this card I created only halfway in jest. Actually, the card’s creation (I shared the process publicly) led to a couple of paid editing gigs. I’ve also been called a Grammar Nazi, which has caused me to momentarily flash a slightly sheepish smile, accompanied by a sparklingly demure blush.

Recently, I began a new engagement with a company I’ve wanted to work with for some time, Quantellia, LLC. As of the beginning of the year, I am what they call a referral partner. As such, I am contracted to Quantellia to sell their product, World Modeler™, and their services, which include training, workshops, etc. designed to help organizations make better decisions. In learning about my new venture, I have come across a few phrases that are similar, yet different enough to cause me to dig a little deeper in search of clarity as to their meaning. I want to very briefly share my understanding of the meaning of four separate phrases, each of which begins with the word “decision”.

At first, I thought one of the terms was kind of a catch-all; an umbrella term that encompassed the others. However, I no longer believe that to be the case, at least not fully. Keep in mind, all four of these phrases are relevant to what it is Quantellia and I are doing. At the same time, my understanding is quite likely imperfect and incomplete. As I gain a foothold in the discipline, and become more proficient, I have no doubt my definitions and my understanding will need refinement. 

Decision Science – at first I thought this term was one into which the others neatly folded. However, having done a bit of research, I can no longer say that’s the case. As I currently understand it, Decision Science concerns itself not so much with the process of making business decisions, but with the psychology of making any kind of decision. In other words, why do people make the decisions they do; what are the factors they take into consideration; how do they weigh them; how emotional are people in reaching decisions, etc.

Originally constituted in late 1968 as the American Institute for Decision Sciences, and later named the Decision Sciences Institute, this organization had its first annual meeting on October 30 – 31, 1969 in New Orleans. If interested, here’s a history of the organization written in July of 1989 by the then President, Bernard W. Taylor III. According to Wikipedia, the Institute is a “professional association of university professors, graduate students, and practitioners whose interest lies in the application of quantitative and qualitative research to the decision problems of individuals, organizations, and society. Many of the members of this academic organization are faculty members in business schools.”

It seems that Decision Science is a relatively new discipline. This conclusion is backed up by the history of its presence in some of the Universities and Colleges in the United States. For instance, Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Social and Decision Sciences finds its roots in 1976, as part of what is now the Marianna Brown Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.” The Harvard Decision Science Laboratory opened its doors much more recently. According to their website, they’ve only been around since January of 2009. I couldn’t find the date George Washington University’s Business School’s Department of Decision Sciences opened its doors, but my hunch is it was sometime in the last decade, at most. The Columbia Business School’s Center for Decision Sciences, formerly part of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, appears to be fairly young as a separate discipline as well.

Decision Modeling – Although at best an inexact science, decision modeling can be a highly effective tool in helping an organization better predict the outcomes of its decisions. This is made more likely if the model is comprehensive, based on not merely data and analytics but also the knowledge of the people involved in the organization for which the decision is being made, and if the model is iterative and capable of incorporating newly discovered information and relationships. Furthermore, the structure of the model becomes more and more effective as it accurately models the complex relationships it seeks to help understand. World Modeler™ is capable, despite it’s seemingly simple interface, of modeling highly complex relationships. I’ll post more in the future about its capabilities, including embedding some excellent videos showing what it can do.

Decision Engineering – This is a term I don’t believe we are using any longer to explain what Quantellia does. Frankly, as someone who spent over two decades working with aerospace engineers and rocket scientists (quite literally, on the Space Shuttle Main Engine, Delta, and Atlas engine programs), I’m kind of partial to engineering. I can, however, understand how it may sound a bit intimidating or dweeby to people without my background, so I won’t dwell on it here.

Decision IntelligenceDecision Intelligence – This is the term Quantellia now uses to describe what it is we do. NB – The term is not “Decision Analytics”; there’s a reason for this. Perhaps it is best understood when one looks at a part of how decision modeling is accomplished. Part of the raw material available today for making decisions is what we call “big data”. There’s an awful lot of attention being paid to the field of predictive analytics, which uses big data as its raw material. We at Quantellia prefer the term predictive intelligence. This is because predictive analytics uses past performance (data) to project trends into the future. We like to think we take the concept a bit further.

While we believe analytics are useful and important, they lack the dimensions of human knowledge and understanding that can more completely predict how the past will play out in the future. A subtle distinction? Perhaps, but I find it a valuable one. Unless we’re talking about the future activity of a machine designed to perform a very limited set of instructions or actions, our activities involve human understanding, emotion, and interpretation. There are times when these attributes can dramatically change the course of an organizational effort, rendering previous decisions moot or, at best, only partially useful or correct.

By providing a method whereby human understanding, intuition, and wisdom can be incorporated into the decision model itself, we believe we can more intelligently predict the future. We are well aware there is no such thing as infallibility. However, we also know the more useful and actionable information and knowledge we have available to understand what has happened − and is likely to happen − the better our decisions will be.


 

Mild Disclaimer – I hope I didn’t rattle anyone’s cages too much with these definitions/explanations. They represent my current thinking and, being somewhat of a newbie to the science/craft of decision making as a discipline, my understanding is necessarily incomplete and in a state of flux. Nonetheless, this is a first attempt at explaining some of the concepts that are informing my work with Quantellia and World Modeler™. Consider it an ongoing process.

At the same time, I would like to make it clear that Quantellia has been doing this for approximately eight years and has a track record of helping organizations both large and small to make decisions and manage programs successfully. Dr. Lorien Pratt, co-founder and Chief Scientist, as well as her team, know their stuff and are the biggest part of my team. We are looking for people who have “wicked problems” they need to solve; people who are facing highly complex decisions involving lots of time and money, and for whom the wrong decision could be very costly. If you fit that description, or know of someone who does, you could do a lot worse than contact us for an initial discussion of your needs. We begin with the end in mind and believe we can help. Only by understanding what it is you face can we determine whether or not that’s possible.


Changing My Game

While I have written a little bit about one of the new endeavors I have set out to pursue (here and here), I haven’t really done much to explain what it is I’m doing with decision modeling and my work with Quantellia LLC. I am in the process of writing a post about some of the concepts I’ve been looking into and learning about, but it won’t be ready for a while, as I have more studying and research to do.

I do, however, have the ability to share some of the material I’m learning from, as Quantellia has produced a significant number of videos and recorded webinars. This one is the one I usually send to prospects. While it is the oldest, it’s also one of the shortest and still conveys the essence of what Quantellia, and it’s product World Modeler, can do for a business or organization facing complex decision-making.

So . . . I’m not sure if I actually announced it here on my blog, but as of the beginning of this year I have become a referral partner for Quantellia. In my opinion they have not only a superior product, but a superior mindset regarding how decisions are made. As a systems thinker I am keenly aware of the value in a long-range, strategic, informed approach to deciding how to proceed and to keeping track of what’s happening, always being prepared to take a different path if circumstances warrant it. I believe the people of Quantellia do exactly that and that World Modeler is a tool that makes it much easier to accomplish.

If you have an important, complex decision to make you need to understand how decision modeling works. As Dr. Pratt says on the video, you can model many decisions using paper and pencil, but you can’t do a good job of it without understanding how to “engineer” the decision using more than just analytics and predictions based on them. You need to use “Decision Intelligence”. Quantellia can help, which means so can I. Please let me know if you’re interested in discussing your specific needs. I’d be happy to set up a teleconference to see if we can help. Thanks.

PS – I’m going to share more of these videos here, but you can see them all for  yourself at Quantellia’s YouTube channel, located here.


Do We Fully Understand Diversity?

Dimensions of Diversity

This graphic does a decent job of showing the different dimensions in which we find diversity

What do we mean when we talk about diversity? Merriam-Webster online’s first definition is “the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, etc.” Not bad. Not bad at all. How about the second definition? It’s presented as “the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization.”

I find this second definition somewhat troublesome and simplistic, in large part because I think a large percentage, if not an overwhelming majority, of people think of diversity in a very limited form. In my experience, within organizations — i.e. enterprise-size businesses — race, ethnicity, physical ability, and gender are about the only classifications in which “diversity” is interpreted to matter. This in spite of definitions that suggest far more inclusiveness, like this one from the University of Oregon’s website:

The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect. It means understanding that each individual is unique, and recognizing our individual differences. These can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other ideologies. It is the exploration of these differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment. It is about understanding each other and moving beyond simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual.1

Getting back to M-W’s first definition. Although it only mentions different forms, types, and ideas, it does manage to throw in an “etc.”, thereby inviting us to expand on the inclusiveness of its meaning. Here’s where I’d like to see a little more creative (and empathetic) thinking about diversity.

Diversity Wheel

This graphic shows similar information regarding diversity, but only breaks it out into two dimensions

For instance, a few simple areas in which we find diversity that aren’t usually thought of as important are: handedness, learning style, personal style, interests and hobbies, hair length and type, gregariousness, public speaking ability, etc. Without belaboring the subject, I’m sure I could come up with dozens of other ways in which we find “diversity”. As the University of Oregon’s definition states, “. . . each individual is unique . . .”.

Isn’t it time we started treating people in terms of the larger context of their lives and experiences, rather than categorizing them — somewhat restrictively — in just a few, largely useless boxes? I’m not suggesting the categories we’ve been using are completely useless, merely that they’re terribly restrictive and overly broad. What’s your opinion? There should be quite a few out there. ;)


World Modeler Has Me Rethinking Trade Studies

Although I am not trained as a scientist or an engineer, I did spend over 20 years working with engineers and (yes, Virginia) rocket scientists. I also may not be a professional scientist, but I’m a pretty good amateur one, and I like to think that being around all that knowledge and brain power bestowed on me at least a patina of engineer/scientist. I do know I am loathe to make decisions without a great deal of information and as much knowledge as I can locate about the consequences of my decisions.

One of the methods we used to make engineering design decisions is called a trade study, which is  short for trade-off study. It’s essentially a very simple concept, whereby you develop the desired outcomes, e.g. features and capabilities of a system,  schedules and cost structures, break them down into measurable parts, and compare various ways to achieve those outcomes. The process itself is reasonably simple, but the details can become staggeringly complex and frequently overwhelming.

Selection Criteria

Expertise System Trade Study Selection Criteria

As I learn more and more about Decision Science and its derivatives, I look for examples and analogies from previous experience that I can revisit with newfound knowledge and capability and, perhaps, understand a little more clearly or completely than I did back then. I am convinced Decision Science, which embraces the concepts of Decision Engineering and Decision Intelligence, as well as the use of Decision Modeling to pull it all together, is a powerful tool that too few people know about.

One of the things that occurs to me, and I want to throw this out for your consideration, has to do with the remarkable software tool Quantellia has created, called World Modeler. It seems to  me it is to trade studies what AutoCAD is to hand-drawn blueprints. It is so rich in modeling functionality, it just makes every other tool I’ve worked with seem flat, unimaginative, and terribly cumbersome in terms of what we know we’re facing and how we see problems in today’s environment.

Just after the turn of the century (that would be 2001) I conducted a trade study for a software tool, some of the requirements of which were that it would run on our intranet and  was designed to both locate expertise and facilitate the exchange, use, and capture of knowledge in a form that would remain useable for some time to come. In short, one kind of knowledge management system that was being sought after back then.

The trade study I conducted looked at three products and rated them over about a dozen criteria we were interested in. There was no formal weighting and it was a fairly simple, straight-forward comparison of capabilities. A simple effort based on what we knew at the time and the very palty list of vendors who were providing the kind of service we wanted. In fact, as you can see in the accompanying graphic, there were only three . . . and one of them (Primus) was actually — if memory serves — an internal service of Boeing’s developed specifically for airplane mechanics to share information on their service and repair activities worldwide.

With World Modeler, we would have been able to model so much more than just these paltry selection criteria. We could have included in our decision the aggregate likely impact of things we assumed would happen, thereby surfacing possible misconceptions that some had. We could have included connections to IT, HR, and Communications, thereby giving us a clearer picture of the likely impact on the enterprise of implementing the system.

Frankly, in retrospect — and based on the fact that its use steadily declined after my retirement — I’m still not certain it was a good decision, though I had lots of reasons to believe so back then. So, getting back to my point, I think World Modeler is an incredibly powerful tool for an organization to measure the value of many of its decisions before making them. It’s also useful, in my opinion, in a wide array of situations and scenarios. I intend on addressing many of them as time goes by and I become more versed in its capabilities and more comfortable with my understanding of its value to various organizations and situations. You should check it out.


Serendipity Runs Circles Around Causality

Funny how some things seem — given enough time — to come full circle. Although I have always seen patterns and complexity, as well as the intricacies of their interplay, I wasn’t introduced to the concept of Systems Thinking until I worked on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program at (what was then) Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne division. That introduction included being exposed to the thinking of Dr. Russell Ackoff, a recognized authority in the field. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with him, twice in Philadelphia, prior to his death in October of 2009.

Shortly after retiring from Rocketdyne in 2010, I was introduced to Dr. Lorien Pratt of Quantellia, LLC, who showed me a tool her organization had developed called World Modeler. I was excited at what I saw and hopeful I could somehow become involved with Dr. Pratt and her team. However, that was not to be at the time. I was provided the opportunity to more thoroughly investigate the tool, but I had made a conscious choice to refamiliarize myself with Apple products (after over two decades of living in the PC, DOS, and Windows environment) and World Modeler was not written to be run on a Mac. Furthermore, the PC laptop I had wasn’t powerful enough to do the math and drive the graphics required for running models in real time. I was hosed.

Decision Intelligence Technologies

Decision Intelligence Technologies

Finally, about six months ago I was contacted by Dr. Pratt, who asked me if I wanted to assist in writing a paper that described an effort in which they were involved with the Carter Center. I enthusiastically said “Yes!” I’ve done a couple of other things with Quantellia since then but, beginning a few weeks ago, I took on an entirely new and (for me) exciting role as a referral partner.

Right now I’m spending a fair amount of time learning Decision Science in general, and the process and tools Quantellia uses to help organizations understand complex interrelationships and make better decisions based on that understanding. As I’m doing this I watch videos, read blogs and articles, look for original research, and work on presentations that will help me educate others in this important approach to business and organizational operations.

So . . . here’s the full circle part. As I’m looking for definitions, or explanations, of Decision Science and its origins, I Google the term. The first two hits I get are to The Decision Sciences Institute and to Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Social and Decision Sciences. The third link is to a Wikipedia article on that same Department. In that article, there’s a link to Decision Science, specifically. However, it redirects to an article on Operations Research, which is where Systems Thinking originated. At the bottom of the page is a list of researchers under the heading “See Also”. One of the researchers, unsurprisingly, is Russell L. Ackoff. To me, that’s a combination of serendipity and years of working on better understanding how an understanding of systems can work to the benefit of any organization; actually, anyone.

I’ll be writing a lot more about Decision Science, including my understanding of some of its constituent parts, Decision Intelligence, Decision Engineering, Decision Modeling, and the power and value of our tools, World Modeler and DEEPM (Decision Engineering for Enterprise Project Management). I hope I will be able to clearly explain what it is we have to offer and, more importantly, what everyone has to gain by understanding it. The value exists independently of me or even Quantellia. We’ve just been at it for a while and can apply and employ the discipline both efficiently and effectively. Stay tuned.


Google Glass and ALS

It’s been said the eyes are windows to the soul, and most of us can recognize much from looking into another’s eyes. We can sometimes communicate intricate thoughts and feelings through our eyes. Imagine, though, they were your only window to the world; the only method by which you could communicate, with anyone. Further, what if you were in a position where it was nearly impossible for you to initiate a conversation and, therefore, unless you had a way to get someone’s attention, you had to wait for others to anticipate your needs? Worse yet, once anticipated, that other person would have to use a method requiring them to initiate nearly every aspect of the conversation.

This is precisely the situation for thousands of people suffering from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), MS (Multiple Sclerosis), TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), or any one of several other conditions that result in the inability to move and talk . . . or write . . . or use sign language.  All they can do is acknowledge your greetings or answer your questions with a wink, perhaps a nod. How would you communicate?

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet someone in that position. His name is Ismail Tsieprati, and he is one of the longest-surviving sufferers of ALS, having had the disease for thirty years. I first met Ismail’s caregiver and wife, Cheryl, at a local Chamber of Commerce networking breakfast. She had recently left a long-time position in corporate training and was looking to establish a web-based business as a training consultant. She asked if I could help her promote her business through social media, and also suggested she help turn some presentations I had done into webinars. I agreed, and we worked together for a short while. As life would have it, before we could finish she was offered a full-time position in corporate training, and I was coming to the painful realization I had been chasing a pot devoid of gold.

We trekked off on our separate trails, as casual business relationships often do, but we remained in occasional contact, through Facebook and comments Cheryl would make in response to one of my sporadic blog posts. One of the several projects I had been working on was editing and proofreading a book – Age of Context – authored by Shel Israel, a longtime author and tech journalist, and Robert Scoble, an authority on bleeding-edge technology and startups.

Toward the end of the project, I was given the opportunity to invite a number of friends to read an early, limited release of the book. In exchange, I asked them to provide an honest review on Amazon.com. Since Cheryl had been one of the people to occasionally comment on my blog, I thought of asking her to read and review the book. She was an excellent prospect because she is not a techie and readily admits to being somewhat befuddled with technology.

It turned out to be a good choice, in more ways than one. Cheryl was one of the few people, of the many to whom I sent a link to the early release, who took the time to write a review—a thoughtful, useful review at that—not merely a quick stab at providing an obligatory yay or nay. She also was hit between the eyes with some of the stuff she read about. Particularly relevant to her was Google Glass. Shel and Robert had devoted an entire chapter to it, and there were numerous references as well throughout the book. I’ll let her explain, in this excerpt from a chapter of the book about their 30-year journey with ALS she and Ismail are working on:

“The greatest fear for people living with ALS is there will be a day when they become “locked in” – so completely paralyzed in the late stages of the disease that even the simplest of muscle movements have been stolen from them and they will be unable to communicate in any way with the outside world.  Those who are “locked in” survive in complete isolation.  They can see and hear everything around them, comprehend everything, think complex thoughts, experience joy, sorrow, and pain, and yearn to communicate with their loved ones and caregivers – to express their feelings, their discomfort, and their desires, but they are hopelessly trapped inside their bodies with no way of communicating with anyone.  For Ismail and me, as well as for others with ALS and their families, overcoming communication barriers and fighting off the “locked in” syndrome is a lifelong battle; an absolutely essential one.  After all, Ismail loves to talk, and he has a lot to say.  He’s not going to let ALS or anything else shut him up!”

                            – Tears, Laughs, and Triumphs: A Thirty-Year Journey with ALS

What struck Cheryl was the knowledge that Glass could recognize eye movement. She was very excited about the possibility of making eyeglasses with eye gaze technology available to Ismail and people in similar situations. Current eye gaze augmentative communication technology involves much larger and more complex systems, which require careful placement and frequent adjustment. Cheryl wanted to talk about it, and I wanted to know more. We met for coffee and, after a bit of discussion, I told her I’d like to write about their situation. We decided I should meet Ismail to better understand his world and I was invited to their home.

Ismail and Stephen Hawking - August 14, 1992

Ismail Tsieprati with Stephen Hawking, Peninsula Hotel, Beverly Hills, California, August 14, 1992
Photo by Lynn Klein

I had mixed emotions about the upcoming meeting. I was to meet Ismail for the very first time, and I was somewhat nervous about the prospect. I had never met someone with ALS, and mostly knew about it through the story of baseball legend Lou Gehrig and one of my favorite theoretical physicists, Steven Hawking.

Cheryl had invited me to lunch. After meeting Ismail and talking to him and Cheryl about this post, I sat down at the dining room table while Cheryl went into the kitchen briefly to dish up the meal and bring it out for us to enjoy. In doing so, she left me sitting alone with Ismail. The silence was deafening. I felt extremely uncomfortable, as I was struggling with how to approach this unique (for me) situation. I had never communicated in this fashion before and it was awkward.

I hadn’t learned the process Ismail and his caregivers use, which involves what they call a “spelling chart”. Ismail can initiate communication in only two limited ways. One is by grinding his teeth, which ensures getting Cheryl’s or his other caregiver’s attention, provided they’re within earshot. The other method is to modulate his breathing so as to trip the alarm on his ventilator. This works at a greater distance than tooth grinding, but likely is more stressful on Ismail.

Once Ismail has someone’s attention, he communicates by using his spelling chart. Everyone who communicates directly with Ismail has memorized this chart, which appears below. Since the chart is in everyone’s head, there is nothing to carry around, set up, or adjust. It’s a quite simple and efficient system, but it’s time consuming and requires patience. This is how it works: The alphabet is divided up into six rows.  Row number 1 is “A-B-C-D,” row number 2 is “E-F-G-H,” and so on. The person talking to Ismail calls out the number of each row of letters until Ismail blinks to select the number of the line containing the letter he wants to use. The person then calls out each letter in the selected row, until Ismail blinks again to select the letter he wants. The person then starts all over again, calling out numbers of rows, then numbers or letters, as Ismail builds words, then sentences, then paragraphs. If Ismail selects number 7, he’s telling the person it is the end of a word or a paragraph.  If he selects number 8, he wants to give the person a number or a date. People can also ask him “yes” and “no” questions. One blink means “yes,” and two blinks mean “no.”

Spelling Chart used for communication

Spelling Chart used by Ismail and his caregivers for communicating.

There are other methods of communication available to people who cannot speak or use their hands. For example, years ago Ismail wrote a screenplay by using an infrared switch attached to his glasses that he operated by blinking his eye.  The switch triggered the selection of letters and numbers on an alphabet grid displayed on a computer monitor. The design of the chart was similar to the one Ismail and his caregivers use today.  Scanning technology highlighted letters one at a time to allow the user to select one. The program had word prediction, which made sentence-building faster, and a voice synthesizer that could speak words he typed or had programmed into the system.  The software program and voice synthesizer were similar to those used by Stephen Hawking.

Since Ismail’s eye blink may eventually grow too weak to be a reliable method of communication, eye gaze is the technology that provides hope for the future for him and others like him.  He has been practicing with an eye gaze system that is a communication device, speech generating device, Windows XP computer, and environmental control unit, all in one. The system allows Ismail to select letters and numbers by gazing at them for a programmable pre-set number of seconds. He can also select icons or images that trigger a voice synthesizer to speak words and sentences for him. The system also has the capability of accessing Windows and the worldwide web. But Cheryl says that Ismail becomes tired after practicing with this system for only a few minutes and grows frustrated trying to navigate around its screens.  It takes time to set up the equipment and reposition it properly every time he moves from one place to another, so the device is bulky and time-consuming to use except for those times he’s sitting in one place.  Although it’s possible to attach the unit to his wheelchair with a special bracket, the machine still needs to be moved out of the way during transfers, then readjusted again.

Enter Glass. What if it had the same total eye-gaze control capabilities that Ismail’s bulkier, less user-friendly equipment has? What if a complex communication, web-surfing, environmental control system could be worn in a pair of eyeglasses and operated by the movement and gaze of an eye? Since Glass contains a built-in display, there would no longer be a need for the much bulkier external devices that are currently used.

“My eye gaze equipment can be slow and tiring,” Ismail says.   “It is difficult and time-consuming to use. I hope there will come a day when technology will improve for many people like me who are paralyzed but want to continue to talk to the world. I hope that day comes soon.”

The question now is not if, but when. It’s also a question of priorities, I suppose. I’m not sure if Glass has the capabilities Ismail and others require, but it surely won’t be long before they’re realized. The other question is, are there developers who have both the skills and the desire to create such an app. Also, Glass is not the only device that can provide the necessary functionality. In addition to wearables like Glass, there are companies working on interpreting brain waves. Emotiv is one of them and they are working on a device called Epoc that currently provides limited capability. Right now, they are concentrating on game playing and some forms of gross manipulation, but it shouldn’t be long before their system (and others like them) become more sophisticated. They are also licensing an SDK for people who wish to write their own systems.

If you have any interest in this kind of thing, there are some golden opportunities out there. Perhaps there isn’t a fortune to be made, but the possibilities of helping tens of thousands of people live more productive and engaged lives despite severe disability are immense and will be, I have no doubt, enormously satisfying.


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