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I use a simple 3-tier filing system for efficiently handling paper files at my desk and to help minimize desk top clutter.

1. On my desktop I have a file holder to keep close at hand the files that I am working on that day. These are the documents that I should be able to find in a hurry. I should have no more than half a dozen files here at any one time. The real trick is to prevent an accumulation of files in this desktop holder. If the file is not expected to be accessed that day it should be relocated to a drawer for active files (my second tier). I empty this holder at the end of the day, then re-stock it the next morning with what I will be working on that day.

2. The second tier of my file handling system is a small under-desk file drawer. Here I keep all of my currently active files. I may not be working on that file today but there is still work to be done before it is concluded. I also ensure that if a file does not pertain to an activity or project with a definitive end point, then it does not belong here. Everyday I will pull from this drawer the few files that I expect to need for the day and put them in my desktop holder.

3. The third tier of my file system is my Archives. For this I keep a large four drawer filing cabinet to store all inactive files. This will include files from completed projects and activities as well as collected resource info that might be useful for some future project.

This system of mine has developed over time and it may still be refined but I think it is a good enough system that I don’t hesitate in recommending that you give it a try.

One of my hobbies is photography and like most hobbies there is a lot to learn, but there are also lessons to be learned from the activity that can be applied to other parts of your life.
I often find myself in a unique and wonderful mindset when I set out on a photographic excursion. There are times when I head out with the intent to capture some particular subject matter. There are other times when I just head out with my camera to “see what I see”.
That is the “photographic vision” I refer to in the title – this way that I look at the world when I have a camera in hand. I get very tuned into my surroundings and begin to see things I’d hardly have noticed at other times. I will set out with the intent to just to spend a few minutes and end up wandering around for an hour or two taking a hundred pictures – and all within a few hundred meters of home.
Once I get on a roll I begin to look for and see, all kinds of interesting details, patterns, hints of color etc. in the most ordinary objects and in any season. It might be the bark on a tree trunk, a pattern of shade on the ground, the detail in a flower. I firmly believe that there is always interesting photographic subject matter around you. You just have to be in the mindset to see it.

Part one of the photographic process is capturing the image and having a vision, a sense of what it can be. The second part of the process is the creative post processing of the image, to bring out that vision.

And so that is the lesson for other part of your life… you need to get into a mindset that allows you to see the details, the patterns, the fascinating in the ordinary. You need to be able to sense what things can be – whether the “things” are your career path, a business process or an engineering design. This visioning mindset is probably easier said than done, but I find it useful to slow down, to take a deep breathe or two, and cast away  preconceptions. In that way I can look at the world with the vision of a photographer – and so can you.

I am a strong believer in ongoing personal growth and the lifelong learning that implies. Learning is not just about dumping facts into your brain. It is all about the organization of those fact it is the connections of new bits of information to old ones.
One of the best ways to learn, to organize those facts, is too teach them to someone else. To be an effective teacher you must be prepared, you must organize the facts to be presented and have thought through different interpretations of those facts.
If you have the opportunity to teach in a formal setting, one of the nice things is having feedback from the student. The questions you receive can be useful for you to refine your knowledge, not only about the subject matter and your understanding of it, but also about how you organized and presented the topic.
Okay, so what if you don’t have a class or followers, someone to teach to? You can still prepare as if you did. That preparation is by using writing as a means to clarify and organize your thoughts. You could just keep your writing as personal notes but I suggest presenting your writing in a blog. That way you will get the practice in organizing your thoughts and by making it public you may just get that feedback from a reader, which could help you learn and grow.
For more information on the value and technique of clear writing for learning and growth, I recommend “Writing to Learn” by William Zinsser, a classic book originally published in 1988. This book includes chapters specifically addressing writing on various subjects from math and science to the arts.
If you aren’t already using writing as a means to learn and to grow, give it some thought – or even better write out your thoughts!

It may be said that there are only two types of people: procrastinators and compulsive liars. That is to say that procrastination is a very common problem. Well hold onto that thought – procrastination is a very common but is it the problem?
Recently I have been listening to the audio book of The Now Habit, a Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-free Play by Dr. Neil Fiore. In this book Fiore suggests that procrastination is not the problem in itself but merely a symptom of avoidance. Avoidance being a coping strategy that is really just a habit – a habit that has been learned and that can be unlearned.
This program suggests a number of techniques for replacing the procrastination habit with the “do it now” habit. Three concepts in this book really struck a chord with me. They are the ideas of Guilt-free play, the Unschedule and Starting.

Guilt-free play: Fiores’ premise is based on the importance of play and especially guilt-free play. He says recognize its importance and make it a priority in your life

The Unschedule. Rather than starting the traditional way scheduling all of your must do work task and leaving what is left over for family, leisure, play, etc. Fiore suggests the radical concept of first scheduling in your play and treating that time as sacred. Let your work occur in the gaps. He suggests that with your reward time established you will be more efficient in your work periods. Further he suggests concentrating on getting in a solid 30 minutes of quality work at a time (and reward yourself after a period of quality work). I would interpret this as play hard, work hard – doing each half-hearted does you little good.

Starting: Fiore says “Keep starting. Finishing will take care of itself” and “replace all thoughts about finishing with thoughts about when, where and on what you can start”. Even finishing occurs from starting that final session. This whole idea is so simple that it should be obvious but I suspect many of us just never thought about this way before.

There is a lot more to this book and program (the audio book runs 7 1/2 hours) but this review will give you an idea of what it is about. I might conclude by saying that maybe there are three types of people: procrastinators, those in denial about their procrastination and ex-procrastinators who have adopted the now habit. There are a lot of decent books out there on procrastination, getting things done and goal achievement but this is one that would be near the top of my recommendation list.

To learn more about this program/book click here for another review.

I’ve mentioned the general value of industry associations to one’s career. I now would like to present the key organizations within an industry that I am very familiar with – the Public Safety Communications industry. This will not likely be news to anyone in public safety, but it will serve as an example and perhaps as a guide to someone new to or considering a career in public safety communications.
The largest organization in this industry is APCO, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. There are actually a number of APCO organizations around the world today. They grew out of the original U.S.-based APCO International
Something which APCO International has recently introduced is an online community for Public Safety communicators called PSConnect. This community is just gathering steam as I write this in May of 2010 but already I highly recommended it.
Serving Canadian is APCO Canada APCO Canada produces a bi-monthly magazine called Wavelength. The archives can be reached here.
BAPCO is the U.K version of APCO and down under there is APCO Australasia.
While APCO’s focus has been more on the radio dispatch side of the public Safety communications world, it also ventures into the 9-1-1 side of the dispatch centre. Another organization focuses just on the incoming calls for public safety assistance. That organization is the U.S.-based NENA (National Emergency Number Association). It too is a valuable resource to the public safety communications professional. In recent years they have been focusing on the next generation of 9-1-1 calls – calls that will be come into the 9-1-1 centre by means other than a telephone.
If you are in, or interested in, the public safety communications industry check out the links in this blog. If you are in another industry by all means discover what industry associations are available to you.

I have written previously of the value of being involved with professional organizations and technical organizations. Think of those organizations as two legs of a tripod – a third leg is necessary for stability. That third leg, that third important type of organization that you should be involved with is you industry association.
The industry is the business you are in or more specifically the business your employer is. Differentiate between your profession and the business your employer is in. You may be an engineer working in the public safety industry, you may be an accountant in the retail sales industry, or perhaps a lawyer working in a high tech manufacturing industry. In order to best serve your employer you must have a keen understanding of your employers business. You should be constantly seeking answers to questions such as these:

  • Who are the customers?
  • What are the customers looking for?
  • How is the industry expected to develop and evolve over the coming years?

One way you can understand the industry is by your involvement with the industry association. The association probably has a web site, a magazine, an annual conference, a membership directory. All of these are invaluable for networking and understanding the core issues of your industry
While participation in the industry association is recommended don’t overlook other obvious source of understanding the issues. Keep your ear to the ground – what are people in your organization, in the industry, talking about? If you have an opportunity by all means listen directly to the customers.

In summary, keep involved, keep learning and spread your learning and association across your professional organization, your technical organization and your industry association.

Professionals in the technical fields typically go through a formal education process and have a lot of information presented to them over a few years. Hopefully they retain and internalize a lot of that knowledge but the real smart ones realize that the formal phase of their technical education is just the beginning. If they don’t continue to grow, to learn, then their skills and knowledge will become obsolete in short order.

One of the best and easiest ways to keep up with a technical field is by belonging to a technical organization. I will use for example the technical organization that I have belonged to since my engineering student days – the IEEE. For Electrical/Computer Engineering the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) is the technical organization to belong to. I won’t go into all it has to offer but there are numerous publications, conferences, specialized technical societies and local chapters. If your field of interest touches upon anything to do with computers and electronics I encourage checking out this organization. Other engineering fields/ technologies have similar technical organizations.

I was inspired on this topic by looking through the latest issue of the IEEE Spectrum that arrived in my mail yesterday. The IEEE Spectrum is the organization’s flagship magazine, a general interest technology magazine sent to every IEEE member and also available on newsstands. Although the number of pages in the publication have been significantly reduced from the golden days, there is still a lot of interesting content in print (and even more on-line).

The May 2010 issue features the cover headline “Algorithm Artist” referring to an article about Andrew Viterbi who invented an important algorithm for efficient wireless communications. I found it very interesting to see the word “Artist” on the front cover of this Engineering magazine, since I had so recently posted a blog about Engineers and the Arts.

This issue has an interesting article entitled “Backyard Star Wars” which discusses the possibility of using technology and concepts originally proposed for missile defense to protect you backyard from mosquitoes. I’m going to have to read this article in more detail before commenting further or passing judgment.

Another article that has caught my interest deals with wireless power transmission. It references the proposals of Nikola Tesla to achieve this seemingly magical feat, but I’ve got an open mind and I want to know more! Additionally the May issue has articles about the 50th anniversary of the laser, modularizing nuclear power plants, and some new transportation technologies for moving people.

So that’s just one example – a few articles, one issue, of one publication, from one technical organization, to remind us that there is lots of technical information out there and that we all need to keep up with our technical knowledge. Belonging to a technical organization is a great place to start.

It seems strange to me to even ask the question. Isn’t it obvious? Well maybe it is to someone that’s been in the industry for a number of years. But then again being in the industry could well narrow ones perspective of what Telecommunications is. So let me step back and give you a definition that works for me.

Telecommunications is the conveying of information by electronic means between two points.

By information I mean any type of information without regard to its form or content. It doesn’t matter if the information started as a sound: voice, music or noise. It doesn’t matter if the information was in a visible form: a photo, a video or a document. It doesn’t matter if the information represented a computer program or banking data.  Likewise the format into which the information has been encoded doesn’t matter to the definition of telecommunications. What matters is that this information was at point A and then it is at point B – and Telecommunications is what made this happen.

The content of the information doesn’t matter and neither does the form the information was in for the transport. It could have been analog (like traditional voice over a telephone or traditional television signals) or it could be digital. It doesn’t matter – if the information got from point A to point B, by electronic means then telecommunications was involved.

I include the “by electronic means” in my definition to exclude from the definition of telecommunications, the transporting of books or CDs in the back of a truck – that’s transportation not telecommunications.

There are often two aspects to telecommunications: transmission and switching. Transmission is the part that actually covers the distance between point A and Point B. Telecommunications transmission modes include fiber optics, coax cable, copper wire, microwave radio (or really all radio/wireless communications), etc.. The only qualification I would make is a reminder of the meaning of “tele” in telecommunications. Tele means “over a distance” so I would generally exclude from our definition of telecommunications, transmissions  that are over very short distances – such as the internal wiring in an electronic device or perhaps even short patch cables

The switching part of telecommunications comes in for economic reasons. It allows for more efficient use of the transmission facilities. The “cost“ trade off of course is that switching adds complexity to the telecommunications system but nonetheless it is extremely prevalent.

That’s it – telecommunications is the use of electronic transmission and switching technologies to deliver information from point A to point B.

I want to share a lesson learned over the weekend. Well not so much a lesson learned as an old truth reinforced. I think we can all benefit from these gentle reminders and we should keep our minds open to them. This was no deep engineering challenge or a business case study , just a simple household problem.

We noticed that one of our bedroom doors had started to rub on the floor as it closed. This is very weird I thought. It has been fine for years and any door I’ve ever seen has had plenty of clearance under it, but sure enough I confirmed the problem by closing the door and it was definitely rubbing on the floor.

Okay my first thought was that the hinges were likely loose – a screw (or a few) that were no longer holding the door up. This was an easy check but alas the hinges and screws were fine.

Next idea: as unlikely as it seemed, perhaps the house had settled, gone out of square and affected the door frame. This must be it!

From here I jumped to figuring out how to fix the problem. This was going to be a pain. I wasn’t about to rip down walls and rebuild the door frame – that would be crazy.  I’d just have to take the door off its hinges and then cut a slice off of the bottom the door. Perhaps I could use a wood plane to accomplish this. The other alternative was to use a saw – do I go with a hand saw, a power rotary saw or perhaps a table saw? This wasn’t going to be fun any way I sliced it.

Just before I started to take the door off the hinges I decided to take one more close look to assess where it was rubbing and how much I might have to cut off. This time I got right down on the floor, on my belly,  to look at the gap between door and floor and….aha!

What I saw was that I wouldn’t need to cut down the door at all. All that I needed to do was to dislodge the little pebble that was stuck under the bottom edge of the door. I sure could have saved a lot of time, analysis and worry if I’d gotten down on the floor for a close look earlier.

Lesson learned: look closely for the most obvious trouble before you go dreaming up and worrying about complex solutions!

In two previous blog entries I mentioned that I had started listening to an audio book by Jim Collins and that as much as I like the freedom that an audio book provides to me, there are times when I want or need a hard-copy.

The Jim Collins’ 2009 book How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In, is a case in point. It was a very good listen and I will listen to it again but in the meantime I have ordered the book. Not only do I want to slow down and think more about certain passages but I also want to read some of the appendices that were not narrated in the audio book.

In this book Collins relates his research findings about seemingly invincible companies that can and have failed. Some of the companies used as case studies for this book include Bank of America, HP, Motorola, Scott Paper and Zenith. Collins has identified 5 distinct stages that a failing company will go through on its demise. These stages are:
1. Hubris Born of Success
2. Undisciplined Pursuit of More
3. Denial of Risk and Peril
4. Grasping for Salvation
5. Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death
Collins points out that by recognizing these stages and the associated warning signs, it is possible to pull out of a dive before crashing into stage five.

I am very interested in thinking through how these same stages might be applied to public sector organizations, to groups within an organization and to individuals. My gut tells me that much of what Collins has identified for the large profit-driven entities will apply. Stay tuned for future discussion on these topics.

I might add that I like Collins’ writing style and will be checking out his very successful earlier books: Good to Great and Built to Last (co-authored with Jerry Porras).

Jim Collins website