Cognitive Waste and the Project Funding Bind

As I tweeted earlier today: “A problem with project funding is that you’re expected to know what you’re going to do in advance – rather than discover what can be done..”

This was prompted by reading a JISC ITT (Invitation to Tender) around coursedata: Making the most of course information – xcri-cap feed use demonstrators. Here’s an excerpt from the final call:

JISC is seeking to fund around 6-10 small, rapid innovation projects to create innovative, engaging examples that demonstrate the use of the #coursedata xcri-cap feeds (either directly, or via the JISC Aggregator API). These innovative examples will be shared openly through the JISC web site and events to promote the good practice that has been adopted.
13. The demonstrators could use additional data sources such as geolocation data to provide a mash-up, or may focus on using a single institutional feed to meet a specific need.
14. The demonstrators should include a clear and compelling use case and usage scenario.
15. The range of demonstrators commissioned will cover a number of different approaches and is likely to include examples of:
• an online prospectus, such as a specialist courses directory;
• a mobile app, such as a course finder for a specific geographical area;
• a VLE block or module, such as a moodle block that identifies additional learning opportunities offered by the host institution;
• an information dashboard, such as a course statistics dashboard for managers providing an analysis of the courses your institution offers mashed up with search trends from the institutional website;
• a lightweight service or interface, such as an online study group that finds peers based on course description;
• a widget for a common platform, such as a Google Gadget that identifies online courses, and pushes updates to the users iGoogle page.
16. All demonstrators should be working code and must be available under an open source licence or reusable with full documentation. Project deliverables can build on proprietary components but wherever possible the final deliverables should be open source. If possible, a community-based approach to working with open source code should be taken rather than just making the final deliverables available under an open source licence.
17. The demonstrators should be rapidly developed and be ready to use within 4 months. It is expected most projects would not require more than 30 – 40 chargeable person days.

In addition:

23. Funding will not be allocated to allow a simple continuation of an existing project or activity. The end deliverable must address a specific need that is accepted by the community for which it is intended and produce deliverables within the duration of the project funding.
24. There should be no expectation that future funding will be available to these projects. The grants allocated under this call are allocated on a finite basis. Ideally, the end deliverables should be sustainable in their own right as a result of providing a useful solution into a community of practice.

The call appears to be open to all comers (for example, sole traders) and represents a way of spending money on bootstrapping innovation around course data feeds using HEFCE funding, in a similar way to how the Technology Strategy money disburses money (more understandably?) to commercial enterprises, SMEs, and so on. (Although JISC isn’t a legal entity – yet – maybe we’ll start to see JISC trying to find ways in which it can start to act as a vehicle that generates returns from which it can benefit financially, eg as a venture funder, or as a generator of demonstrable financial growth?)

As with many JISC calls, the intention is that something “sustainable” will result:

22. Without formal service level agreements, dependency on third party systems can limit the shelf life of deliverables. For these types of projects, long term sustainability although always desirable, is not an expected outcome. However making the project deliverables available for at least one year after the end of the project is essential so opportunities are realised and lessons can be learned.

24. There should be no expectation that future funding will be available to these projects. The grants allocated under this call are allocated on a finite basis. Ideally, the end deliverables should be sustainable in their own right as a result of providing a useful solution into a community of practice.

All well and good. Having spent a shedload (technical term ;-) on getting institutions to open up their course data, the funders now need some uptake. (That there aren’t more apps around course data to date is partly my fault. The TSO Open Up Competition prize I won secured a certain amount of TSO resource to build something around course scaffolding code scaffolding data as held by UCAS (my proposal was more to do with seeing this data opened up as enabling data, rather than actually pitching a specific application…). As it turned out, UCAS (a charity operated by the HEIs, I think) were (still are?) too precious over the data to release it as open data for unspecified uses, so the prize went nowhere… Instead, HEFCE spent millions through JISC to get universities to open up course data (albeit probably more comprehensive than the UCAS data) instead…and now there’s an unspecified amount for startups and businesses to build services around the XCRI data. (Note to self: are UCAS using XCRI as an import format or not? If not, is HEFCE/JISC also paying the HEIs to maintain/develop systems that publish XCRI data as well as systems that publish data in an alternative way to UCAS?)

I think TSO actually did some work aggregating datasets around a, erm, model of the UCAS course data; so if they want a return on that work, they could probably pitch an idea for something they’ve already prepped and try to gt HEFCE to pay for it, 9 months on from when I was talking to them at their expense…

Which brings me in part back to my tweet earlier today (“A problem with project funding is that you’re expected to know what you’re going to do in advance – rather than discover what can be done..”), as well as the mantra I was taught way back when I was a research student, that the route to successful research bids was to bid to do work you had already done (in part because then you could propose to deliver what you knew you could already deliver, or could clearly see how to deliver…)

This is fine if you know what you’re pitching to do (essentially, doing something you know how to do), as opposed to setting out to discover what sorts of things might be possible if you set about playing with them. Funders don’t like the play of course, because it smacks of frivolity and undirectedness, even though it may be a deeply focussed and highly goal directed activity, albeit one where the goal emerges during the course of the activity rather than being specified in advance.

As it is, funders tend to fund projects. They tell bidders what they want, bidders tell funders back how they’ll do it (either something they’ve already done = guaranteed deliverable, paid for post hoc), or something they *think* they intend to do (couched in project management and risk assessment speak to mask the fact they don’t really know what’ll happen when they try to execute the plan, but that doesn’t really matter, because at the end of the day they have a plan and a set of deliverables against which they can measure (lack of) progress.) In the play world, you generally do or deliver something because that’s the point – you are deeply engaged in and highly focussed on whatever it is that you’re doing (you are typically intrinsically motivated and maybe also extrinsically motivated by whatever constraints or goals you have adopted as defining the play context/play world. During play, you work hard to play well. And then there’s the project world. In the project world, you deliver or you don’t. So what.

Projects also have overheads associated with them. From preparing, issuing, marking, awarding, tracking and reporting on proposals and funded projects on the fundrs’ side, to preparing, submitting, and managing the project on the other (aside from actually doing the project work – or at last, writing up what has previously been done in an appropriate way;-).

And then there’s the waste.

Clay Shirky popularised the notion of cognitive surplus to characterise creative (and often collaborative creative) acts done in folks’ free time. Things like Wikipedia. I’d characterise this use of cognitive surplus capacity as a form of play – in part because it’s intrinsically motivated, but also because it is typically based around creative acts.

But what about cognitive waste, such as arises from time spent putting together project proposals that are unfunded and then thrown away (why aren’t these bids, along with the successful ones, made open as a matter of course, particularly when the application is for public money from an applicant funded by public money?). (Or the cognitive waste associated with maintaining a regular blog… erm… oops…)

I’ve seen bids containing literature reviews that rival anything in the (for fee, paywall protected, subscription required, author/institution copyright waivered) academic press, as well as proposals that could be taken up, maybe in partnership, by SMEs for useful purpose, rather than academic partners for conference papers), to time spent pursuing project processes, milestones and deliverables for the sole reason that they are in the plan that was defined before the space the project was pitched in to is properly through engaging with it, rather than because they continue to make sense (if indeed they ever did). (And yes, I know that the unenlightened project manager who sees more merit in trying to stick to the project plan and original deliverables, rather than pivoting if a far more productive, valuable or useful opportunity reveals itself, is a mythical beast…;-).

Maybe the waste is important. Evolution is by definition wasteful process, and maybe the route to quality is through a similar sort of process. Maybe the time, thought and effort that goes into unsuccessful bids really is cognitive waste, bad ideas that don’t deserve to be shared (and more than that, shouldn’t be shared because they are dangerously wrong). But then, I’m not sure how that fits in with project funding schemes that are over-subscribed and even highly rated proposals (that would ordinarily receive funding) are rejected, whereas in an undersubscribed call (maybe because it is mis-positioned or even irrelevant), weak bids (that ordinarily wouldn’t be considered) get funding.

Or maybe cognitive waste arises from a broken system and broken processes, and really is something valuable that is being wasted in the sense of squandered?

Right – rant over, (no) (late)lunchtime over… back to the “work” thing, I guess…

PS via @raycorrigan: “Newton, Galileo, Maxwell, Faraday, Einstein, Bohr, to name but a few; evidence of paradigm shifting power of ‘cognitive waste'” – which is another sense of “waste” I hadn’t considered, which is waste (as in loss, or loss to an organisation) of good ideas through rejecting or not supporting the development of a particular proposal or idea..?