Elephants, Rhinos, UAVs and Interdisciplinary Teams — Does Any of this Empathy Stuff Really Matter?

Liverpool (1)

Liverpool, England, in front of the Hard Days Night Hotel.  Not surprisingly, Liverpool has a thing for the Beatles!

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, I know by looking at my statistics,  that you likely have not read all the posts.  After all, I am aware that while a lot of my readers are fond of me — I was the professor that helped get them ready for the work world, or a business associate with my Industrial Design Clinic, and we enjoyed educating students together — I also know that I am not an internationally recognized expert on organizational development, or empathy, or philosophy.  I haven’t cut it yet in the status-based lower v-Memes.  I’m not bothered by this —  those that know me personally know that I’m not much of an Authoritarian or Legalist.

But you’re probably thinking — “well, Chuck, that’s nice.  But why should I really care?  And how does this really matter?”

Here’s some insight.

Last week, I was in Liverpool, England, at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) at a conference for UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles — think quadcopter or fixed-wing drones) applied to environmental science and problems.  The breadth of application of UAVs to problems in the environmental arena was immense.  The keynote speaker, Tom Snitch, talked about his program, which involves using relatively low-cost drones to monitor elephant and rhino poaching in Africa   Others talked primarily about the use of LiDAR mounted on a UAV, which is basically using light like radar waves to map vegetation and landscape features.  Others used UAV-mounted regular cameras to create high-resolution photo mosaics of landscapes that are much more high resolution than available from satellite images.  And so on.

But in such a potentially synergistic, systemic world, those connections were few and far between.  The key element in all this was the structure of the combined UAV – sensor system.  In a room full of passionate, sophisticated people, the basic structure of a UAV system was ‘take a store-bought UAV and mount a camera on it.  Figure out how to trigger it and capture the location of the image and bring that back to the ground for post-processing.’  The design structure of any system that does that — regardless of the complexity of the design of either the UAV, or the measuring instrument (like the LiDAR unit) — is three fragmented, non-synergetic blocks in a row.  Learn how to fly the UAV, bring back the pictures, make your map.

It’s pretty obvious that this maps to the non-empathetic structure of researchers in the academy.  Three blocks put together, basically in what we call open loop feedback (read ‘no feedback at all’) .

What is interesting as well is to see how this social/relational structure will attempt to solve their problem.  How will they evolve?  In a fragmented social structure, the first (and likely subsequent) iterations will likely involve more pictures (read more fragmentation) and more detail.  More computer processing, with more sophisticated on-the-ground mapping algorithms for more complex assemblages of images.  Greater accuracy in the GPS units used.  Paying more money for UAVs with greater flight stability.  And so on.

Notice how NONE of these things engage in any meaningful feedback between the elements.  How could they?  How could the people engaged in the task develop any synergies at all, given the social structure of the typical academic enterprise?  Synergies with this given social structure are likely to come (not surprisingly) when the resolution of pictures taken on the ground get down to pebble size.  Fancier cameras.  More stable UAVs.

And that’s exactly what is happening.

What would be required for synergies?  The short answer is a different social/relational structure.  We might start with the old ‘multidisciplinary teams’ axiom.  Perhaps if we added someone who was an expert in flight control and dynamics, they could stabilize the UAV better.  Someone in cameras could invent a camera with greater resolution.  And so on.

What’s the takeaway? If we pursue a similar, fragmented non-empathetic structure, we can see that multidisciplinary teams approach doesn’t really add much to the synergies of the device.  At first blush, the different component providers don’t need to do much understanding of each other — knowledge can be passed in fragments, like ‘well we’d like finer resolution.’  And things would march down exactly the same path.  Perhaps a little faster, but likely much more expensive.  More people on the project definitely means more dollars.  Higher resolution equipment is going to climb up that marginal cost/performance curve that every product possesses.

What happens, however, if we pursue a different structure — where we now have a multidisciplinary team, with pairing between different components of the entire UAV system?  The mapper says to her partner, the camera designer ‘I want finer resolution.’  In an empathetic exchange, the camera designer would hopefully ask ‘why?’  The mapper would then explain that things aren’t going so well on the boundaries of images, and she figured that finer resolution was the answer.  The camera designer then might say ‘well, you can get finer resolution, but if you still can’t improve the auto-stabilization and orientation of the UAV, any more pixels are just going to get lost in the noise.’  So after understanding the problem with perhaps a little math, they make a decision to engage the flight control person.

The flight control person goes through an empathetic exchange with both the mapper and the camera person.  It turns out that the real problem with getting the pictures to overlap is that the UAV turns a little in the wind, and that makes the photos not line up on a nice, even grid.  So the real answer is to put two GPS units on the UAV, separated by a meaningful distance, so that the UAV can be flown with both a static coordinate, as well as an angular direction orientation.  Then mapping can commence so that you don’t have blurred pixels on the boundary, and so on.  The social structure, as well as the degree of empathetic connection, all has to change.  And in the world of empathetic connection, there’s going to have to be a whole lot more of it.

Or if nothing else, it gets discovered that we can’t yet orient the UAV at a given angle.  So we don’t waste money on more and more expensive cameras, or mapping software — because we really can’t do better than the fragmented system.  Either way, the performance of the system goes up.  Money is saved from not pursuing something not feasible (or too expensive), or mapping accuracy is improved.

And we can also see how trust is brought into the picture.  If one component expert doesn’t know the other component expert, how does one know whether they can believe them?  Only through an evolved working relationship can the mapper be sure if the flight control UAV expert is telling the truth — whether it be that you can orient a UAV, or you can’t.  Empathetic connection is the primary tool for assessing someone else’s metacognition — if they know what they know, as well as what they don’t know.

The non-empathetic, multidisciplinary effort yields results similar to the fragmented academic social structure.  Just as Conway would have predicted.  And the understanding of the level of empathetic connection leads the project manager on the same path as has been discussed in this blog.   😉

Takeaways:  Sophistication of individual knowledge doesn’t do you that much good if you can’t work at the boundaries (or even in the guts of these systems) with other experts to optimize and synergize shared results.  And empathetic connection between teammates is the pathway toward getting a better shared result, without having to go outside and pay a ton of money for experts who may or may not know what they’re talking about.  A little bit of empathetic relational development goes a long way.  Change the social structure if you want to change the performance.

Further reading: This piece on Tom Snitch’s work in South Africa regarding using drones for prevention of poaching elephants and rhinos shows, better than anything, that it is often social factors and trust that limit all our efforts.  It is indeed all about empathy.

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