The Lectern

Steve Kelman


By Steve Kelman

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Games turn serious

There is a fascinating supplement in this week's issue of The Economist -- incidentally, probably the world's best magazine (Federal Computer Week, please don't be offended!) -- on the videogame industry. I was, as a fogie non-game player, very surprised to learn that revenues of the videogame industry are now twice those of the recorded music industry, and 60% of those of the movie industry (including DVD sales). The average gamer is not a high school boy but, in the U.S., 37 years old, and 42 percent of players are female.
The whole supplement is interesting, but I take this up as a blog because of a discussion at the end of the supplement on a new trend called "gamification" -- applying techniques that make games fun to problem-solving or other management issues inside organizations. The trend started with the development by scientists at the University of Washington of a game called "Foldit," which put in game format a complex scientific problem involving how protein amino acids are best "folded."  (It doesn't matter exactly what this means.)  Players who develop better folding patterns get higher scores. They have gotten 46,000 users competing in the game, and the solutions presented have, according to the supplement, "made serious contributions to biology."
Gamification has spread to business over the last two years, and the article cites an example from the United Kingdom government. The British Department of Work and Pensions has developed a game for taking suggestions for improving organizational efficiency. Employees are given points that can be "invested" in promising suggestions others make. If the boss gives the go-ahead, the investors get their points back with interest. The game features a "buzz board" to increase competitive juices.
This version sounds a bit like a prediction market suggestion for cost-savings ideas I made a while ago. But I am guessing that, with ingenuity, ideas for games to improve organizational performance can be developed in government. Maybe agencies should use another innovative tool -- contests -- to solicit ideas from game developers for such games

Posted on Dec 16, 2011 at 7:27 PM1 comments

Street art and Miami's urban revitalization

Although I still have 50 or so final student papers to grade, my classes are almost done. I spent the weekend in south Florida, taking advantage of a promotion through the frequent hotel guest program in which I participate. (When I made the reservation, I assumed that we would already have had several weeks of frigid weather in Boston, while in fact our eerily warm Thanksgiving period meant that it turned really cold only about two days before I left for the Florida warmth.)
A highlight of the visit was an afternoon in an edgy art district that has recently sprouted up less than two miles north of downtown Miami -- a bit south of the previously edgy but now mainstream Miami Design District -- called Wynwood. The story of this area is amazing and instructive. It once had shoe factories and warehouses, now long gone. What's left is some desolate blocks with auto body shops and warehouses. The architecture consisted of concrete one-story box structures.
A few years ago a real-estate developer (who was one of the people who had been involved in the resurrection of South Beach in Miami twenty years ago) basically bought up the entire neighborhood, I'm sure for a tiny sum. He proceeded to commission a number of artists to do wall paintings (aka graffiti) on the auto body and warehouse store fronts, and to set up space in an abandoned building lot for various artists to set up studios, and in the abandoned lot next door to display the outdoor works of different artists.

The developer's daughter set up a restaurant, and more recently another restaurant appeared, this one commissioning wall paintings by the artist Shepard Fairey, known (at least to non-art types such as me) as the designer of the Obama t-shirt from the 2008 election campaign. (Here is a link to the art on the restaurant walls, which will give you a feel for the art in the area as a whole.)

I was amused to see that the text on the stop sign at the street corner outside the newer restaurant had been changed -- apparently officially, this wasn't spray painted or anything -- to SHOP. On the main drag was parked a police car-like car from a private security service, but nobody was inside. A steady stream of tourists, though not huge crowds, were on the streets, taking a lot of pictures.
I found this whole transformation fascinating. One reaction was that if you could do something to beautify and make exciting this wasteland, there is virtually no urban space anywhere that is without hope. A second was how a smart investor made an investment in some infrastructure -- the works of art he commissioned -- to bring about the transformation.
What is happening in Wynwood is a dramatic version of changes that are happening in many cities -- pioneered by the transformation of Soho in Manhattan and the abandoned warehouses of Quincy Market in Boston.  But it is a dramatic version of that phenomenon, because the original area was so forlorn, lacking the diamonds in the rough of Soho or Quincy Market. While in Florida, a Swedish friend I was visiting reminded me that I had passed on visiting her husband and her in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, sharing the East Coast prejudice against the city that I now no longer even am close to having.

"Miami today is like LA in the '70s," she commented, on the upswing into a real world-class city. These kinds of changes to the urban landscape make me at least optimistic that the ingenuity and reinvention that are so central to American culture and economic vitality are not dead.

Posted on Dec 13, 2011 at 7:27 PM0 comments

Young feds are coming up fast

At the closing dinner for the executive education program we teach at the Kennedy School for federal GS-15s (and military counterparts), I sat next to Steve Varnum, a 31-year-old GS-15 from the General Services Administration Public Buildings Service. Varnum had promoted to the grade last year at age 30. He reflects in a dramatic way the generational transformation beginning to occur in the government, and I was eager to get his reflections on how he had been able to rise so fast.

After majoring in information technology management in college and graduating in 2002, Varnum took his first job with a government contractor that did work for GSA. However, after only two years with the contractor, he switched over to GSA, because he felt that GSA provided a clearer path for professional development and growth than the contracting industry. He also recognized the significance of public service, and felt his skills and abilities could be applied effectively to make the agency more efficient.

As I listened to him tell his story, there were two things that seemed important in terms of his fast rise within the organization. One involved his own personal career management, the other his supervisors and managers.

In terms of his own personal career management, Varnum had clearly thought explicitly and strategically about getting opportunities to interact with people in the agency outside his own part of the organization, to develop contacts and opportunities in cross-stovepipe contexts. He clearly thought that this would signal his broader, agency-wide perspective and distinguish him from colleagues who just had their noses to the grindstone of their own narrow work.

When he spoke of his supervisors and managers, he was enthusiastic. He said his immediate supervisor never felt threatened by a young, aggressive subordinate coming up with new ideas and suggestions. On the contrary, his supervisor was eager to work with the young employee, realizing that benefits from implementing his ideas would be a credit to the supervisor as well as the employee.

For example, Varnum recognized that one of the organization's key performance measures was masking issues within the program. The measure had two major components, but they appeared in reports as an aggregate. Varnum realized that combining two calculations into one metric was allowing the high- performing piece to hide the negatives of the low-performing piece.

Varnum suggested breaking apart the measure into two separate items so that the weaknesses of the low-performing aspect would be exposed and could be improved. Instead of feeling threatened by Varnum's suggestion, his supervisors welcomed and embraced it.

Second, his supervisors over the years had been quick to give him opportunities to do things that were too hard or that put him in over his head. Just recently, his several-levels above boss asked him to take charge of a briefing to the GSA administrator. Varnum told me he was terrified, afraid he would make a lot of mistakes and embarrass himself. But everything worked out ok, and it turned out to be a real learning experience.

There are too many people around federal workplaces who feel threatened by the young people coming on board -- and probably some young people who act like the know-it-all's they are often accused of being. I'm wondering whether any young, or senior, feds have experiences or lessons learned about how to create a more-productive interaction at the workplace between new and older employees?

Posted on Dec 08, 2011 at 7:27 PM15 comments

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