Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Grand Challenge for Archaeology- the information cycle

In the 1950s, archaeologists had a clear idea of their role.  Wheeler says 'unrecorded excavation is the unforgivable destruction of evidence (Archaeology from the Earth (1954), p. 209), and goes on to insist that proper publication is the duty of the excavating  archaeologist.  His final chapter, What are we digging, and why?, is uncharacteristically slippery, though.  It appears that this duty is primarily imposed to ensure that the contribution to knowledge would be shared with current and future peers, to establish a truth that could in due course be communicated to the world.

In the 1970s Philip Rahtz's Rescue Archaeology implicitly followed the same view  - volunteers were welcome to view or help, but the core of the work was the excavation, recording, and academic publication of the site for the benefit of the specialist reader.  (It is interesting to see that he estimates that there were in 1971 about 200 professional archaeologists in the UK).

When the IfA (now CIfA) was founded in the 1980s, it embodied this approach in its Code of Conduct, specifying that excavators had a duty to publish a site within 10 years.

I rehearse this ancient history as a reminder that the contemporary view I often encounter that an archaeologist's primary audience is a non-technical, popular, community one, that involving non-professionals in the process of excavation and recording, that digging and showing is more important than reporting and analysis, is a recent development, and one that has had an unwelcome effect on the profession at a time when resources are tight and hard choices must be made.

The Grand Challenge that I see facing UK archaeology is that archaeologists need to re-engage with all stages of the information cycle, from research, to reporting, to sharing data, placing a high value on prompt availability of credible data and on using the data of others.


SMRs and HERs

The aspect of archaeology I find most frustrating is the way archaeologists use Historic Environment Records.  As the concept emerged in the 1970s, as Sites and Monuments Records, they were transformative.  Previously archaeology had to be understood by laborious research using printed gazetteers and hand-drawn distribution maps; instead, all known sites were plotted on large-scale (1:10,000) maps and accompanied by standardised data (initially on paper but transferred to computer in the 1980s).  The shift to computers meant that thematic searching was expedited - all Bronze Age cairns could be listed by a simple query.  It wasn't until the 1990s that the paper maps were replaced by online mapping and GIS so that it was easy to zoom in and out, relate distributions to topography, and overlay historic mapping.  Many are now available online.

Given these incredible research tools, we should be enjoying a golden age of high quality research and publication, with thousands at work, excavating hundreds of sites, generating new data and contextualizing the results.  Instead it appears that most are content with superficial and credulous research and an apathy about the value of their contribution.  One trend I have learned to dread is the use, in grey literature reports, of an HER site listing included as supplied.  I can only assume that those using the data in this way have misunderstood what HERs seek to do and how they are compiled.

Historic Environment Records are intended to be an index to known archaeological sites in an area.  They do not, in principle, consider themselves to be primary sources (and most do not hold primary archival material).  As an index, they bring together published and unpublished information and classify it in order to aid retrieval.  Their interpretation and analysis is restricted to a basic health check and then an attempt to make the data most likely to be found.  HERs will usually accept the source's conclusion about what they found.   It is quite common to find that many of the sites are less definitive than they at first appear:  antiquarian reports will be given an estimated NGR, wholly unjustified by the convoluted and vague locational information (and it is also common for any finds or records to have vanished), or an excavator's over-enthusiastic conjecture about a site is taken at face value.

In the early rush of creating the SMRs, a lot of thought went into providing a handy synthesis of the evidence in a newly-written description, to save users the necessity of checking each source and reaching their own conclusions.  Increasingly this has been abandoned, partly because of the increase in workload, but also because the validity of the synthesis is questionable.  Of all the people writing about a site, you can be quite sure that the HER Officer won't have had the chance to visit it.  They are worst placed to rule on the weight assigned to sources.  Descriptions will therefore quote from successive sources without necessarily reaching a judgement.  Elsewhere, decisions cannot be ducked: the site must be given a category - cairn, natural feature, modern feature, and a date.  HER listings for Roman roads, prehistoric ritual landscapes, or Dark Age burials often vanish into mundane, modern or natural features, their more dramatic classification being a relic of past fancy.  HERs cannot completely expunge such records, since a researcher may come across the original source and seek the relevant HER record.

The questions lying behind the maintenance of an HER are thus complex - addressed in the MIDAS data standard towards which many are working.

There are, as well as these unavoidable issues, other problems: sources may have been mistranscribed or misunderstood, or not consulted, and, fatally, NGRs may be mistyped.  When HERs were undertaking audits it was found that backlogs of 2 years of data awaiting input were not unusual.   Some sectors are much worse at making their results available: academics, independents, community groups, all unconstrained by planning, are much less likely to feed into HERs.

So HERs are, as an academic said about Wikipedia, a good place to start your research and a very bad place to stop.


Recording and reporting

Yes I know, don't call it excavation call it preservation by record.  But if we say this, and mean this, why is that the standard of records is so low, content with simple standardised descriptions with all the pondering on interpretation and significance left out.  This then feeds through into dull reports which say very little.  I was looking at a report on an evaluation by a professional unit that encountered a complex of prehistoric features.  Their date and purpose were left uncertain by the evaluation, but the conclusion decided that since they were of unknown significance no further investigation was warranted.   Somebody who considered themselves a professional was so incurious that they were happy to shrug their shoulders and walk away,  Even worse, there had been another development on adjoining land, not mentioned in the report, which had found more features, dated this time.  There is a case for archaeologists seeing themselves as technicians, servants of a process, creating data for others, but that seems to me to be an abdication of responsibility.  The excavator of  a site has spent weeks onsite and off engaging with the site and its  features occupying the forefront of their brain.  They, if well informed and thoughtful, are by far the most likely person to establish the truth.  One of the sad features of modern corporate archaeology is that there is little room for the bold hypothesis or imaginative site narrative - the passion and vision we hope to encounter on a site tour is routinely smoothed into tedium by the reporting process.


Reading


Which brings us back to Wheeler and publications.  Archaeologists need to be interested in more than their particular site or region.  They need to understand the context, the research questions, the developing narratives.  Otherwise they will end up making silly claims, that their watching brief with a Roman burial will 're-write our understanding of the conquest of Britain', or a ditch will change the way Bronze Age barrows are interpreted.  For much of the 20th century, sites were dug with unskilled, volunteer, or lackadaisical staff, with minimal resources.  That work produced the big books and the big theories that we still refer to.  Somehow, the plethora of data and the ease with which it can be accessed has narrowed our thinking.




Note

This essay is not intended to criticise any individuals or organisations; I genuinely believe that they are doing the best they can in difficult circumstances.  My examples are anonymised and included to highlight where I believe we have gone wrong.



This post is part of the Archaeology Blog Festival

Friday, 21 March 2014

The future

"Next month is the SAA session on blogging so this will be the final question for #blogarch. Learning from my mistakes this will be an actual question this time.
The last question is where are you/we going with blogging or would you it like to go? I leave it up to you to choose between reflecting on you and your blog personally or all of archaeology blogging/bloggers or both. Tells us your goals for blogging. Or if you have none why that is? Tell us the direction that you hope blogging takes in archaeology.
Short and simple and I hope a good question to finish off #BlogArch with."

The great value of this blog to me is that it's a playground where I can write whatever I want, and people do find their way to it.   I am currently involved in two initiatives which build on my 10 simple steps work: the setting up of a Project Management Group for the IfA, and a research project I am currently developing  interviewing archaeologists about how they construct their sense of professional identity.  Both of these initiatives will exist in other forms, but here is where I can add quick updates, try out bits of text, and provide pointers to related sources.

This last point sounds trivial, but it is easy to overlook.  Before websites, the following up of an article's references was a long, tedious and frustrating experience, even for people who had the chance to drop in to a university library that might hold the relevant journals.   Now there's a lot that is readily available, and linked directly.  It's true that much academic publishing is locked off to all but specialists in academia, but even so it is much easier to be well-informed than it used to be.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Blogging archaeology - my top posts



This post is part of a blog carnival in the run-up to SAA 2014:

Over the last seven years there have been 20,900 pages viewed. Whether you think that's a lot depends on your expectations. Most of the traffic comes from Google searches, although some follow links from university archaeology courses cite it as an online resource. It is notable that most of search terms are post titles, which means that 'meat and potatoes' post titles work better than clever allusive and obscure ones.

EntryPageviews
1434

20 Dec 2007, 1 comment
717
478
385
303
1 Jan 2013, 3 comments
261


241
14 Feb 2012, 1 comment
191
28 Nov 2007, 1 comment
189
136
I am pleased that the post on How to get your first job in archaeology is popular, reflecting a bit of a vacuum elsewhere (the CBA website's careers advice is vague and optimistic). The otehr popular posts get significant traffic from people searching for general advice on PRINCE2, lean management, training action plans,  and Powerpoint.  The essay on Commercial archaeology  is an interesting case, where the academic published literature on ethics and development in archaeology  are sparse and therefore this contribution to the debate fills a gap.

If I was to take a gloomy view I could say that it is impossible to predict which of the posts will go viral, to the extent of finding most readers, and I am disappointed at the much smaller number of readers who explore the site at length.  But in away that's not surprising: the potential audience of new archaeology graduates or people working in generic management is much larger than my core audience -  commercial arcaheologists who have just been promoted to project managers.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Why this blog started and (nearly) stopped


This post is part of a blog carnival in the run-up to SAA 2014:

Why blogging? – Why did you start a blog? 
I started the 10 simple steps to better archaeological management  blog in 2008 as I was preparing  a presentation for the 2009 IfA conference.  I have had a long interest in the applaiction of comemrcial management theory to the practice of archaeology, and had a few things I wanted to say about where archaeologists were going wrong. 
I had been blogging on life and literature since 2004, mainly as an outlet for writing that didn't have anywhere else to go, and it seemed natural to use the same format in the run-up to the conference, if only to share the concepts with the other speakers in the session.   I was surprised to find that there was little overlap between the papers, because they addressed a wide range of topics under the umbrella of archaeological management, and little discussion arose.  But in any case, writing the blog meant that I prepared the text in advance (my usual practice is to make up a powerpoint set and wing it on the day), and of course the chance to include links to the sources cited and further infromation is much better than the usual talk which hopes that the audinece's notes manage to capture something of what was said.     
I recognised early on that I would not in fact be able to fit everything i wanted to say in the 20 minutes allowed, and so I decided to use print-on-demand technology (Lulu.com) to produce a book version of the paper for sale at the conference (it was a simple process to paste the posts into a Word file, convert it to pdf, and create the book).   
Although the talk went well, and some books were sold, I was disappointed by the lack of follow-up in terms of readership of the blog.  Most people found the blog through Google searches for individual terms, and almost all only read one or two posts.
Why are you still blogging? / Why have you stopped blogging
I have always had strong opinions about the practice of archaeology, and although I have published in learned journals and elsewhere  I have found the constraints of academic and professional writing hard work.  The great joys of blogging are:
  • a chance to express an unpopular, extreme or impolitic opinion unfettered by an editorial hand
  • a chance to write as long or as short as I want, in informal language, with jokes  and asides
  • a chance to write about any topic I choose
  • a chance to respond in real time to emerging news stories rather than waiting for a print version to appear

Over time, without seeking subjects out, I have added to the initial brief overview, and these have fomred the basis of the much expanded and revised 2nd edition of the book.   I would have had little chance to write this book as a concerted exercise, and would have found immense difficulty in finding a publisher: the economics of a short print run and a niche market reached through the website only make sense as a do-it-yourself business.

The frequency of blog posts had dropped dramatically over the last couple of years, mainly because I haven't come across burning issues on which I have anything to add, and aslo because my 'spare' time is directed more towards poetry.


It is pleasing to see that some of the posts, especially How to get your first job  and Ethics and commercial archaeology    , continue to get a lot of traffic, including links from university courses, and it is clear that the blog fills a gap in the information and guidance that is available.  My regret is that the promise of Web 2.0 to generate a global conversation remains unfulfilled - the Twitter model rather than Wikipedia. 


   


Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Changing the way we working: delivering impact through better project management


A workshop developed with Andrea Bradley covering the nuts and bolts of formal project management methods like PRINCE2 and MoRPHE, but also placing emphasis on the key question of how managers think and behave.


A summary was published in The Archaeologist 89 (Autumn 2013), pp. 17-21.

This workshop was developed in response to a perceived gap in opportunities to improve the standard of management in British archaeology.  Andrea Bradley of BIPC and I share an unusual perspective on project management, since we both combine experience of commercial archaeology with work outside archaeology and training in the PRINCE2 formal project management methodology.  There have been attempts since the 1990s to use the wisdom and techniques of management theory in archaeological contexts, but these have made little headway until recently.  To begin with we mapped out a brisk introduction to project management theory and terminology, but we realised as we talked about our experience of applying it in practice that much more important than any specific technique was the attitude of the project manager, and so we deliberately constructed the programme to start and end with changing the mental landscape.  All effective Continuing Professional Development must be personal development if it is make a real difference to future performance through changed behaviour.  This article summarises the key points.


Understanding ourselves

Although project management techniques have their place, the need for self-awareness and reflection is greater.  The workshop's first exercise explored our individual values and priorities by identifying our most intense experiences.  For many people this came from their leisure time or family life.  Unless we understand our drivers it is difficult for us to operate effectively.

Exercise: Self-assessment

There are no right or wrong answers.  You will not be showing your responses to anyone else, so be as honest as possible.  The exercise consists of 4 statements, which you are asked to score from 1 (disagree strongly) to 5 (agree strongly).


Disagree Neutral   Agree
I am competent and professional in my role
1        2        3        4      5
I find my role satisfying and productive
1        2        3        4      5
I am passionate about being involved in excavation
1        2        3        4      5
I make a positive contribution to the success of projects
1        2        3        4      5

The time you have taken to answer these questions is probably the longest you have spent on reflection in the last year.  But you answers are vital in setting any goals for improvement.  People are very poor at evaluating their own performance -psychologists have identified the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon where the less we know about a subject, the more confident we are in our opinion.  This is exacerbated by the prevalence in many organisations of a culture is "Don't ask don't tell" about people's performance, except for annual appraisals.  The rest of the time poor performance (or good performance) is not discussed.  One helpful tool is the 360 degree evaluation, where anonymous feedback from bosses, peers and underlings allows you to compare your idea of how you are doing with those of others.  There is a free survey available from www.carregffylfan.co.uk/media.html 


Projects and project management

There is a traditional view that the management of archaeological projects is unique bit is is archaeology, but this exceptionalism was challenged by one of the workshop's exercises.  Participants were asked to report on a recent project that had failed and to identify the reasons for failure.  The answers were: poor planning, poor communication, insufficient time and resources, unavailability of key staff, and inflexibility in the light of changing circumstances.  Nobody reported that C14 dating or a complex occupation phase was the problem.   The issues are generic, and precisely those that the discipline of project management is aimed at addressing.

Project management is a distinctive subset of general management - it gets its character from the fact that every project is temporary, with a defined endpoint and constrained resources.  As a result, projects involve compromises between standards, scope, costs and time: a good project manager is one who makes the right calls in the face of tough choices.  Project management is not, in essence, complex - it can be summarised as comprising three components: talking to people, moving bits of paper around, and thinking.  Moving bits of paper around is usually the easy bit, while thinking is often undervalued.

Formal project management defines a project as a unique temporary activity delivered a specified change with defined budget and resources, using skills from multiple parts of an organisation or consortium, in order to achieve a business aim.  In business, this aim is usually to generate a profit.  Although some archaeologists would say that a successful project is one that has the right academic or professional outputs, no organisation can afford to lose money forever.

PRINCE2 is the widely-used method in the UK, especially in the public sector, and its terminology and structure have become standard.  It is often perceived as paper-intensive and excessively bureaucratic, but one of the principles is that processes should be tailored for the project.  The key benefits of using PRINCE2 is the clarity about aims, progress and standards which reduces the chance of catastrophic failure.  Few archaeological organisations explicitly use PRINCE2, but PRINCE2 underlies English Heritage's MoRPHE project planning process (the replacement of Management of Archaeological Projects (MAP2 and MAP3)). 

The workshop didn't try to provide a full primer on project management, instead focusing on the issues most relevant to archaeology.


Defining roles

Successful projects tend to have well defined roles without overlaps or black holes, and project management therefore spends a lot of time defining the roles and responsibilities of those involved.  PRINCE2 discourages the creation of large steering committees with periodic progress meetings in favour of a project board restricted to those directly involved, meeting when required to make decisions.  The project board includes representatives of the suppliers (those doing the work), end -users (representing the client) and the corporate interests of the institution (the project executive or director).  The project manager reports to the board, from whom authority within defined limits is derived.  When things are running to plan, the project manager can provide brief highlight and checkpoint reports to the board members, but this can be escalated into ad hoc advice and meetings as soon as the project's success is threatened.  Typically the board's discussion will go like this:

Project Manager
Progress is behind schedule and completion is in doubt
Supplier
We need more time and/or resources to complete the work
User
We need to ensure that standards are maintained if we are to achieve the intended aims
Executive
Providing more resources will reduce the profit generated

These tensions are inherent in any project governance structure - the power of assigning roles like this is in providing a forum and process by which these can be balanced.


Defining the structure

Projects often involve numerous contractors, subcontractors, and stakeholders, in addition to the hierarchy of the project team itself.  It is helpful to draw this structure and share it with others.  Since communication is vital, every link in the structure can be thought of as an information flow, and it is worthwhile considering the medium and frequency with which data will be shared (formal report, email, phone call, or site visit).  Often the process of mapping will highlights some key relationships which have no defined means of communication at all. 


Change, risk and progress

Chang and risk is part of the project landscape.  At the start, there are too many unknowns to predict effectively what will prove possible or desirable.  Good project management allows for this so that the project manager can spot risks and opportunities early and amend plans accordingly.

A thorny issue in archaeology is how we track progress.  It is relatively easy to monitor expenditure and activity to check spend against profile, but this doesn't address the vital question - how much of what needs to be done has been done?  In the end this is largely a judgement call, but project managers should at least be asking themselves this question all the time.


Changing how we work

“The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.” Robert M Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Organisations are hard to change, but it is much easier to change our own behaviour.  The workshop ended with a series of practical tips which could be implemented immediately.  

The 'Five Whys' technique of root cause analysis can be applied to any recurrent problem, major or minor.  All it needs is a partner who can ask penetrating questions, and often the problem's solution emerges.   For example: "They've run out of content sheets on site again."  "Why?" "They didn't take enough." "Why?" "There weren't many left in the sore." "Why?" "The last project took most of them but didn't order more."  It would be possible to devise a complex administrative solution, but perhaps all that is needed is a note on the wall of the store reminding people to order more when the supply is getting low.

"Lessons learned" is a phrase that originated with PRINCE2 and has become a commonplace - continuous improvement comes from not repeating mistakes.  Even if there is no formal post-project review (and there should be), anyone can take some time to reflect on their experience and activity to identify what worked and what didn't.

We also need to recognise that we are not brains on legs - our physical and emotional state can affect our work.  I have a rule: no Excel after 4 o'clock, based on the bitter experience of re-doing financial reports the next morning when I'm awake enough to spot the errors. 


Having an impact

Those who attended the workshop found it inspiring and positive at the time, but more importantly they have taken action on returning to work. 

"I now plan out each morning what I hope to achieve, and review it at the end of the day"

"I make much more effort to explain the background to the tasks and to link it to our company objectives"

"I have found myself noticing my emotional state and deciding to postpone difficult conversations until I'm calmer"

Juggling priorities (c) Martin Locock   A photo of a large office whiteboard annotated with multiple tasks and dependencies

Project management is the art of juggling priorities Photo: Martin Locock


Would your oganisation benefit?  If so get in touch to arrange a workshops.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Value and values in excavation recording

A video version of a presentation I gave at TAG 2012 in Liverpool.


http://panopto.lamp.ac.uk/Panopto/Pages/Viewer/Default.aspx?id=3156c19d-1d85-424d-b4ad-c5832420603e

You may need to download the Panopto viewer to get the synchronised slides + commentary.

Slideshow:

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Out now: "10 simple steps" the book

10 simple steps to better archaeological management available as a 150-page paperback, £16 including P&P.

"A cogent analysis of the problems inherent in archaeological management.  This book should be required reading for all archaeologists - at all stages of their careers"  The Historic Environment

** Buy it now from Carreg Ffylfan Press  **

The contents are based on the material here, edited and expanded.


Preface

Acknowledgements

Section 1: Introduction
Why reading management books won't help archaeologists
Bad habits of archaeological managers and where they came from
Isn’t good management just common sense?

Exercise 1: Your beliefs and assumptions

Section 2: The 10 simple steps
Step 1: Identity
Step 2: Labels
Step 3: Image
Step 4: Training
Step 5: Communication
Step 6: Costs and risks
Step 7: Don’t overperform the spec
Step 8: Archaeology isn’t just excavation
Step 9: Take Health and Safety seriously
Step 10: Treat junior staff well

Section 3: The Manager’s toolkit
Email is your friend not your enemy
iGoogle can change your life
Getting Things Done
Time management
    Exercise 2: Review your current time-use
Microsoft Project
Excel cheatsheet
360 degree evaluation
   Exercise 3: Evaluation
A training buddy

Section 4: Action plan
Exercise 4: Love/hate map

Section 5: Practical management
Company health-check
Quality systems in archaeology
Succession planning and career development
How to fix a failing project
What is PRINCE2 and should I be using it?
Why do good Project Officers make bad Project Managers?
Being positive about business meetings
What not to say at a client meeting
Copyright for archaeologists
The archaeological marketplace
Commercial archaeology and the ethics of development
Preservation and ethics
Coping with the crunch: hard times are coming
Hard times economics
Bridging the skills gap and re-thinking evaluation
Curatorial practice after the crunch
Management gurus and the 10 simple steps

Afterword

Bibliography


Book links