WHAT DOES A DATA DICTIONARY AND A REFUGEE CAMP HAVE IN COMMON?

By Leezan Omerbell

 

In my last life as a foreign affair professional, I worked as a field volunteer for Un Ponte Per, a non-governmental organization under the United Nations, at the Domiz Refugee Camp in the Kurdish Province of Dohuk, Iraq. As a volunteer, I used my language skills to collect data to help manage and allocate resources. A few days after arriving, I was in one of the trailers looking over my notes when a man entered the trailer. The man was about my age and wanted to know if his grandmother could come inside and sit on one of the empty chairs while waiting to be processed. Without hesitation, I agreed. A few minutes later a young woman entered with him and sat on one of the chairs. When I questioned him about the whereabouts of his grandmother, he simply pointed to the young woman.

As it turned out, the woman was not his grandmother, but his wife. You see, I had failed to take into consideration that even though I spoke the regional languages, there can be variances in vocabulary depending on location and dialect. Although the man thought he was communicating effectively, and I thought I was receiving the information correctly, there was still a disconnect.  To me the word he had used meant someone old, such as a grandmother. But in his dialect, it meant “wife.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines communication as “a process by which information is exchanged.” This process is the foundation of all relationships, personal and professional. But what we often forget, is that machines too need to communicate and exchange information with one another as an integral part of modern life and business. Broken down to their simplest level, machines such as database systems communicate with one another continuously and need to so do to remain relevant.

But how do we prevent miscommunication between these machines? If humans can have such misunderstandings, like the one that took place between that young man and myself, then machines can most certainly experience miscommunication too. As a solution, data dictionaries for database systems were created to enable clear and correct exchanges of information. For your own systems, before accurate exchanges can take place, you should do your due diligence, and do some database dictionary “house cleaning.”

  1. Update your data dictionary: Update your data dictionary to reflect your database as it changes. Databases change…a lot. Columns and fields become irrelevant; some are taken out while new ones are added. So, before you begin exchanging data with another database, make sure your own data dictionary is up to date.
  2. Make your data dictionary readable: This isn’t corporate law where you must write policy in a language no one can read. The point of your data dictionary is so that others can clearly understand what your database is about. If others can’t read it or understand it, then you have failed to create a working data dictionary. Make your data dictionary simple and easily readable.
  3. Answer questions: This might sound like common sense, but if an individual who is working with your data dictionary has a question, answer it. And set up time to provide clarifications. Learn from these instances and update your dictionary accordingly to prevent similar questions in future.

Again, the whole purpose of your data dictionary is so your database can communicate with another system. This allows everyone involved, machines included, to get on the same page. If it fails to accomplish this, your data dictionary needs work. Small improvements to your data dictionary can yield huge benefits for your database.

 

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LEADERSHIP VS. MANAGEMENT IN WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT

by Chelsea Salyer

 

A major focus of workforce development, a service offered by CountryIntel, is helping an individual develop the skills and abilities required to succeed within their workplace. Some of those skills and abilities may relate to leadership and/or management.

People often mistake leadership and management to be one and the same, but fundamentally they are very different. Yet both practices are essential to running a business. Certain business scenarios require diverse skills. Distinguishing between leadership and management can help a business efficiently employ its resources to achieve success.

Leadership is about inspiring, motivating, and empowering others to work toward a shared vision, while management is concerned with administrative responsibilities and ensuring day-to-day operations run smoothly.

One of the main differences between leadership and management is seen when executing the business’ vision. Leadership is more strategic while management is more operational. Leaders examine where the business stands, set a vision for future organizational growth, and develop a strategic plan for how to move from the present to the future. Leaders, by nature, are innovative. Alternatively, managers implement processes and procedures that help the business achieve the objectives set by the leaders. Simply put, leaders ask “what” and “why” whereas managers ask “how” and “when.”

Another difference between leadership and management lies within how they either inspire or manage their followers and subordinates. Leaders inspire trust among employees and rely on that relationship to build a following. When communicating the vision, leaders are responsible for helping employees see themselves within the bigger organizational picture. They connect an employee’s goals and aspirations with the company’s vision, giving meaning to the day-to-day functions while aligning short-term and long-term direction.

Separately, managers rely on the authority of their job description to effectively manage employees and maintain compliance. Managers coordinate activities among subordinates and organize staff to optimize efficiency and play to the strengths of each individual. Managers break down big projects into smaller milestones and assign tasks according to resource limitations such as schedule and budget. They are more focused on the tactical responsibilities required to meet the organization’s objectives.

Despite the differences between leadership and management, the two practices often organically intertwine within a business structure. Both leadership and management structures are needed to engage a workforce toward a shared vision and achieve organizational success. While it is crucial to understand their differences, it would be unwise to purposefully try to separate one from the other. Rather, the focus should be on how these two practices will coincide and how to harness their differences to complement one another. Together, leadership and management help bridge the gaps in scenarios where reliance on one skill alone might fall short. Developing a workforce with both leadership and management functions is crucial to the overarching success of the business. Even more critical is developing skills uniquely tailored to each individual employee’s role.

 

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THE PAIN POINTS SHOULD GUIDE YOU, NOT THE SPARKLE OF A SHINY PENNY

by Jeff Fourman and Leezan Omerbell

 

Ideas are abundant. Ideas that evolve into prototypes are rare. Prototypes that become essential tools for clients are even more scarce. And if you want to talk unicorns, then build a product that becomes essential for your clients. Hopefully, your team can gain insight from CountryIntel’s lessons learned, which we compiled while applying a lean approach to creating viable products for our government client base.

Budget: When assessing the budget for product development, it is common practice to simply “go big” and request a large price tag. While this type of proposal might be accepted, the request for a large amount is often unappetizing. From experience, we discovered it is easier to pilot products with a smaller, more reasonable budget when building lean. Then you can focus on the key pain points that your prototype addresses. This approach keeps your team focused on a lean solution that can deploy rapidly with effective results and an undeniable proof of concept. With this approach, your client reaps the benefits sooner and with a greater return on investment. They will also be more likely to continue to invest in the solution with iterative enhancements to rapidly address the most problematic pain points.

Prototype: It is tempting to present a finished and highly polished product which you think is “just right” for your clients. But operating under such assumptions can present challenges. Initially developing too far down the technology roadmap for your solution is risky. You may not incorporate all the client’s feedback necessary to guide you down the right path, and you may end up wasting valuable time and funding on a solution that only partially meets the client’s needs, paints you into a corner, and creates problems of its own. If the client wants something that only partially meets their needs, they could simply buy a Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) solution and overpay for features they will never use or that require unwieldy workarounds to operationalize. Remember, the pain points should guide you, not the sparkle of a shiny penny.

Do not gamble with your budget and assume you know all your client’s wants and needs from the start of a development road map. Gamble long enough and you are certain to lose. Then you will have to backtrack, make costly adjustments, and potentially need to restart completely if you do find yourself surrounded by wet paint. Again, when building, keep the prototype lean and minimal at first, and keep open lines of communication with the client so honest feedback can be collected. And do not be afraid to ask, “What stinks about this prototype?”  They will tell you, and it could keep you from having to start over if there is a nagging nuisance which they are afraid to tell you about in early prototyping.

Maximize end-user feedback loop: The purpose of building a lean prototype is to provide the client and end-users the opportunity to assess the product and provide feedback and recommendations. Optimizing the end-user feedback loop enables you to make these changes and provide the client with a viable product that suits their specific needs. This also helps justify a budget to further enhance the prototype into a more robust operating product. Ultimately, this approach increases client confidence and trust that what they are paying for is exactly what they need.

 

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CREATING A TEAM IN A VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENT

by Leezan Omerbell

Our company’s pivot to remote work was mostly seamless when the 2020 pandemic hit. We already implemented digital workplace tools to help manage virtual teams prior to the pandemic, and the leadership team organized efforts in the earlier days of the pandemic which provided a solid foundation to build upon. Therefore, we were ready when the opportunity for growth presented itself.  

Tools:

 First we audited our existing tools. We assessed the tools  capabilities, dependability, and ease of use. To address gaps in our capabilities, we explored which pre-existing tools could be upgraded and which tools needed to be purchased to help better manage our virtual team environment. For example, we needed a project management (PM) tool; however, not all prospective tools fit our business needs or budget. Through our research, we discovered that a simple upgrade to Microsoft 365 provided the team with SharePoint for internal document sharing and Microsoft TEAMS for communication and collaboration. We also discovered that TEAMS offered a PM-like tool called “Tasks by Planner,” sufficient for tracking and managing workloads. Auditing the current capabilities of your company saves the company money and prevents your team from having to train on a completely new product.   

Schedules:

This meeting could have been an e-mail. We have all heard someone say this, type it in a group chat, or share it as a meme. Organizing schedules is no easy task when managing a virtual team. Even when teams are not physically in an office together, you want them to be communicative and collaborative without overburdening employees with too many meetings.  How do you do balance this act? We realized our team functions best if we have a Monday staff meeting and a Friday “weekly topics” meeting. The Monday staff meetings focus on the schedule for the week, the scheduled client meeting, outstanding tasks from last week, and due outs needed before the end of the week. The Monday staff meeting begins with the Program Manager sharing his/her schedule, and then each team member provides their own schedule for the week. The Friday “weekly topics” meeting always starts formally but transitions to a more relaxed environment. In the formal portion, we discuss outstanding taskers or issues of interest across teams. To give each team member the opportunity to lead, communicate, and demonstrate organizational skills, a different individual is chosen to facilitate each of the four Friday “weekly topics” meetings for that month. These individuals are responsible for coordinating end of week topics across functional teams and capturing them on appropriate slides.  

Collaboration: 

This word has been used so much lately. You can find the definition for it easily by doing a quick search, but I would add that you, the management, set the tone for the team and ultimately influence the team’s interactions with one another. Common courtesy is important; use “please” and “thank you” often with your team. Understand your team members’ strengths and blind spots. Most of this knowledge will come with time, but having team members provide a biography combining professional accomplishments and interests, hobbies, and fun facts can provide a jump start. Making the bios accessible to the team allows members to better know one another. Use the information in the weekly meetings to get conversations going. You might have more than one team member who is very good at photography. Start a reading list of books your team members have enjoyed reading. Start a cooking club where they share their favorite recipes. Get to know your team. Be creative and have fun. Managing virtual teams comes with its own set of unique circumstances, but with the right preparation and flexibility in approach, it can add a whole new set of tools to your management arsenal.  

Be Available: This is easy enough, right? Be available for your team if they have questions.  

 

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