Hypertext as an Enabling Tool for Concurrent Engineering Teams

Jerrold Foutz
Rockwell International Corporation
Defense Electronics
Anaheim, California 92803-4192
(714) 762-1052

Abstract - The author derives lessons-learned applicable to concurrent engineering teams based on five years of experience with hypertext. This experience includes applying hypertext to a variety of projects and teaching hypertext skills to over 200 employees in after-hour classes.

INTRODUCTION

The most important asset a company has is the knowledge and skills of its people [1]. This raises the issue "How best can we use the knowledge and skills of our people to become more competitive?" One answer to this issue is concurrent engineering. The principal idea of concurrent engineering is that all people involved in the product's success, from concept to disposal, have concurrent knowledge of the product development and can contribute effectively to its design [2].

Enabling effective concurrent engineering raises another issue "How can we best capture and communicate information and knowledge in a concurrent engineering environment?" The author proposes a particular form of low-cost hypertext as an answer.

This paper discusses five years of experience in applying this form of hypertext at Rockwell International Corporation's Defense Electronics organization. The major goal during this period was to learn hypertext, then teach it in after-hour classes while applying it to a variety of projects. The hypertext projects include:

Students have expanded these applications to a remarkable variety of work and personal projects. These projects include software engineering, configuration control, gardening, cooking, and genealogy.

The topics discussed in the following sections include concurrent engineering, electronic images and networks, hypertext, and lessons learned in applying expert systems and hypertext [4], [5], [6], [7].

CONCURRENT ENGINEERING

Product developers usually describe the finished product in a collection of formal documents. These include specifications, drawings, manuals, and sales literature. In the early stage of developing the product, developers use a more informal set of documents. These include studies, tradeoffs, minutes of meetings, sketches, and laboratory notebooks. It is this early period of the design that determines most of the characteristics of the product, including cost.

Concurrent engineering places emphasis on the beginning of the design. It brings together all the product stakeholders at these early stages. These stakeholders include the customer, customer support, marketing, testing, manufacturing, and engineering. The goal is to assure that the stakeholders make the best tradeoffs in the important early phases -- and all subsequent product-development phases.

ELECTRONIC IMAGES AND NETWORKS

In today's computer environment, the documents described above increasingly have electronic images. These images include output files from wordprocessors, databases, spreadsheets, computer-aided-drawings, netlists, and simulation outputs. Simultaneously, companies are tying their computers together in networks. Networks enable electronic mail, bulletin boards, sharing of software, transfer and control of files, and other processes. The problem for concurrent engineering is to tie these trends together and make information available to all stakeholders in a timely and useful manner.

There are several on-going programs to make this happen including some ambitious programs by the U.S. Government Department of Defense [3]. The author has taken a less ambitious approach. The approach is based on the following:

HYPERTEXT

What is hypertext?

In a hypertext, the hypertext author edits information into single-topic or single-idea chunks called nodes. These nodes are usually text or graphic files. The hypertext author then ties together these nodes with links that allow jumps between nodes. Link-markers show the presence of a link. Multiple links in a node present the reader with many paths through the material and reading takes on a non-linear aspect under the control of the reader.

The hypertext author can build several suggested paths through the material. One path can be a series of links that duplicates the conventional linear path of printed text. Menus, table-of-contents, and indices can be used to organize links, similar to conventional text. But hypertext also uses other forms of linkage, such as linking by association, to aid in finding information. Linking by association mimics human long-term memory and was the original model used for developing hypertext. This mimicking of the human mind is part of what makes finding information in a good hypertext seem so natural. The other part comes from the skill of the author in organizing and linking the hypertext.

Linking can both mask and reveal information. By creating paths for various readers, the hypertext author reduces the cognitive load on the reader and increases the reader's ability to find, absorb, and work with ideas.

Chunking knowledge into single-idea fragments makes it easy to capture information. Linking this information in any manner conceivable to the human mind improves retrieval. When combined with networking, hypertext is a powerful enabler of group processes such as concurrent engineering [7].

Software Selected

The author evaluated dozens of hypertext authoring/runtime software programs before selecting the software and techniques now being used. The selected software is the authoring and runtime systems created by MaxThink, Inc., Berkeley, California. Many of the techniques the author uses are those advocated by Neil Larson, the president of MaxThink *.

The authoring system for this software is any wordprocessor or text editor that can save ASCII files. One makes hypertext links by typing file names in angle brackets <filename> in any document, including reports from spreadsheets, databases, or computer programs. The runtime system is one or more of several compatible memory-resident, free-standing, or network runtime programs. Most of these have no-cost licenses. Some, mainly the network versions, require a fee. Although not necessary to getting started, MaxThink markets a variety of software tools that fit into an integrated philosophy of creating hypertext.

Technique for Teams

A hypertext champion for the project is necessary. This person sets up the hypertext by:

The individual team members add substance to the hypertext by:

The use of the hypertext is illustrated with the example of a team member writing a summary of a conference just attended. First one opens their directory <JF1DIR> and adds a jump to the next file, JF1003, and identifies the node.

   <JF1001>     First item in directory

   <JF1002>     Electro'93 Conference

   <JF1003>     Summary of Electro '93

One then opens the file JF1003 and writes the summary. As soon as the file is closed, all other team members can access it. One then adds a note to the project log with a jump to the conference summary.

   04-01-93 1st log entry for April  

   04-26-93 Travel to Electro'93 <JF1002>

   04-30-93 Wrote Electro'93 summary <JF1003>

The advantage of this approach is that it takes less than 30 seconds to add a link to a new node in the hypertext. The link is added before the node is created. If it takes 50 minutes to write the summary, it takes less than 30 seconds more to have it in the hypertext, available to all team members the instant the work is completed.

LESSONS-LEARNED

The author has summarized the lessons-learned applicable to concurrent engineering teams in Table I. The lessons are grouped by software and techniques, hardware, people, hypertext content, and benefits.

Table I. Lessons-Learned


Software and Techniques

1. Hypertext software should have a free or one-time-cost runtime license.

2. The authoring system must be affordable and available to all users.

3. Software and techniques must allow creating and maintaining hypertext with minimal effort.

4. Hypertext jumps must appear to be instantaneous on even the largest of hypertexts and the slowest of computers.

5. Keep it simple. There is a limit to the complexity that most users are willing to learn and use.

6. Select software and techniques that take a minimum of training (one hour or less) to get started.

7. Electronic mail strongly complements hypertext.

Hardware

8. All team members must have access to a personal computer tied into a network with other team members.

People

9. Not everyone sees value in computers or hypertext. Their proficiency in these areas vary widely. Team members should be selected for willingness to use computers and hypertext tools in addition to their product development skills.

10. One or more hypertext non-user, essential to the project, can negate the cost-saving benefits of using hypertext.

11. Until hypertext is used routinely, a hypertext champion is needed for each project.

12. Train by hypertext tutorials, example, and using hypertext on the project.

Content

13. Project logs cut the costs and improve the quality of keeping project members, management, and customers informed.

14. The information must be in the hypertext or it will not be used.

15. Hypertexts will be used if information is present, easy to find, users have computer access, and it is inconvenient to get otherwise.

Benefits

16. Team members, management, and customers are better informed at all stages of the product development.

17. The rationale for the design as well as the design is captured.

18. Better and faster decisions can often be made using computer groupware than in face-to-face meetings.

19. Information annealing assures that all viewpoints are considered in developing the product and controversial viewpoints are not lost.

20. Hypertext results in a net savings of design labor.

Each lesson could be backed up with a lengthy discussion. Space limitations restrict the discussion to a few examples.

The first lesson in Table I came from early knowledge engineering experience where the author was part of a large group of engineers trained in the discipline. The participants constructed over a hundred useful expert systems using "free" software with a runtime license that required a substantial fee for each program distributed. As a result, the authors never distributed their expert systems and they were never used -- a disturbing loss of corporate knowledge. This led to the first rule: Use software with a free or one-time-cost runtime license. This rule will eliminate many otherwise excellent hypertext systems, but should be considered mandatory.

The second lesson in Table I was learned several times. Expensive authoring systems on several projects limited the availability to all team members and crippled the project. If the authoring software was available, training time was detrimental to the project. The ability to use any wordprocessor, spreadsheet, database, or computer language the team member chooses for authoring the hypertext has several advantages. Each team member can use the tools they are most proficient in and team members can use different tools, yet share all information in a common ASCII hypertext. This cuts costs and increases productivity.

The third lesson in Table I is probably part of the reader's experience. Engineers and other non-writing professionals hate to document their work. People spend whatever resources needed to get critical information, but are reluctant to spend any resources documenting it for themselves or others. For these reasons, hypertext software and techniques were selected to optimize the ease of getting information into hypertext form with at least one dependable linking path to the information. The 30-second technique developed has proved very successful. Because of this technique, the author and many of his co-workers and students have all the information in their personal computer in hypertext form. Many cannot envision how they got things done before hypertext.

The fourth lesson in Table I came from the first hypertext authoring/runtime system the author used. Although the runtime license met the lesson-one criteria, the authoring system was in the $600 range violating lesson two. The author abandoned the software when hypertext jumps took up to 20 seconds for an 80K byte hypertext on a XT computer. Jump-time increased as the size of the hypertext increased. Readers stop making jumps if jumps start taking any perceptible time. In fairness to the company, they recommended a 386-class computer, but our target readers then only had slower computers.

The fifth lesson in Table I came from experience with a large Issue-Based Information System (IBIS). It was constructed using the hypertext software recommended in this paper. One uses IBIS systems to solve complex problems difficult to solve otherwise. The method consists of stating an issue as a question and then proposing positions that are answers to the question. Arguments for and against each position are then made. The introduction to this paper is in an IBIS-like form. Hypertext is a position (proposed answer) to a question, with the rest of the paper being supporting arguments. Research [9] and the author's experience support the conclusion that IBIS is about the most complexity you an get a mixed team of people to effectively use.

CONCLUSION

Five years experience with hypertext projects with both partial failures and outstanding successes has taught a series of useful lessons. The central one here is that a very simple form of hypertext can be effectively used to support the team interactions needed for a successful concurrent engineering team. All that is required is each team member have a personal computer networked to other team members. The team members must be selected for their computer skills as well as heir project skills. The team members can use the wordprocessors and other programs they are currently using. Runtime software with a free runtime license or a single-fee per network server is used to access the hypertext. Training in the techniques takes less than one hour. Benefits equal or exceed those promised by more ambitious and expensive approaches.


* The companies and products mentioned in this paper are a matter of fact and no endorsement is made or implied.


REFERENCES

[1] Deming, W. Edwards, "Out of the Crisis," Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering Study, Cambridge, Mass., 1986. p. 466

[2] Institute for Defense Analysis Report R-338, "The Role of Concurrent Engineering in Weapons System Acquisition," R. I. Winner, et. al., Institute for Defense Analysis, December 1988.

[3] Owen, Jean V., "Concurrent Engineering," Manufacturing Engineering, November 1992.

[4] Foutz, J., "The Use of Expert System Shells for Developing Design Aids for Power Supply Circuit Designers", Proceedings of PowerCAD'87, Los Angeles, California, September 10, 1987, Darnell Research Inc., Garden Grove, California.

[5] Foutz, J., "Computer Aids for Communicating Design Expertise in Power Electronics", IEEE Computers in Power Electronics Work Shop Record, August 22-23, 1988, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[6] Foutz, J., "Power Supply Circuit Development Estimating Aid - An Expert System Application", IEEE Applied Power Electronics Conference Record, New Orleans, February 1-5, 1988.

[7] Foutz, J., "Design of a Hypertext Power Supply Design Guide," IEEE Applied Power Electronics Conference Record, San Diego, CA., March 7-11, 1993.

[8] Larson, Neil, "HyGlos(tm) - Hypertext Knowledge Construction System,", 1992, MaxThink, Berkeley, CA, Chapter 9, "What is Information Annealing?"

[9] Yakemovic, K.C.Burgess, and Jeff Conklin, "Observations on a Commercial Use of an Issue-Based Information System," Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) Technical Report Number STP-122-90, Software Technology Program, March 15, 1990.


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Original: Foutz, J., "Hypertext as an Enabling Tool for Concurrent Engineering Teams," IEEE Electro /93 International Conference Record, Edison, NJ., April 27-29, 1993. pp. 460-464. Posting to Web without content change 13 February 1999 and revised 20 February 2001.

Other papers by Jerrold Foutz

Author: Jerrold Foutz, foutz@smpstech.com