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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for the ‘Organizations’ Category

Known Unknowns (1)

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

The problem of keeping track of institutional wisdom is well known. It is very easy for knowledge about how an organisation works, tips and tricks of solving common problems, or just basic knowledge about people and resources to be “stored” in the head of a single individual or small group. Many years ago I worked at a university where one person, and only that person, knew everything about how the university timetable worked. He was about to retire, and it was a great effort for him to formalise 40 years of informal rules and casual knowledge to pass onto his successors.

Nonetheless, there are ways of eliciting this information. A hard problem, perhaps, is that of recording institutional ignorance. What don’t we know? What issues are disputed? What issues are handled in different ways? Clearly, if such issues can be resolved quickly, then they can be put onto agendas of meetings, and ways found to resolve them. But, what about the longer-term issues? Those that don’t have a quick fix, or where there is deep-seated disagreement about them, or where there is just no resource to sort them out.

It isn’t easy to record this sort of thing. Some people like to think that everything is clean and well-run within an organisation, and that even the act of recording these issues is an admission of failure. In other organisations, there is a lack of willingness to accept that the “official line” isn’t being kept, that people are running shadow systems because the official system isn’t working for the task at hand, or that the only reason for the dispute is lack of knowledge about the “proper” way of doing things. Other organisations are “solution focused”, and believe that anything that is problematic should be sorted out as soon as possible, in ignorance of the constraints of time and resources. All of these belie the complexity of large organisations. It would be shocking to find an organisation in which at least a few issues were unresolved or disputed.

One technology which has a lot of potential for this are shared wiki-style documents. These have the flexibility to act as a repository for information of this kind, without the commitment to “sort it out” that a meeting agenda has. Furthermore, different people can contribute, and, if the organisation is confident enough, different approaches included and discussed, putative solutions recorded, etc. Another advantage is that things are grouped by topic rather than by time.

More generally, there is a need for a repository in-between meeting minutes and policies. A place to store the casual wisdom and notes on practice that are not important or authoritative enough to be recorded in institutional regulations and policies.

Nudge (1)

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Here’s a nice example of a kind of “nudge” in action. Clearly, any workplace that has post collections that are in open spaces is open to the use of that postal system by employees for personal mail. This is a nice, low cost approach to this that actually provides a service to those employees.

"the estates post counter will continue to operate..."

Rather than coming over as “don’t do this” it instead says “we recognise that you have a need to do this” and provides a way to do it. Also, I imagine that the times are designed to exploit a time in the post room workers’ day when they are fairly gently loaded.

“Teach someone to fish…”

Friday, February 1st, 2013

Why is it almost an axiom of debate on public service provision that the gain in efficiency through outsourcing will outweigh the inevitable additional cost of the service provider’s profit, whilst it is also assumed that, however hard they try, public organisations will not be able to learn these efficiency gains?

Isn’t there a long-term advantage for public organisations to learn these more efficient means of practice, as that would, after the initial cost of doing so, pay off indefinitely, whilst paying an outside organisation to realise these gains is an ongoing cost.

There is a flavour of “give someone a fish, and they’ll have a meal; teach them to fish, and they’ll have meals for the rest of their life” about this.

City of Edinburgh Council Fail

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Public sector organisations are desperate for people to engage with them online. This has the potential to be, in the long run, transformative and radically cost-reducing.

But not if they do what the City of Edinburgh Council did to me. In April 2012, just after I received my Council Tax bill, I filled out the form on the Council website, and received an email back as follows:

Thank you for submitting your form for Set up a direct debit to pay your Council Tax or Non-Domestic Rates. Your request will now be processed and a bill detailing your direct debit payments issued to you.

Fine. I’ve sorted out my payments and don’t have to worry about this anymore.

But…no. I returned from a little while away to find a reminder notice (with no mention of the original direct debit) and, as I had been away and missed the original payment date, a Sheriff Officers’s letter demanding that I pay the original charge plus a 150 pound penalty fee.

I phone the City of Edinburgh Council, and after fighting with the telephone tree for several minutes finally managed to speak to a human. They said that the Direct Debit had failed and that I was meant to interpret the reminder (which made no mention of the Direct Debit) as an indication of this, despite having received the email saying that my “Direct Debit…was being processed” with no further email or letter to say that it had failed.

A call to my bank received the response that no Direct Debit Mandate had been received from the council, and therefore no payments had been able to be made.

I remain livid about this. I had tried to be a “good citizen” and use the system that the Council were promoting heavily, only to be stiffed with a financial penalty with no explicit warning that my attempt to pay by Direct Debit had failed, just a generic “reminder” which might still have been sent if the DD had been in the middle of being processed. Of course I’m going to appeal against the penalty but I don’t see why I should have to go through all this trouble.

Based on this experience I would advise people not to engage with this way of paying Council Tax—which is a pity as I am usually a great advocate of using technology to improve public services.

What could they have done better:

  1. Informed me properly that the Direct Debit had failed. A generic reminder letter, received after I had already received a positive email to say that my payment was being processed, was not enough. They really need to follow up that positive email with an explicit email/letter to say that the specific means of payment had failed.
  2. Shown some contrition when I phoned up to sort this out. If they had just said “yes, okay, we’re sorry that we didn’t inform you, we’ll take the payment now and waive the penalty charge” I would have been perfectly happy. As it is I’m now fired up to write letters to my Councillors and MP and to the local paper and tweet about it.
  3. Got the damn process right in the first place. If you’re going to try and persuade people to use a new system it really needs to work from the outset, otherwise people will be put off it for years. I’ll probably not engage with this web-based system again, I just don’t trust it. Early failure can poison the well for ever: I still don’t trust the automated cheque paying-in systems in banks because the first time I tried one, 20 years ago or so, it just failed and lost my cheque.

Update 2012-07-18. Edinburgh council sorted out the problem the next day and waived the penalty charge, and gave a very sincere apology. Kudos to them for fast correction of mistakes.

Managing the Innovation Cycle

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

When we can afford to innovate, we don’t. We are happy. We are making lots of money, our staff are happy and busy, we have too much damn stuff to do to worry about the Next Big Thing. Besides, the current Big Thing will be around for ever, surely?

When we most need to innovate, we can’t. We are in straightened times, struggling to do what we need to do with the current staffing levels, trying desperately to hang on to our current activities and make them viable. We just don’t have the time or resources to risk on something that might not work out.

I’ve seen this happen in universities. Departments that are doing well see little (strategic) need to consider delivering new degree programmes: the current programmes are recruiting well, staff are enjoying teaching them, the students are enthusastic and there doesn’t seem to be any shift in the supply of new applicants year on year. We could easily put together something new, risky and exciting; but, who cares? When student numbers dry up, we flail around for new courses to deliver, and end up putting on untried and cobbled-together courses without the staff effort to do it properly.

I would imagine that this same cycle holds in many kinds of organisations.

What can we do, as a management strategy, to handle this cycle better?

Communicating out-of-the-Ordinary Decisions

Monday, May 28th, 2012

All organisations need some way of handling situations that are out of the ordinary. Regardless of the complexity of an organisations (written or tacit) processes, there will be times when a situation occurs that is unusual; to take a simple example, consider a railway network when there is a broken down train.

In small organisations the decision taken can be communicated on an ad hoc basis as needed. But, in a large organisation such as the railway network, an ad hoc decision can require the cooperation of a number of actors in the system. For example, I have sometimes been told by someone at a station that it is okay to take a particular alternative route or a different train to the one that I was booked on to, only to find that the staff on the train make a different decision.

How could this be effectively communicated? The obvious solution is for the person making the ad hoc decision to communicate this to other actors that need to be involved. There are problems with this—if the communication is direct, then there is a difficulty of identifying the actors involved. If the communication is indirect—for example, by issuing the customer with a note to show to other people that are involved—then there is a problem with verification (how does the train ticket inspector know that the note allegedly from the duty manager at St. Pancras actually comes from there?).

I wonder if there is a case for some kind of online “blackboard” system where decisions such as this could be noted and then looked up by everyone within the organisation. This depends, of course, as to whether confidential information needs to be transmitted, but in many such cases, this is unlikely.