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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for the ‘Management and Leadership’ Category

Systematic Inefficiencies (1)

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

Every time we have an open day at Kent, the University of Essex (hello to my dear friends there!) pays someone to drive a bloody great van with a mahoosive “University of Essex” poster on it and park it all day opposite the main entrance to our campus.

I can’t imagine that 20-30 years ago, when we first started to talk about having some kind of competitive ethos between universities, that we would ever have imagined that we would end up in a situation like this. And it seems to be a systematic inefficiency baked into the system. Unlike the often talked about “inefficiencies” of public sector management, which seem to be just a matter of motivation and management skill, there are real, ongoing, impossible to avoid inefficiencies at the core of a competition based system.

This is a few hundred pounds that could be going into student’s education or research or goddamn it on nicer port for the vice-chancellor’s summer party. Is there any way in which we can get out of this kind of arms race that is consuming vast amounts of money, time, and attention?


Monday, September 12th, 2016

In the public sector, we are oft being urged to emulate the supposed good practices of the private sector. According to Liam Fox, these include being fat, lazy, and playing golf on Friday afternoons. Should I be writing these practices into our latest strategy document?

Highs and Lows

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

The highs and lows of work. Spent 2 hours in a meeting on Monday discussing items that were flagged on the agenda as “not for discussion”. Then spent 4 hours yesterday working with students on our new Computational Creativity module, they were really engaged with the material and willing to engage in discussion and had clearly read the papers in detail before the class—proper “flipped classroom” stuff. I wonder what today will bring?

There’s no F in Strategy (and usually doesn’t need to be)

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

A while ago I read a little article whilst doing a management course that was very influential on me (I’ll find the reference and add it here soon). It argued that the process of building a team—in the strict sense a group of people who could really work closely and robustly together on a complex problem—was difficult, time-consuming and emotionally fraught, and that actually, for most business processes, there isn’t really any need to build a team as such. Instead, just a decently managed group of people with a well-defined goal was all that was needed for most activities. Indeed, this goes further; because of the stress and strain needed to build a well-functioning team in the strong sense of the word, it is really unproductive to do this, and risks fomenting a “team-building fatigue” in people.

I’m wondering if the same is true for the idea of strategy. Strategy is a really important idea in organisations, and the idea of strategic change is really important when a real transformation needs to be made. But, I worry that the constant demands to produce “strategies” of all sorts, at all levels of organisations, runs the danger of causing “strategy fatigue” too. We have to produce School strategies, Faculty strategies, University strategies, all divided un-neatly into research, undergraduate, and postgraduate, and then personal research Strategies, and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all strategies. Really, we ought to be keeping the word and concepts around “strategy” for when it really matters; describing some pissant objective to increase the proportion of one category of students from 14.1% to 15% isn’t a strategy, it’s almost a rounding error. We really need to retain the term—and the activity—for when it really matters.

Quality Assurance? (1)

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

It seems to be that one unfortunate side effect of “quality assurance” as it is currently constituted in many organisations is to ensure that real work cannot happen in committees as it is meant to. Because committee minutes become the primary means of evidence that an organisation is running as it claims to, there is a reluctance to show anything in those minutes that analyses how things are really happening. As a result, these sorts of discussions—discussions about quality enhancement, natch!—happen in an undocumented shadow system. This is of particular detriment to attempts to involve stakeholders (for example, student representatives in universities) in the process, because they are rarely involved in these shadow systems.

Work-life Balance (1)

Friday, October 10th, 2014

To help with work-life balance, we have changed staff meetings so that they start at 3:30pm rather than 4pm, with the aim of allowing everyone to finish the meeting and be back at their normal place of work by the notional end of the working day (yeah right) at 5pm. Except, of course, that rather than lasting from 4-5pm, they now go on from 3:30-5pm. That is progress.

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.

Change (1)

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

The following is not a syllogism:

You say you are in favour of organisational change.
This is a proposed change in the organisation.
Therefore you should be in favour of it.

Information Systems vs Innovation

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

It is common for a particular sector to be dominated by one or two large, commercially-available (or, occasionally, freely available open-source) computer-based systems to manage the information within organisations. I wonder if this has the side effect of militating against innovation within organisations.

I was at a meeting a few weeks ago, to talk about the new student admissions computer system that the University is installing. This is the industry-standard system, used by probably 75% of UK universities. Obviously, there is some scope for such systems to be customised; nonetheless, they come saddled with a certain amount of assumption about the way in which information is being handled within that kind of organisation (otherwise, you would just use a generic database system).

As we discussed how this system was going to roll out, it was clear that we were making some kind of compromise between how we wanted to do admissions and how the system was set up to handle admissions. In quite a lot of these discussions, it became clear that the assumptions in the system were rather deeply embedded, and so the system “won” be battle of how to do this kind of activity. It became clear that we hadn’t just bought a system to manage our information; we had bought a whole heap of workflow assumptions with it too.

Does this matter? From an administrative point of view, perhaps not. The argument can just about be made that all organisations in the sector have broadly similar requirements, and the major players in the provision of information systems will gradually drift towards these requirements.

But, it might matter in terms of competition. One of the tenets of the current government’s policy is that systems improve be competition, and to drive competition we need diversity of practice so that new ideas come into the sector. But, in a situation like this, innovation (and thus diversity) is quashed because the systems that are managing the information can’t be readily adapted to handle innovative experiments with practice. As someone said at the meeting: “We’ve been working carefully on how to attract students to our courses for the last five years, and now we have to throw all that away because it isn’t supported by the admissions system.”.

Utopias (1)

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

An interesting question raised on AskMe earlier today: why, when there is an event like the Boston Marathon bombing, do some people (people from the UK are particularly noted) make a point of pointing out that similar, indeed much worse, events are happening every day in other parts of the world with hardly a register on news media in “the West”.

Certainly such thoughts have occurred to me, though I find it rather crass to express them at a time such as this. Why do I feel this way, and why might others? Certainly not for the “anit-Americanism” being suggested in some of the responses; my impression is that most people who have commented upon the bombing in that way are not saying that the Boston events should not be reported, but asking why it is reported in that way relative to, say, the low-key reporting of 24 people being killed in incidents in Afghanistan a couple of days later (there may be an exception to this in the smaller number of people who are saying things like “America has perpetrated worst incidents”, which has the dangerous and illogical implication that events such as this are somehow “deserved”).

Nor do such thoughts give rise to the “moral superiority” discussed by other commenters. I wouldn’t want to point out these inequities just to feel smug about doing so—the idea that people would think that I’m getting my moral rocks off by having such a thought seems disgusting.

I think the reason that these thoughts come to mind to me is more to do with a background sense of what I feel ideal news reporting should be like; my “news utopia” reports on things because of the importance of the topic, not because of the nationality or race of the participants. When something so clearly works against this I feel a genuine emotional sense of unsettledness.

It seems weird to me that some people think that the only reason someone could want to be critical is to come out as superior or biased in some way; I feel that the main role of criticism is to bring us collectively towards something better and more equitable.

I used to think that everyone went around with a set of “utopias” like this in their heads; some sense of what, if we could sort out all the pesky details, we could get to that would be better than what we currently have. But, it surprises me how little this mode of thinking exists.

One of my favourite management techniques is the “queen for a day” thought exercise. If you are in a situation, what would you do if you were “queen for the day” and could just make everything work right (in an unmagical way; no defying the laws of physics or having billions of pounds to throw at the problem). This is really useful to act as an anchor point; once you have determined peoples’ ideals, then you can work back from them to find a good solution that goes pragmatically somewhere towards them all. But, it surprises me how often I ask this question and people haven’t given it a thought at all before I mention it; by contrast, I usually have a (contestable, changeable, incomplete) idea of the “ideal” in a particular situation as part of my day-to-day thinking toolbox about the situation.