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The same mistakes are repeated over and over because we don’t learn. We refuse to sit back, review, reflect, correct, implement improvements and then move forward once more. The caravan continues while a small few stand at the back, waving hands in the air asking for someone to help fix the axel before the whole wheel comes off because we have seen the rats gnawing the wood and we know it isn’t long for this world. (it’s possible I’m taking this analogy too far).

The people at the back are calling for procedures/protocols (not a new axel, although…). Anything to provide guidance to help them not do what has been done before because it doesn’t work. And yet there is never time to create these documents. There is only time to rush forward.

I’m guessing I need to wait for the axel to break well and truly. Maybe then I can pull my documents from the bottom drawer and suggest we all have a chat about how to get the caravan running again.

I’m not sure, and I think someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to recall it was Ronald Reagan who said “It’s the economy, stupid” (yes I’m too lazy this morning to google it….). Reagan’s point from my perspective, was that it was so blindingly obvious that the financial situation matters that it was worth calling people stupid if they weren’t understanding it. Basically, it meant that people who didn’t get it, would say they did, just to not get called stupid.

Yesterday afternoon I was struck that in my workplace it’s about incentives. Some wonderful people in my workplace are being told they aren’t good enough because they haven’t met the perverse markers in the performance structure because they publish in books not journals, or the edit journals and books instead of authoring or they contribute actively to the community around them with their research instead of the formalised educational structures. They are also innovative teachers. So, they are basically being punished for not being in an ivory tower and being innovative teachers.

People talk about incentives for workforces all the time, and yet, they do not understand the behaviour it engenders. They are stupid pretending to understand so as not to be left out. But seriously, when effective staff members start to leave in droves, all I can say is, “It’s the incentives, stupid.”

This was what my Grandpapa said to me when I quit history at school in Year 8. Turns out he was right, but only a little right. History at school sucked, but history when exploring it off your own bat and with your own focus is, enlightening.

I had a meeting last week where I again sought a documented structure of some sort and I was told that structure wasn’t needed, but flexibility. I wasn’t well placed to have the discussion about how a good structure, thought through in line with business outcomes, and risk considerations actually provides more flexibility to an organisation not less. The reason it does this is because clarity of roles and responsibilities frees people from worry and provides them time to be creative and flexible in the work they do. Of course, I really wish I had said all that, but you know, life goes on.

How does this tie to history I hear you ask (well I don’t, but just go with it). Today I’m reading a document from 1957 and it states: “Such bewilderment and frustration is most harmful to the life and work of a university.” it goes on to discuss that the work of a university relies on the individual and if the individual is frustrated then there is no good work to be done. “If the staff are not full of life and determination in this way, nothing that the Senate of Vice-Chancellor can do will make the university work very much as a university.” These comments in the Murray┬áReport relate to managing the balance in administration and academia.

So that’s how my meeting on Thursday links to history. It links because 57 years ago there was a review document that changed higher education legislation detailing the value of non-frustrated staff but here we are today, frustrated. Thanks Grandpapa, you were right, I should have stuck at history because it makes the joke funnier. After all if you don’t laugh….

I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to fund a language program that has been running as a pilot this semester to continue into 2015. It involves coordinating resources across the university and within the faculty. Everyone agrees that it’s a great program – it embeds language learning in the context of the unit so students learn to manage language in a way that is meaningful rather than abstract – but there is no coordinated approach to language management in the university so once again I’m relying on goodwill.

Today I was talking to a colleague and we agreed that the only way to move forward is through just picking a project and doing it, relying on the goodwill of those around you, because if you wait for the university to have a coordinated response, you will wait forever. Worse, the coordinated response might actually deliver what you already have, which wasn’t working in the first place.

Last week, I asked colleagues how to improve the working world around them and they came back with the suggestion that central services need to come to the chalk face. I would argue, that the academics also need to go to the administration coal face too. What is good for the goose after all.

So what links these three aspects together? Empathy. Goodwill comes from empathising with others about where they are at, and what they are doing and working with them to achieve their goals. In turn, they will work with me towards mine. Empathy for the organisation and its circumstances means I can pick projects that are appropriate and do not go against the strategic objectives of the organisation. And finally, good service only comes when you empathise with the customer and a good customer is one who understands that the person providing the service might just be following instructions. This matters because I haven’t been very empathetic lately. I’ve been thinking about why this is, and have come to the conclusion there goodwill is a two way street and that maybe I’ve been giving a bit too much and not getting enough in return. Alternatively, I should actually sit back and think about the incredible steps that have been taken towards sustaining the language program and the amazing work people are doing to try and make it happen in 2015, and be thankful. Yep, time to stop empathising and time to be thankful. So thank you to all you wonderful people. Thank you.

My brain is breaking. I’m attending meetings, listening to people, doing work and all the time my brain is breaking. Then all of a sudden there is a Budget and well, it breaks again. And all I wanted to do was go to a seminar in a different state.

Higher education is really complicated. It’s full of rules, regulations, competing priorities and ideas, and then of course there are the people. What breaks my brain in the end, is that we are adding complications, not taking them away. The biggest complication we add is confusion. There is no clarity around the purpose or even existence of higher education. Fundamentally, why is it here?

In the Budget last night there was emphasis on the importance of higher education to advance the country of the future. This is something I agree with. Education is the key to the future, after all I plan to spend three years of my life (maybe four) looking into this. And yet, we aren’t sure what that means. Does it mean in the top 20 universities because of research output? Because of graduate numbers? Graduate quality (measured how?)? Fancy technology availability? Happy students? Number of students who find jobs? Number of students who change the world one day in some way? What is it we value?

At the moment it seems to me that we don’t know what we value so we ask academics to be everything to everyone without explaining what we really expect. Today I was lucky though. I work with amazing people and there is a vision. The vision will be developed with input from others so it is a shared vision and then implementation will be a team effort with everyone clear on why they are there and what their role will be, or could be, if they want. For those that don’t want, there are other choices.

I was also unlucky today to learn that academics are also responsible for booking travel. Seriously? On top of being a world expert in their field, teaching, being a technology expert, a compliance expert, a counsellor and an administrator, they now have to be able to manipulate a travel agency booking process??? Not too sure about this…..

Lately I have seen amazing people do amazing things in spite of the systems and technology that surround them. I love this job and I love the people, but the systems, well, they are crushingly stupid.

Like all large organisations, the university has grown organically over time. Systems are put in place to address gaps or issues that arise as the business context changes. Unfortunately, with a large scale reform, such as e-learning, systems cannot afford to be disjointed and ungoverned. There must be clear paths of accountability and transparent business workflows.

Lately I’ve seen decisions made centrally that made perfect sense until the outcome reached a faculty. Once that happened, everything went completely wrong. There were many lost hours of additional work and the stress levels went through the roof, all because there was no transparency around workflow. If the person in central had understood the ramifications of the decision that was made, they could have chosen a different path that wouldn’t have affected enrolment of students.

If there had been clarity of governance, the staff member who fixed the issue in the end, wouldn’t have had to lose a day finding a solution as she could have pushed the task back to where it truly belonged. Unfortunately, with no governance, there is little accountability, so there is little incentive to actually do your job, particularly if there is someone else willing to do it for you. Of course, a lack of governance also means freedom……and that can be terribly intoxicating!

So what does this little gripe of mine mean in the big picture? It means I’m surrounded by amazing people and stupid systems. I think that makes it business as usual for any large organisation. However, it also means that I have an opportunity to make a difference here. I can identify the roadblocks and identify how to overcome them so that the amazing people can get back to doing what they really should. Hmmm…..now to make it happen!

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