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Jim Morris's Thought of the Week (or month, or year, ...)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Understanding Bureaucrats

I often find myself in bitch-sessions about how unreasonable bureaucrats are. Everyone has his or her story. Are these people from another planet? They're not, but you should understand their situation and motives. For most, they are in a job with no positive goals and little upside potential. They have been put in place to enforce rules, reduce an organization's risk, and control others. When they get feedback from their managers, it is most often very negative: something bad has happened and they get blamed because some rule or other wasn't enforced by them. Bad managers, wishing to delegate the blame, might even invent a rule after the fact and blame the bureaucrat for not knowing about it. The management rarely rewards the bureaucrat for a good thing that happens. That reward goes to the initiator of the good thing that the bureaucrat could have thwarted but didn't. Sometimes the initiator thanks the bureaucrat or recommends them to management, but the initiator is rarely the bureaucrat's boss.

Some suggestions:

1. Don't become a bureaucrat. It's a soul-deadening job.
2. Don't beat up bureaucrats. They have a hard life and they have certain powers to take it out on you.
3. If a bureaucrat is really causing problems by overzealous rule enforcement or risk aversion, try to get them promoted to a place where they won't bother you.
4. Try to eliminate bureaucratic jobs by getting everyone else to accept responsibility for following the necessary rules or enforcing those rules by computer.

posted by Jim Morris @ 11:06 AM  0 comments

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Reframing Education

In Reframing Business, Richard Normann outlines a principled approach to value chains, outsourcing, and restructuring. A key idea is to reframe the whole customer experience in the way IKEA did. He suggests that services thought to be secondary to products, e.g. maintenance and updates should be considered primary. For example, your cell phone is just the physical link to telephone service and is often free.

How should a college education be reframed? The conventional way to think of universities is as academic institutions run by the faculty. However, many consumers of education--the students and their parents--see it differently. They see college as a process that defines one as a member of the upper class with nuances depending on the college. Go to Yale and you're a "made public person" with an motivation and entree to public service or politics. Go to MIT and you're a member of the nerd elite. College is where many find their first spouse. All the learning is useful but not as central as the faculty believes.

Consider some the secondary activities of a college and pretend for a moment that they are primary: athletics, admissions, placement, alumni support, fund-raising, and social life. Might they be delivered differently?

Athletics: Top tier NCAA programs generate significant cash and cache for their institutions. Some believe Boston College's ascent in desirability began with Doug Flutie's famous Hail Mary pass in a bowl game. Carnegie Mellon's previous president, Richard Cyert, once suggested that universities should employ professional athletes and allow them to receive education for free like any other staff member. This would reform a corrupt intercollegiate system that appears to exploit amateur athletes.

Admissions: Being admitted to a top school is a real achievement, and employers sometimes suggest that they are paying for a college's admissions pool, not its education. I was admitted to MIT and Caltech but didn't attend them, so I can't mention them on a resume. Perhaps colleges could sell certificates of admission that would document one's accomplishment. Since so much of college is social, the admissions evaluation might emphasize personality testing over board scores. Admissions officers talk about an applicant's fit with the college's culture, but I've never heard them attempt to use analytic tools like Myers-Briggs surveys or compatibility tools like eHarmony.

Placement: Business schools invest heavily in finding their graduates jobs and are measured by their graduates' starting salaries. Corporations invest a lot in recruiting at all levels. There a many firms that matchmake. Should colleges outsource their placement to independent firms?

Alumni support and Fundraising: Someone suggested that Ivy League colleges are optimized for creating graduates who accumulate riches and then contribute them to the college. My friends who attended such schools often mention their schools, frequently attend alumni functions, and contribute time and money to their colleges. Perhaps, if the students entering are already very wealthy, they needn't be taught many skills. They should be coddled within an inch of their lives, given good food and drink, A's in all their classes, winning sports teams, and a great social experience.

Colleges are conservative and some have been around longer than the nations in which they reside. Not many of these radical ideas will fly.

posted by Jim Morris @ 9:44 PM  2 comments

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Campus IT Strategy Challenge

Carnegie Mellon’s Andrew system was created in an era of closed systems twenty-five years ago. The internet decisively ended that era by connecting all the world’s programmers, bringing forth a storm of innovation and diversity in software applications. Now, students arrive at college with their own computers, software, games, and internet habits fully formed. Generally, the services they can get for free are better than anything the university can offer them.

What if your university shut down its IT support tomorrow? After each individual found a broadband connection to the internet, it would take her less than a week to find most of the personal services they needed for free. The things that hold the organization together—email distribution lists, calendars, procedures, and knowledge—would migrate to the new, public infrastructure easily.

Maybe the IT department could provide high-speed networking on campus, but it would be better to join with the surrounding neighborhoods to get a good network deal for the whole community. That way, the students and faculty can live off-campus with no communications penalty, and the local community is drawn to the university.

There is more to outsourcing strategy than expediency. Rearranging your supply/value chain is a hot topic for all enterprises right now. It’s even a research area called Service Systems. Because a university is a relatively open enterprise, it needn’t be constrained with all the privacy and security concerns that impede industry and government. Devising a workable outsourcing strategy is just as as innovative as building a computer system was twenty-five years ago.

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posted by Jim Morris @ 1:10 PM  0 comments

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