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Sep 21, 2007

Going with the flow: On the horizontal transparency

The Dean is asking for goals again. He needs to know what our goals are for the year. I chatted with Mark, my fellow School director yesterday, and he commented about how 90% of our jobs are not really goal-oriented. He is right; most of the day is taken with small tasks such as talking to faculty, listening to student complaints, doing paperwork, answering inquiries, figuring out solutions for problems.

An example: We had an adjunct faculty arrested for sexual assault this week. So, it's probably 8-10 hours’ worth of work; absolutely not planned for. Other, less dramatic things happen all the time, like, say, a glitch in our new database that won't go away. OK? Two hours or more this week. A TB testing event turned into a disaster, because health clinic ran out of vaccine, partly because we changed somewhat the procedure for keeping track of TB tests... another two hours or so. This stuff is not trivial, and needs attention, because it touches real people's lives and in the long run, makes or breaks the organizational culture. So, let's call it the flow - the flow of unpredictable events.

The best part of the flow - it is unpredictable, and therefore never boring. Each little event teaches something about human conditions, about behavior of organizations, and about my very self. Some of these happenings are just so delicious; no fiction will ever measure up to the novelty and amusement value. Some are just annoying. However the common quality of the flow elements is this: one does not plan for them, and does not cause their appearances. The worst thing about the flow - one has no sense of control whatsoever over it. They come and go, uninvited, unexpected, and unknowable in advance. Things just happen to you, and they always have the initiative, while you always have to be on defensive, improvising a response. The flow eats up your time without having really anything to show for it. Jobs like mine are judged by what we accomplish, hence the Dean’s request for goals. So, only offensive moves really count. The defensive ones remain largely unknown. There is simply no one to report them, to – no one is interested. Would you want to know the results of my negotiations with four Social Foundations faculty about teaching Spring classes? No, you’d never be interested. My wife asks me to tell what I did today as a sleeping aid. It does not sound exciting when you tell people, although this work is actually quite interesting. The Dean has even less interest in those, because he’s got enough of the flow of his own.

The danger is that people like me will be tempted to neglect the flow, and concentrate on showy, visible projects. After all, when we get a big grant or open another program, everyone notices. When we avert a crisis, no one does. I suppose the CIA makes the same claim. And this is not only about school directors, of course. Program coordinators and faculty deal with the flow a lot. A problem student, a need to rework curriculum on the spot, because something is not quite working… All of these things are invisible and certainly cannot be put on one’s yearly report. If you become too goal-oriented, you create problems in the flow; the unresolved problems accumulate and will blow up in your face. If you just keep up with the flow; people think you’re not really doing anything important. I suppose there is a balance somewhere there.

I am not sure there is a good measure of how well one deals with the flow; not sure if it can be worked in the evaluation system. However, I think it is important for us to know what our colleagues are doing, without becoming an impossible bore. The illusion that one works more than everyone else is a common problem in higher education, because we work in isolation from each others. We need to have some horizontal transparency, so we do not come to a conclusion that so and so is not working hard enough just because we do not see her or him working, or do not have people complaining all the time. By the way, the complaining is a strategy for making the flow more visible for others, a reassurance against your work becoming invisible to and underappreciated by others. Some people really excel at it, but I don’t believe complaining is the most effective way of establishing the horizontal transparency, because it is ultimately misleading and makes our work look unappealing.

But what is? I don’t know. Maybe we should have a bulletin board of some sort where people will post the flow notes? I mean, these things can be amusing, even if small. But then we all are too busy to post and to read someone else’s diaries. Weekly lunches could help, but those are hard to schedule practically. Right now, I am open for any suggestions. I think some sort of horizontal transparency could be very beneficial, so we know who’s done what, who has been dealing with what issues, so we can coordinate and value each other better. It’s a matter of counteracting the flow with diffusion of information horizontally. I am certainly not interested in knowing all the flow of all my faculty and staff; this is way too much information. However, I am really interested in faculty A knowing what her colleague B down the hall is actually doing, with as much detail as possible. I can just ask people to talk more, but it does not always work. So, again, I am open to any suggestions.

If anyone is interested, I would love to include one-paragraph long Flow Notes into the weekly updates. Tell us just one story, one unexpected little thing you were dealing with? I think those might be fun if enough people will start doing them.

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