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Feb 21, 2011

Playing the system

Every system gets played; that’s the nature of complex organizations with many rules. There is always a loophole that can be exploited; there is always too much going on for anyone to notice everything. But there are definitely degrees and shades of this phenomenon, ranging from minor things to debilitating pervasive corruption. Given the particular configurations of our system here at RIC, the instances of the system playing are quite low, although they inevitably do occur. Examples would be the reconfiguration of courses from 3 credit to 4-credit, just to make instructor’s workload a little more manageable. The Contract is full of special arrangements and deals, for this department and that department, for these kinds of classes, and other kinds of classes. There are probably many more deals off the books. Some are fair and equitable, while others are not; most were made in a hurry and fall somewhere in between.
Many years ago, in a graduate class I took, a professor in public administration argued how playing the system can never really be ethically defensible. I disagreed – systems that are devised without one’s participation and consent, and judged by its participants to be unjust – those could be justifiably undermined. For example, if students believe that certain class is pointless, and the instructor is not offering anything of value to them, but imposes arbitrary and rigid rules – I would have a hard time condemning them for trying to bend the rules. I may still have to pursue administrative sanctions – for the sake of the larger system’s stability. But ethically speaking, students have a good point. Would you condemn the Egyptian youth for breaking the emergency laws imposed by the now ousted president Mubarak?
People play the system not because they are bad, but because the system itself is perceived as less than fair. However, the sum of total perceptions of the system IS the system. For example, when one person thinks there is unfairness and favoritism in the organization, he or she would feel justified to get even by skipping on work a little, by inflating one’s work just a bit, and by playing the system somewhat, sometimes without realizing it. Lack of transparency perpetuates the notion – almost everyone feels that the next person is treated better, therefore, I am entitled to a little something. Some people complain and argue for a special deal for them, because they have heard of a special deal for others; while others just quietly take what they think is theirs. The end result is the same: the organization will be crawling with a number of exceptions, unwritten deals, and special arrangements. Each unfair deal was made to balance off another unfair deal, so we end up with two. The more of those you have, the more evidence of unfair treatment become apparent to more people. I am not at all saying we’re there, far from it; it’s just the general direction I really wish to avoid.
What does a manager do? In the abstract, it is pretty clear; I have written about it a few years ago. Transparency, clear, fair and simple rules, and the ability to justify and publically explain exceptions – that is what is needed. In the real life, it is not so simple. For example, old deals may be not quite fair, but breaking them would make more harm than good. An institution is as good as its word. Breaking past arrangements encourages short-term thinking, and intensify the playing of the system. There is also a genuine diversity of circumstances that make it difficult to apply fair and consistent rules. People just do different things and have different strengths. The complexity is difficult to comprehend, and not easy to make transparent. But we should try anyway. The bottom line is – even when no one is asking, we should be able to defend and explain any special arrangement at any time – convincingly and reasonably. 

Feb 12, 2011

Toward the permanent past

My memory is average – not the best, not the worst. An idea or a concept is easy for me to remember, a name or a year – much harder. I may go blank on a name when I unexpectedly see a familiar face. For most people of my age, some words just become irretrievable in a conversation, only to surface again later, when they are not needed. Hundreds of conversations a month are part of my routine; most involve decisions, small and large. A few months later, I often remember the conversation, but cannot recall what the agreement was. In rare occasions, I have absolutely no recollection of even having a conversation. This happened perhaps 4-5 times in my life, one last week. It is both funny and embarrassing, when a colleague sent me a copy of an email exchange, of which I had absolutely no memory. Often, it is somewhere in between – I have a vague memory, but cannot recall neither the details of the conversation, nor the decision. And of course, sometimes, for whatever reason, I remember very clearly a particular dialogue that happened many months, or even years ago. Memory is a strange and unreliable thing. It is known not only to fade, but to recall incorrectly, filling the gaps with imagined details as vivid as reality, and yet wholly invented. We would all do much better if we remembered how human memory works, and what it is capable and not capable of doing. It is hard to believe that another person does not remember a conversation which you remember clearly. And yet it is very common. When someone recalls a conversation very differently, with details that seem invented – we all suspect ill intent, what else? But it could be just one of the many malfunctions of memory – yours or the other person’s.
It is fascinating to observe how the human society changes. We live through the writing revolution 2.0. The first one allowed recording certain important conversations. Neither law nor commerce is possible without writing, a solid if very limited image of the past. But now we have a way to write down much more - exponentially more, and easily retrieve what is needed. On the eight day God created email and Google. Many if not most of decisions involve email. And when they don’t, I usually either write an email or ask others to write an email to me. Those things are indestructible, and live forever, if you only know how to archive. Google Desktop is another wonderful helper. It searches and indexes your entire hard drive, and will instantly find emails, files, even web pages you visited containing a specific word or expression. Those things are vastly superior to old manila files with paper. The direct result of this artificial memory enhancement is, I believe, reduction in human conflict. Thirty years ago, if there was no memo typed on a typewriter (a huge investment of time), different versions of the past would inevitably clash, lead to misunderstanding, to mutual accusations, and to conflict. Now, I search Google Desktop, and it three seconds it brings every email and every file that has to do with the conversation. The past is becoming more and more permanent, and less and less a collection on competing stories. The past is a clear picture with many more details.
One day, everything will be recorded, and all events will leave a permanent impression  – all conversations, small talk, important and unimportant decisions, all gossip and table conversations; all sins and moments of grace. How is it going to change us, when we cannot deny and rewrite the past? What would be the world in which every fact in every memoir could be checked, and literally every lie exposed? This is not about privacy – we should fight to keep our personal histories private. However, just imagine that even our work lives will be completely recorded?  But also imagine your private life had a record – only if for your own personal retrieval. Would you want to know what you told your child or your spouse on February 12, 1991, at noon, in case you disagree what exactly happened?  My guess is – we will get to used to it, we get used to anything with time.

Feb 4, 2011

Defensible rules: A short story in emails

Here is an epistolary short story;  it is a series of quite recent emails, slightly abbreviated. The exchange is between me and two people from another institution.  
C., “Thesis and Dissertation Specialist” to a doctoral student: Your request [to schedule a proposal hearing] was faxed Friday night at 5:37 pm.  At this point, since it’s within one week, we cannot process it without an emailed explanation from your advisor as to why it must take place without the two weeks requirement, and at that point, I will get a decision from Dr. W. [Dean of Graduate School].
Sasha to C.: S. and I are co-chairs, and we forgot to file the written portion form on time. I do not remember what the rationale for the two weeks gap was in the first place, so it is hard to argue why there has to be an exception.
C. to Sasha: It is Graduate School Policy to turn in the forms at least 2 weeks prior to the Exam/Defense. When in doubt, turn in the form, even if the written comp results have not been turned in yet.  Her request should have been turned in by January 18 at the latest, but preferably earlier. Her written comps arrived on the 18th.  Per the Request to Schedule a Doctoral Examination form “This form must be turned into the Graduate School at least two weeks prior to the Exam/Defense. The deadline is Thursday at noon. Exceptions to this rule must be accompanied by an explanation of the late request and will be considered on a case by case basis. No exam/defense will be allowed with less than one week prior notice.”  We are unable to approve the request for February 1. Please reschedule and submit another date allowing the 2 weeks notice. 
Sasha to C.: A citation from the rule book is not a rationale. What was the rationale for the initial rule?
C. to Sasha: The Graduate School policies are the foundation of our school, and were set for years before I started here, so I’m not aware of the original rationale. Deadlines are in place to allow everyone time to get through all of the required processes and maintain high quality in our work. We appreciate  your efforts to help us maintain our high standards of education at [the university].
Sasha to C.: The origins are probably going to the age when things needed to be mailed, or delivered through a courier service. But in any case, holding on to policies without understanding their rationale is not the best way of maintaining the high standards, don’t you think?
C. to Sasha: Neither is ignoring policies. We have made changes where we feel they are necessary to keep up with the digital era. Deadlines are still necessary to maintain order. Please have her reschedule and get the forms turned in in a timely manner.
Sasha to C.: I would not feel comfortable enforcing a rule intent of which I do not understand. I consider it to be my ethical responsibility to know why I am telling “yes” or “no” to someone for whom it is an important decision. That is what makes me a professional and a public servant. Otherwise, it all becomes a game of power without any tangible benefits for the students or for the general public.
C. to Sasha: I am saying no because you and the student did not meet the policy deadline. I do understand the meaning of a two-week deadline and the policies which I am enforcing. I do not know why our forefathers chose to write the rules the way they did, but I respect that they did so with the student’s best interest in mind. I understand that when I came into the graduate school 5 years ago, I helped clean up those policies and clarify them to fit not only the traditional student but the off-campus community as well. It is my responsibility to make sure the faculty and students follow the stated rules, policies and procedures. I’m sorry if you don’t like that.
Sasha to C.: It’s not that I don’t like your answer; it’s the fact that you don’t have one that bothers me. You’re not saying “I don’t know, but will find out for you.” The message is quite different – that we are supposed to trust every rule without questioning it. I am sorry, I grew up in a country where you were supposed to tell on your neighbors to the authorities – and most people did not, because they have questioned the rule, and obedience without questioning just rubs me the wrong way. This is not about [the doctoral student’s] proposal.
Dr. W, the Graduate Dean to Sasha: I understand that it must feel like we just sit around and come up with silly policies, but honestly we don’t. The rationale that guides this decision is that oral comps, dissertation proposals and dissertation defenses are to be open to the public and the policy indicates that they must be announced twice during the two weeks prior to the date of the event.  The student missed the deadline.  All we are asking is that the comps be moved one week later so it can be publicized as required.
Sasha to Dr. W.: To be honest, I knew that. I was just bugged to no end that she would not know the rationale and be perfectly comfortable enforcing the rule. And she had the audacity to tell me to basically get lost and stop asking questions. She did not say – I am terribly sorry, I don’t know the rationale, but will find it for you. No, it was like – rules are rules, get along with the program. This is no way to talk to a faculty member, hope she will get it one day.