fredag 3 juni 2016

MID department retreat and reflections of organisation


My department (Media Technology and Interaction Design) left for a 24-hour lunch-to-lunch retreat earlier this week and we went to Waxholm to discuss current developments and challenges at our department. Around 20 persons were at the retreat, with a larger representation of senior faculty (almost all of us were there) and a smaller representation of ph.d. students.

Me and Elina were part of the program and we had a 90 minutes to present and discuss "sustainability" and how it relates to our engineering programme against the backdrop of an increased KTH emphasis on integrating sustainability at all levels of our eduction (undergraduate, graduate, ph.d.). We used the list of 10 learning outcomes that KTH has specified for sustainability/sustainable development education and also introduced the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to our colleagues before initiating a discussion on how we could use these resources to think about and develop our teaching activities. To be continued...

We also discussed several other things but I will here write about only one as it was both the most comprehensive as well as the most interesting activity at the retreat. It started already on day one when we were asked to make liberal use of post-it notes to answer the two questions "what gives you energy at work?" and "what makes you (morally) upset at work?". That really got people going, not the least since it was preceded by looking at and discussion the results of latest KTH employee survey. I don't really see it myself, but it seems a majority of my colleagues (or is it primarily the ph.d. students?) are stressed, have problems sleeping etc. While I periodically work a lot (e.g. this past month), I usually don't have somatic problems of any kind, but, it seems many others do. To solve these serious problems I "humorously" suggested that the department should rethink its policy and be more liberal with providing employees with sleeping pills and anti-depressants.

As usual, I am however sceptical about surveys and other (over-)simplifications. One noteworthy result of the survey was for example the fact that a surprisingly large proportion of the respondents have little confidence in KTH central management (dean level and up). Many respondents also failed to "see a clear link between department and overall KTH objectives". But how should this be interpreted? It could mean that KTH central management does a good job but us peons are un- or misinformed about the great job they do (easily fixed by "better communication" or an "information campaign"). But an alternative way of interpreting the results is that the low confidence is in fact justified and that the problem has to be fixed at the KTH central management level. Before we know which interpretation is most suitable, it is hard to take even the next step (whatever it is). Most other questions in the survey could also be problematised in this way and the answer would always become "we need to know more before we can act".

The questions "what gives you energy?" and "what makes you upset?" were easier to answer and the results (a copious number of post-it notes) were forwarded to two organisational consultants (Ann-Sofie Westelius - organisational development, and Tomas Brytting - organisational ethics) who came by the second day to help us discuss these issues. My own answers were that cooperation with colleagues, exploring a world of ideas and (successfully) writing (successful) papers gives me energy while things that make me upset are for example getting stuck in "admin hell" (going in circles, not knowing who to turn to etc.) and the fact that an ever-increasing number of rules makes doing what needs to be done at a university more difficult and cumbersome every year. It turned out my answers were very much in line with those of my colleagues.

The consultants were in fact pretty great. They didn't shy away from the massive critique that was expressed by way of our post-it notes, but rather structured it all and threw it back at us (in a constructive way). I guess they are used to it and they must in fact have heard much worse many times over. They had a model that discusses the inner life of organisations in terms of Meaning, Authority, Rationality and Care, but I won't go into the deeper stuff beyond this short elaboration:
  • Human beings want to act rationally and need certain things in order to be healthy and productive.
  • Meaning - relating to sense of meaning and identity, a common (shared) goal that is in line with my basic values (e.g. "the good society"). But at what level do we share this sense of meaning (in my project, with my closest colleagues, in my team, my department, my school (computer science and communication) or the whole of KTH)? Here's an attempt to create meaning for us all from KTH's "Vision 2027" document:
    • "KTH works for a brighter tomorrow. KTH wishes to enhance society and identity smart solutions to the grand challenges of today, and of tomorrow. KTH works in the service of humankind for the society of tomorrow. One common denominator for all KTH efforts is a better society for individuals, enterprises and society at large"
  • Authority - based on competence and relating to legitimate power (to act), decisions processes and compliance, ability to implement, clearly defined responsibilities that matches the power to act, coordination, rules, norms (organisational cultures) 
    • well as space for interpretation, double standards, learning to discern and navigate the space between "important rules" and "bullshit rules" (that no-one cares about).
  • Rationality - relating to knowledge, objective measurements (how are we doing?), open and fact-based dialogue (double-loop learning), effectiveness, procedures, routines, "supporting" computer systems, structured workflows (dependencies, peripheral awareness), predictability
  • Care - the human angle, relating to laughter, encouragement, recognition, togetherness, generosity, benevolence, respect

It turned out that "what gives us energy" happens primarily around Meaning ("my research can make the world a better place") and Care ("my colleagues are great"). It also turned out that "what upsets us" is closely related to (the lack of) Rationality, e.g. many of my colleagues feel that the rules and regulations we have to follow don't really help us, but rather hinders us from doing our jobs. The rest of the exercise focused on what we can do and suggestions ranged from resisting and protesting against stupidity ("voice") to hunkering down and concentrating on the good stuff our jobs provide us with ("loyalty"). I am personally very interested in the "voice" option. If some rules are stupid enough, perhaps it is our duty to protest or subvert them? What would for example GandhiKing or Parkinson say? 

But what forms should protest then take? Protest can range from the mostly harmless non-violent resistance of "flying under the radar", initiating skunkworks projects or "withdrawal" (concentrating only on the stuff you consider to be of importance to you and not partaking i 24-hour retreats etc.) to more overt or perhaps even destructive strategies such as activism, explicit protests, subversion or of answering stupidity by the same coin (e.g. "working by the book" and other strategies that can have the effect of making things unworkable for others). Far be it from me to suggest that it might be cleaver, sage, sane, prudent, judicious, shrewd, sagacious, advisable or that it sometimes could make eminent sense to try to make things unworkable for others (central functions, administration), because that would be the same as arguing for the misuse of resources. However, it is fascinating to look at CIA's timeless tips for wartime organisational resistance (sabotage) and realise that many of the things we do at work could hardly have been better designed if the purpose had been to make sure we get as little work done as possible. Do for example read this article about "the CIA’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual: A Timeless, Kafkaesque Guide to Subverting Any Organization with “Purposeful Stupidity” (1944)". These are some of the tips on how to subvert the effectiveness of the organisation you work in as a way of resisting an enemy power that occupies your country:
  • Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
  • Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.
  • Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.
We then worked in smaller groups (5-6 persons), one person in my group stated that "during the last 10 years, administrative functions has ceased to support our work. Now we do everything ourselves and we are slaves under the administration". I suggested this was perhaps a little too pointed and that a more accurate (milder) formulation instead would emphasise that "we feel that we are slaves under the administration". That however did not go far enough to satisfy the person in question who really did feel that we nowadays in fact are slaves under the administrationQuite a few of our woes seem to be related to the fact that our local administrator ("secretary") was taken away from us and that the school nowadays instead is organised around co-located and centralised administrative functions. Even though there are good arguments in favour of this (it did for sure solve someone's problem somewhere and I'm sure the dean always get first-class help whenever he has a problem), the discontent among the faculty is massive and palpable. One suggestion was that we should "kidnap" our old administrator as she was crucial for getting things done with a minimun of fuzz and for helping us navigate "the ever-increasing set of rules that is enslaving us". 

My personal analysis is as follows. There can unfortunately exist a "natural" antagonistic relationship between faculty and administrators. From the faculty point of view, the admins and all the rules they represent (and guard) force us to jump through various hoops. We find this exceedingly frustrating - not the least because it's almost impossible to argue with (or indeed at times even too understand) the sometimes "nonsensical" rules that apparently still are oh-so-important. For faculty, administrators (and their rules they represent) are roadblocks to getting things done. To the admins, I suppose we will seem like a bunch of anarchists who are ready to break any rules, but worse is the fact that whenever we get in touch with them, we create work for them. If we disagree or want reasons or motivations, well then we create more work for them. It happens that they themselves can not convincingly justify the rules they are set to enforce. They might (covertly) agree that certain things are cumbersome or unreasonable, but it's still their job to make sure that things get done according to the rules. By pointing out things that are stupid or unreasonable, faculty probably makes them feel bad about their jobs (e.g. cognitive dissonance). 

Even more important though is the fact that when our administrator, Marianne, was at our department and she was one of us. We knew her and she knew us. We ate lunch with her and had coffee breaks together. She self-identified as being part of our department and did her best to support us. Now she eats lunch with all the other administrators at the School of Computer Science and Communication and she self-identifies with another set of people - a set of people whose job it is to make sure the faculty follows all the rules (and there are always sooo many). I don't know about the admins, but this creates massive discontent among the faculty. It sometimes wells up and I would say that it's a major factor of discontent for people at my department. I have now gained a new appreciation for the fact that the research center that I am affiliated with (CESC) has forcefully argued for having the administrative person it pays for be located at the research center rather than join the centralised administrative pool. That person helps us solve so very many of our day-to-day problems. I would wish for everyone to have someone like him nearby.

Our task at the retreat was however not just to complain and dwell on the stuff that makes us discontent, but to discuss and find ways of going forward (while taking into account that much is outside of our control). We were therefore told to focus on the things we can do. Some suggested "exit" strategies, e.g. creating more autonomous organisational entities (research centers, research institutions) that had greater self-control and was further away from the black hole of central administration, oversight and control. One group suggested some kind of design fiction exercise involving a 2030 fictional course catalogue from our department. I can't really do the proposal justice and I didn't hear/understand it all but it had something to do with collecting ideas and curating them, having workshops and of perhaps also using the outcomes for thinking about new courses as well as about new research. 

My group's suggestion was to create a video booth for venting your frustration (kind of like a confessional booth). Like on reality TV, you have a minute or two to tell the camera about your latest bout with whatever frustrates you at work. An attractive function of such a confessional booth is that you can vent your frustration and then to a certain extent let go and leave your problems behind when you exit the booth! I'll refer to these rants in terms of "testimonies" here (or perhaps "testimoanies"?). The testimonies will be saved and would at first be used only for internal (department) consumption (e.g. for discussions). Perhaps we could use them to make a list (or a video compilation) of our chief complaints? They might also be used for other purposes later, but of course only with the permission of the persons who have left the testimonies (there might also be a companion Google form for anonymous submissions). Perhaps we could put together a short movie that we could show the dean and the chief of staff at our school (or more controversially, post it on YouTube)? 

It's unclear for what exact purpose we'll use the testimonies, but, we still felt this was a really good idea, so my colleague Helena Tobiasson and me took on the responsibility of trying to make this proposal happen for real. Helena will be advising master's theses students this coming autumn and she took on the responsibility of putting together a thesis proposal (I'll help her), and, of trying to recruit a student. A master's thesis student would then a) build the physical booth, b) test it (faculty has to help out by plenty of testimoaning) and c) evaluate and (perhaps) redesign the video booth. I will then take on the responsibility of writing a massively multi-authored paper about [something] that comes out of this project. The technology itself won't be very advanced and I'm sure it has been done many times before, but we are rather more interested in the content and in the process of using the testimonies as a way to discuss how to improve things our department. This project now needs a catchy name, but it could be really fun, functional, interesting and useful.

Addendum (June 17, 2016). Just to show that I don't only complain, this is what a truly excellent administrator does:
"Hi, we are investigating a train trip to [the ICT4S conference] and are therefore wondering who is going there. If you would like help with finding a train rout to the conference and/or like to travel together please let me know latest on Tuesday 21/6. I can also help out if anyone wants help with registration to the conference and somewhere to sleep."

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