onsdag 24 augusti 2016

Open letter to my dean - spare us from excessive administration!

Dear Dean of the KTH School of Computer Science and Communication.

As the person with the most prominent position in the KTH hierarchy that I have a personal relation to, I would like to draw your attention to a single act of administration. Not because this act of administration is large or important, but in fact because it is the exact opposite. I would like to draw your attention to this small act of administration because of its unimportance and the humdrum nature of having to force myself to learn how to catch and return (or at times dodge) such small acts of administration. Having small acts of administration lobbied at me and learning to return them on volley is part of the job I do besides the job I'm paid to do: to teach, to conduct research and to do public outreach. Having small acts of administration lobbied at me is distracting and they hinder me from concentrating on my real job. Do you care? Can you do something about it?

I would like to frame this letter by apologising in advance. I am sure that you would have preferred for me to convey the complaints below in a more discreet way, perhaps through a personal letter or in a meeting tête à tête. I feel that has already been tried by others before, but with scant results. Using political economist Albert Hirschman's terminology, I have here instead chosen the "voice" strategy (voicing my concerns) rather than the conformist "loyalty" strategy (not complaining, adapting to maladapted rules) from his 1970 book "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. I also feel that these opinions can be expressed more forcefully in writing, where I have the luxury of carefully selecting my words and using as many of them as I need. I am sure we both agree it's a good thing Sweden is not Turkey and that we are fortunate to live in a country where an associate professor can choose the "voice" option to express his frank opinions without fear of reprisals. I finally feel I owe it to all professors in countries where "voice" is not a viable strategy to express my opinions as clearly and as forcefully as possible in an open letter and without preemptively adding too thick a layer of self-censorship.

I would finally like to take the opportunity to apologise for the perhaps at times irate tone of this letter. I can only defend that by referring to the simmering pent-up frustration and stress that made me write the letter in the first place. I know for a fact that the phenomena I write about here is the cause of various dark feelings among both me and my colleagues. Their frequency might also be increasing. See the blog post I wrote after attending our department's retreat back in June for more on that matter. I know this all is not your personal fault. I know that you know that this is a problem. I know that you, as the highest representative of the school, also suffer from the rigid application of stiff rules (for example when it comes to recruiting new faculty). I am very well aware of the fact that this is a problem that occurs not only at our school but all over KTH. It also occurs in places way beyond KTH and in many other professions (police, health care etc.) and a good read is David Bergman's Swedish-language text at The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences on New Public Management (NPM) and "why striving for efficiency makes us inefficient"†. I know all these things and I still choose to address this letter to you personally. You are welcome to forward it to other Deans, to the University Director, to the President of the University or to whoever you think would benefit from reading it. I urge you (all) to treat this not as one problem among many, but as a prioritised problem that has to be "solved" (or at least ameliorated and then kept in check).


Me and my colleague Elina were last term asked to give a ph.d. course this coming autumn. The topic of the course is not important for the purposes of this letter, but I had in fact been bugged/invited to give that course several times before by the Director of Third Cycle (doctoral) Education ("FA") for the doctorate program in Mediated Communication (here's a useful Swedish-English glossary for various academic positions). I had been dragging my feet and it wasn't until he cornered both me and Elina at the same time that we agreed to give the course together.

Planning the course

The major part of the time spent preparing the course was spent on planning the course format and the course contentsFormat: how many credits, when will the course start and end, how often and what day of the week do we meet, how much text do we hand out before each seminar, how do we examine the ph.d. students and how, where and when do we disseminate information about the course? Contents: which seminar topics, what seminar structure and which literature? Furthermore, how do we maximise the expected quality of the course while not spending an inordinate amount of time planning it? These are issues that comes with the territory of planning and developing a ph.d. course - core tasks for a university teacher.

Anchoring the course

At the request of FA, we whipped together a 2-page course description before the summer. FA showed it to his, well, "boss" - the Director of Third Cycle Education at the School of Computer Science and Communication ("Super-FA"). Based on our course description they both approved the course within a day and we started to plan the course in ernest. We naively thought that with the approval of both Directors of doctoral studies, the only thing that formally remained to do was to "file" our course description so that a "course code" could be created. We were asked to fill out the (exceedingly simple) form for registering a third cycle course (my name, phone number, the name of the course in Swedish and English, the number of credits etc.). By sending that form to our local Educational Administration Manager, the course would be magicked into existence and exist in our computer systems. That seems reasonable and necessary to later be able to report that ph.d. student X has studied Y number of credits in partial fulfilment of a ph.d. degree as well as for the institution to later know that a course with this name had been given that year.


My colleague Elina submitted the form for registering the course on June 22, with two days to spare before my vacation started and another week to spare before Elina's vacation started. We honestly thought this was it and that we were finished with the formal side of creating the course. Our course had the approval of no less than two Directors of Third Cycle Education at our School, so what else could possibly be required?

We didn't hear anything back from the Educational Administration Manager until two weeks later, at a time when both me and Elina were on vacation (and despite the fact that mail sent to one of the School administration's "functional mail addresses" are supposed to have received a personal answer within 24 hours). In a one-sentence no-frills e-mail, the administrator informed us that "I also need the Swedish course plan in order to proceed with this matter". I have later come to realise that the English-language "course description" we wrote was aimed at prospective course participants but that we hadn't prepared (or been told that we needed to prepare) a Swedish-language "course plan" to satisfy the internal administrative needs of the School.

With both of us on vacation, Elina missed the fact that the asked-for form was attached at the very end of the e-mail and I, due to the brevity of the e-mail and the lack of contextual clues AND due to some additional (irrelevant and in this case misleading) information that had been included in the mail AND due to the particular way the request was formulated erroneously drew the conclusion that this request must refer back to some sort of mail exchange between Elina and the administrator that had happened when I was on vacation and that I had not been privy to.

Let me here point out that I, when I was a ph.d. student in Communication studies, spent considerable time at seminars where my doctoral colleagues or our elders poured over transcripts of taped recordings and used conversation analysis in their attempts to make sense of (for example) misunderstandings and breakdowns in conversations. It really shouldn't be possible for me to misunderstand and be befuddled by a supposedly simple mail exchange, but that is exactly what happened. (From Wikipedia: "Conversation analysis ... is an approach to the study of social interaction [that has later been] adapted to embrace more task- and institution-centered interactions, such as those occurring in doctors' offices, courts, law enforcement, helplines, educational settings, and the mass media.")

As apart from Elina, I did see the attachment and I concluded that the administrator must have appended the wrong document. The appended form was clearly part of of some sort of more administration-heavy process for setting up new undergraduate (first cycle) or graduate (second cycle) courses at our School and it couldn't possibly apply to us because all we wanted to do was to set up a ph.d. course that might be offered only once and with as few as half a dozen participants. Also, the form required the signature of the Director of First and Second Cycle Education at our School and that's clearly someone who would have nothing to do with Third Cycle Education and our ph.d. course. 

All of a sudden, I realised that I had no idea of what was required for setting up the course and that process seems to have become more complicated since the last time I gave a ph.d. course. Was the requested Swedish-language course plan just the first step in a longer process? And how important was it to fill out each field correctly? For example, what is the "organisational unit (code)" of the course? Or does that code refer to my department or to something else? These things are easier to figure out when at work but harder when on vacation. So how many emails would I have to send back and forth (§#@% on my vacation, dammit! &€*≈) to straighten this out? How urgent is this? So I'm trying to calculate: How much time should I spend on this? Will anyone ever actually read this document? Or will someone only glance at it, see that it nominally is a course plan and be satisfied to note that there exists information (no guarantees about the quality or accuracy) in each of the fields? Will this document just be filed on a server or in a cabinet and no one will ever look at it?

What seems eminently reasonable to the administrator who sent out the request can to the overworked recipient seem like a perfect example of the random, insatiable, capricious and inscrutable "needs" of an administration-heavy organisation. All at once my uncertainty increased and the process of setting up the course became a hassle - something that can give a calm teacher a mild headache but that hints at a sinkhole opening up under the feet of the nervous or overworked teacher. And if there is one thing I have learned during my 10+ years at KTH, that one thing is not to sink time into any administrative task before I know exactly what is being asked of me.

At that point I'm on a farm in the Swedish countryside, watering onions and mangold and herbs and taking care of rabbits and hens and kids, but I send back an answer the very same day. My answer is pure confusion and consists of three questions;
- The document is for undergraduate and graduate courses, is this really the correct document to fill out for a ph.d.-level course?
- I have not been privy to previous communication but it seems Elina submitted a course plan in English, are you asking us to translate that course plan (instead of filling out the not-quite-appropriate document we were handed)?
- Do we really need to fill out a course plan in Swedish if the course will be given in English?

All of my questions felt necessary due to a lack of contextual clues and to flawed assumptions (I for example believed that Elina had exchanged emails with the administrator and that Elina had handed in our English-language course plan). Despite my mounting irritation, I offered to translate the English-language course description Elina had handed in into Swedish if that was necessary, but this offer built on the assumption that she in fact had handed in the English-language course plan (which she hadn't). I also pointed out that both me and Elina were on vacation, that we weren't co-ordinated and that I would have little or no Internet access the following week.

The next mail from Educational Administration Manager arrives ten days later (July 14) - right when I said I would be offline. I read it later but the information in the mail does not make much sense to me due to a severe lack of shared situational awareness, so the mail goes unanswered. Individual words in the mail make sense and some sentences make sense, but others don't and it makes me feel like I'm the main character in a novel by Franz Kafka or Joseph Heller and that only a full-blooded idiot mucks around with these things because every time I ask for a clarification, things only get more confused.

I'm for example informed that "The course plan must be written in Swedish because the Swedish version needs to be approved by the [Super-]FA (the Director of Third Cycle Education at the School of Computer Science and Communication) and then be submitted for translation into English". But the Director has already read and approved our (English-language) course description, so why do we have to write a Swedish-language version that will then, most absurd of all, "be submitted for translation into English"? (And why not instad submit our English-language document for translation into Swedish?) We are also informed that "You have correctly identified that the form is suited for courses at the undergraduate and masters level, but there is no separate form for ph.d courses". This statement implies that the form I'm given is not suited for the task to which it has been put, but that it will do - for the purposes of the administrator. The form doesn't do anything at all for me, but the responsibility for filling it out has still been shifted to me. The flaws of the local administration (no suitable form) suddenly becomes my problem, but how did that happen so easily and surreptitiously?


I repeat that this is a tiny example of a random act of administration. You might think nothing of it. You might very well think that I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, but before I move on to suggestions for solutions, I would again like to emphasise that while the matter at hand is small, it points at much larger problems:

I have been persuaded to give a ph.d. course. What proportion of the preparations should be spent on working with planning the actual course and what proportion should be spent on pushing it through the administrative system? I am the first to admit that the time required for handling the administrative part probably is not that great if measured with a stop-watch, but the psychological burden of having to deal with this and other small acts of administration is disproportionate to the clock time involved. Here are a few aspects of what the psychological burden consists of:
- I get severely delayed emails right in the middle of my vacation about not having filled out a form that isn't suitable for the purpose to which it is being put. I don't get the explanations I need to fill out the form. So is this something I need to care about here and now? How much of a hurry is there, am I supposed to act on it immediately or can it wait until I'm back at work in August? And how do I un-see such a mail so as not to have it gnawing at the back of my mind when I'm on the beach with my kids?
- While this is a small matter, it represents a type of task that is a burden and that when multiplied by ten or a hundred contributes to frustration, stress, tension, fatigue and discontent. The book "Administration society" explains it better than I could:

"There is a correlation between the presence of illegitimate (unreasonable and unnecessary) tasks and stress, tension and fatigue. ... Another observation we have made is that administration seldom comes in the form of major planned changes, but consists of many small, limited tasks: an additional registration, two mouse clicks, a document or a new rule. Altogether all these small administrative tasks eventually however become a significant amount of extra work. Since this work is often invisible, it is neither accompanied by additional time to perform it or changed job descriptions, but is rather expected to be included, and tacked on top of the ordinary tasks. Increased production requirements in the public sector in conjunction with the increasing volume of administration has a significant impact on the pace and the work environment of many groups of employees" (Forsell & Ivarsson Westerberg 2014, p.239-241).

Small solutions

Small solutions are suggestions for solutions that would have made the particular problem I encountered easier, but that don't have any effect on the underlying system. Larger solutions do (see further below).

The first solution would have been for us to submit our English-language course description to the administrator who then proceeds to translate and fill out the Swedish-language course plan or to fill it out to the best of the administrator's ability and then asks us to complete whatever s/he can't.

The second and easiest solution would have been to refer to a webpage with a clear and concise checklist, a "how to create a ph.d. course for dummies" (preferably with another title though).

The third solution would be to preemptively provide better information. Nothing of what I write about above would have become an issue if the mail from the administrator had instead looked like this: 

"I'm sorry I did not have time to answer your email until now and I'm also sorry for having to bother you on your vacation. 
We are unfortunately required to file a Swedish-language course description (attached below). I know the form is not optimally adapted for ph.d. courses, but it's still the best we have. I have already filled out some fields and marked other fields in yellow (you can skip the rest). This is the only thing I need in order to be able to register the course and you can fix this when you come back from your vacation (as long as I get the form before the course starts). 
Have a nice vacation! 
Your friendly Educational Administration Manager."

The fourth solution might have solved the immediate problem at hand, but in a way that goes against what I myself believe in (and complain about in this letter). Let's say I set the timer on, well, 15 minutes. I fill out the Swedish-language course plan I have been provided with to the best of my ability. If that isn't very good, so be it. The important thing is for there to be seemingly-legitimate information in each field. Best case scenario: nobody ever reads the document and everybody is happy. Worst case scenario: The poor quality of the information I provide creates additional work for other people. This may or may not come back and bite me at a later point in time. It is not uncommon for me to feel as if this is the strategy that is chosen by (some) administrators who willy-nilly arbitrarily require me to jump through various hoops.


The suggestions above do nothing about the fact that more rules and procedures are added every year while nothing (or very little) is ever taken away. The suggestions above are useless for battling that trend and thus instead only suggest how to make the best of a bad situation. To understand how to solve the larger problem, a deeper analysis is needed.

One problem here is that the faculty are entrusted with managing their own time. That sounds good and it often is (I can choose to work from home when I like to), but it also means there are no limits. Whenever a small task is incrementally added to my job, my employer does that "for free". That small task just becomes one more thing I'm supposed to do as part of my job and does not add to the (monetary) costs of my employer. When new tasks are added to an administrator's job description, s/he still leaves the job at 17.00 and s/he will work tomorrow on what s/he didn't manage to accomplish today. If the pile of unfinished work grows, some non-essential task will have to go (for example by adding that task to each faculty member's work load). This example is not hypothetical. One colleague of mine questioned why he suddenly had to copy and archive his own receipts. Our School's Head of Administration said that this new approach "saved him half an administrator salary per year". The amount of administration was the same, but half an administrator had disappeared. So the administrative burden had just been divided into one hundred "invisible" parts and pushed in one hundred different direction to one hundred different persons (who all had higher salaries than an administrator has). Do you think this way of "solving" a problem is rational, sane, sustainable or decent? I can't do much about this because I'm just a lowly associate professor but I assume that you can, so will you?

From what I have observed, it always seem as if tasks that come from actors that are higher up or more central always take precedence over supporting the people "in the trenches" who do the actual work. That means that making sure that a form for a new ph.d. course is filled out always takes precedence over supporting the persons who will give the ph.d. course in question. Demanding that a member of the faculty provides the administrator with information tidbit X always takes precedence over supporting that person by not bothering him/her and instead looking up information tidbit X in a computer system that the administrator (or some fellow administrator) has access to. Why is that so?

I here don't shy away from comparing small act of administration to a mild form of violence or psychological terror that I as a teacher have to endure at the hands of maladjusted administrative routines and structures, lack of clear communication and most of all, an appalling lack of sufficient administrative support to help me manage my job. Instead of the administration supporting me, it often feels like I'm supporting the administration:

"the bureaucrat's ability to remain completely unaware of the university teacher's understanding of any situation, the teachers's [subsequent] inability to say [or affect] anything even when she becomes aware of some dire practical flaw in the bureaucrat's reasoning, the forms of blindness or stupidity that result, the fact these oblige the teacher to devote even more energy trying to understand and anticipate the bureaucrat's confused perceptions ... Ultimately it's about participating in the process that shuts them up."

I want to emphasise that it is not always this bad, but the quote points at an asymmetry in interpretative labor; I have to devote time, energy and imagination to try to figure out exactly what an administrator wants from me and why (see the example above), but that administrator seldom or never seems to devote any time, energy or imagination to trying to figure out what I need - not even when just a little would go a long way towards maximising the chance that the administrator would get the information s/he requires in return. Another example of this comes from America in the 1950s when "Women with no access to their own income or resources obviously had no choice but to spend a great deal of time and energy [attempting to understand] what their menfolk thought" (Graeber 2015, p.69). The euphemistic term "asymmetry in interpretative labor" basically means that the power relations between administrators and faculty are heavily skewed in favour of the administrators and in favour of the increasing elaborate systems of rules that in their turn rule the lives of administrators and faculty alike.

This is probably an important reason for why I could provide you with many examples of interaction between faculty and administrators that draw much ire from the faculty. At my department's retreat before the summer, it 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".

I thought it was an exaggeration, but one of my colleagues said (in a small-group discussion at the retreat) 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". It is of course absurd to compare our situation with slavery, but, I have to admit that I fudged the quote above by exchanging the word "slave" for "university teacher" and "master" for "administrator". Here's the original quote:

"the master's ability to remain completely unaware of the slave's understanding of any situation, the slave's inability to say anything even when she becomes aware of some dire practical flaw in the master's reasoning, the forms of blindness or stupidity that result, the fact these oblige the slave to devote even more energy trying to understand and anticipate the master's confused perceptions ... Ultimately it's about participating in the process that shuts them up" (Graeber 2015, p.103).

Large solutions

There are power asymmetries at play here and the greatest one is not really between faculty and local administrators (who just happen to be unwilling or unwitting "hit men"), but between on the one hand locally adapted rule sets and self-determination and on the other hand the "needs" of the larger organisation and meddlesome external stakeholders:

"Instead of looking to satisfy external stakeholders' needs or the needs of the organization, identify what the needs of the operations are and what those who work with the issues in question demand. It is rare for the personnel to ask for new control systems, measurement models or crisis management plans. Instead embrace a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. The administrative perspective should not have the prerogative of formulating the problems to be solved. Administration should support the operations - not the other way around." (Forsell and Ivarsson Westerberg 2014, p.246.)

I have to point out that the tension between locally-adapted rule sets versus rule sets that come "from above" has been the red line that runs through the research that garnered Elinor Ostrom (1990) the 2009 Nobel memorial prize in economic sciences. She spent decades refining her understanding of how communities themselves sustainably govern their commons (e.g. the natural resources they depend on) in ways vastly superior to the alternatives of being regulated by distant state actors or by individualistic market solutions that divvied up the commons (Bradley and Pargman 2017). One example of her "design principles" for how to manage common resources is the common-sense idea that rules should be adapted to local conditions. It's doesn't have to be more complicated than that. Another great quote/advice from Forsell and Ivarsson Westerberg (2014, p.247-248) is:

"You should trust the professionals. Many professional ... have specialist university-level training, strong norms about how work should be conducted, and a relatively high degree of autonomy. In short, these are self-motivated, qualified coworkers. Controlling their work forcefully runs the risk of going against their professional standards and sends signals from management that they are not trusted. Moreover, it is possible to discuss whether their time is used correctly if the control systems that are in place generate administrative work that displaces core work tasks so that highly skilled groups of employees spend their time administering instead of using their skills ... Instead of trying to control activities that are characterized by professionalism and where those who do the work itself possess the greatest knowledge and understanding, perhaps a greater responsibility for organizational decisions should be handed over to them." (p.247-248.)

Just as this open letter is cry for help as well as an act of resistance, I ask you, in your role as Dean, to protest, fight against and resist decrees that have obvious (hidden) costs and only small or no benefits for the people "in the trenches". The costs of excessive administration is sometimes neither hidden nor small. What for example are the costs of having a colleague suffer from burnout? Beyond the personal costs that the individual has to bear, that also puts colleagues and the department into a dicey situation as resources have to be freed up and reallocated to cover for acute as well as more long-term effects. So I urge you not only to resist the gradual increase of administrative tasks in general, but to also tell us about your acts of resistance and (hopefully) about your victories. You would be our hero. Also, please read Forsell and Ivarsson Westerberg's book "Administrationssamhället" [Administration society] as well as my paper "Refactoring Society: Systems Complexity in an Age of Limits". Here's the abstract:

"Research in sociology, anthropology, and organizational theory indicates that most societies readily create increasingly complex societal systems. Over long periods of time, accumulated societal complexity bears costs in excess of benefits, and leads to a societal decline. In this paper we attempt to answer a fundamental question: what is the appropriate response to excessive sociotechnical complexity? We argue that the process of refactoring, which is commonplace in computing, is ideally suited to our circumstances today in a global industrial society replete with complex sociotechnical systems. We further consider future directions for computing research and sustainability research with the aim to understand and help decrease sociotechnical complexity."


In KTH's vision for our 200th anniversary ("Vision 2027"), the very first sentence states that KTH will be one of the leading technical universities in Europe. Let's put humbleness aside for now and state that KTH's vision is to be an elite university. An often-neglected aspect is than an elite university needs an elite administration (and elite administrators) as well as (not too many) elite rules and elite routines. How do we get there? I am personally afraid that there is an imminent risk that talk about how great we are (or will be) can replace supporting KTH faculty to actually do great things. High-level representations of what constitutes quality (as expressed by checklists, policies, reports, inquiries, audits) might replace the actual delivery of quality in our everyday operations. My apprehension draws on Alan Kay's fears about education in the 21st century:

"education in the 20th century is like being taken to the world's greatest restaurant and being fed the meny. ... representations of ideas have replaced the ideas themselves ... In the near future ... will we be able to get from the meny to the food? Or will we no longer understand the difference between the two? Worse, will we lose even the ability to read the meny and be satisfied just to recognize that it is one?" (Kay 1991).

Will we be satisfied with having a top-notch quality assurance system in place no matter what we actually measure, let alone the connection between that which is measured and "quality"? Will we come to identify quality as a matter of crossing all the t's and dotting the i (filling out and sending endless flows of forms back and forth) or as something else - something more fundamental?

You might dismiss the whole premise of this letter; "surely you exaggerate, this is just one small example". Anything more would require too much time and effort to write down, but, this one example feels fairly typical of what the interaction between faculty and administration at times can look like. Me and colleagues of mine can provide you with numerous other examples. I am sure we are all united in our commitment to doing a good jobs, but we do live in different worlds. It's not that men are from Mars and women are from Venus (as a popular book from the 1990's claimed), but that faculty lives on Earth and tries to solve acute and practical problems in the here-and-now while the administration seems to live on the far side of the Moon and also seems to have an unhealthy commitment to assuring that we all serve the alien absentee Vogon landlord-overlords from the Andromeda galaxy (Adams 1995). But let me assure you that my problem in general isn't with administrators, but with administration. If the primary allegiance of an administrator is towards the rules rather than towards the faculty, then I do have a problem with that particular administrator though.

I'm not sure it's correct, but a colleague told me you dismissively said that the majority of complaints at our School comes from one department in particular - the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID). I would suggest that many of us at MID have studied Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Interaction Design (ID) so that we can teach our students to design and care about functional and pleasurable User Experiences (UX) as a way of making the world a better place (Bødker and Sundblad 2008). The issue at hand is therefore larger than the frustration of having to live with a deeply dysfunctional administrative system. To have to adapt to such systems is an affront to our professional selves and goes against everything we strive to instill in our students.

The Swedish Higher Education Act states that our Master of Science in Engineering students must "demonstrate the ability to develop and design products, processes and systems that take human conditions and needs into consideration as well as society's objectives for economically, socially and ecologically sustainable development". But how can we maintain our credibility and teach that to our students if our own internal processes and systems do not take the conditions and needs of the faculty into regard? And how can it be economically OR socially OR ecologically sustainable to have the whole university kneel under the yoke of an ever-increasing (no end in sight) administrative burden?

Our department was instrumental in gestating the Scandinavian tradition of HCI back in the 1970s and the 1980s (Bødker et. al. 1987). The well-known 1981-1985 Utopia project that some of your predecessors worked on (Sundblad 2010) was part of the activist vanguard at the intersection of HCI, workplace studies, user involvement and workers' rights to have access to functional and appropriate tool to be able to do their jobs. Does that not compel you to be our digital champion and the primus inter pares ("first among equals") who protects and fights for your faculty's rights to have access to functional and appropriate tool that enable us to do our jobs to the best of our abilities (and for the greater glory of KTH)?

Daniel Pargman, Associate Professor in Media Technology


Adams, D. (1995). The hitch hiker's guide to the galaxy: A trilogy in five parts. Random House.

Bradley, K. and Pargman, D. (forthcoming 2017). The sharing economy as the commons of the 21st century. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society - special issue on "Sharing Economies? Theories, practices and impacts".

Bødker, S. Ehn, P., Kammersgaard, J., Kyng, M., & Sundblad, Y. (1987). A Utopian Experience. In Bjerknes, G., Ehn, P., Kyng, M. Computers and Democracy - a Scandinavian Challenge. Aldershot, UK: Avebury, pp. 251–278.

Bødker, S. and Sundblad, Y. (2008). Usability and interaction design - new challenges for the Scandinavian tradition. Behaviour & Information Technology, Vol.27, No.4, pp.293-300

Forsell, A. and Ivarsson Westerberg, A. (2014). Administrationssamhället [Administration society]. Studentlitteratur.

Graeber, D. (2015). The Utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy. Melville House.

Hirschmann, A. O. (1970). Exit, voice and loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge.

Kay, A. C. (1991). Computers, networks and education. Scientific American, 265(3), 138-148.

Ostrom, Elinor (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.

Raghavan, B. and Pargman, D. (2016). Refactoring society: Systems complexity in an age of limits. In Proceedings of the Second Workshop on Computing within Limits. ACM.

Sundblad, Y. (2010). UTOPIA: Participatory Design from Scandinavia to the World. In IFIP Conference on History of Nordic Computing. Springer Berlin Heidelbergm pp.176-186.


This letter focuses on one small act of administration. There are many others. A current example is our department's Monday morning meetings that died due to excessive administrative demands and insufficient administrative support. The structure of tasking the department's six different teams with buying breakfast on a rolling schedule was a source of discontent and ultimately became unworkable. It did not make any sense in the first place to hold senior faculty members (research team leaders) responsible for buying bread and juice every sixth weeks and there were the inevitable slip-ups and empty breakfast tables. The demands on half a dozen research leaders (or whoever the task had been delegated to) to not just hand in receipts, but the fact that we were supposed to (for the purpose of taxing benefits) hand in lists of every person who attended each weekly breakfast meeting was beyond absurd. I never handed in a single receipts and instead sponsored KTH by paying for my colleagues' breakfast once or twice per term. I do realise that the rules in question were not invented by KTH, but by the Swedish Tax Agency, but it is especially in situations such as these that I want all the smart people who run KTH to find ways to refute, resist, avoid or minimise the damage of (such) senseless demands on increased administration. Let's face it, external stakeholders will never step back; they will always be quick to ask for more information just because they can, and they never step up and pay the multidimensional costs (time, money, frustration etc.) that follow from inventing new ways to harass KTH and its employees.

† David Bergman has also published a very relevant text (in Swedish) on "Certification hysteria". What is most interesting is however that his texts are published on the official homepage of The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences as well as republished on The Swedish Defence Forces' official blog portal. Such analysis and critique is apparently appreciated over there and I hope that is the case also at KTH. So I would like to state that I am open to suggestions for rewriting and republishing this text in one of the KTH magazines or newsletters (KTH Magazine, Campi, Numera). I certainly hope we are allowed not only to publish "positive" and uplifting news there, because the most important step for improving an organisation is of course first to admit that there are opportunities for improvements, e.g. that there does exist problems (as all organisations have).

April 2017: Here's someone else who got tired and decided to quit for much the same reasons I complain above.

13 kommentarer:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you Daniel. Just to confirm your breakfast anecdote, I too have treated my colleagues to breakfast (as well as some projects I work on in other ways, like sending invitation letters via post whiles on my vacation, etc.) just because of an administrative hassle to submit the forms for refund. And I come from a country that apart from Adriatic sea with Italy also shares infamous bureaucratic system - one I hoped to escape in a Nordic country, often referred to Croatian politicians as a model we should strive to become. What's more, some of the tasks, instructions and forms that are part of this "delegate to the faculty" movement are in Swedish, thus automatically limiting great amount of faculty to actually complete them alone, but rather requiring us to ask somebody else (often other faculty members, as those are closest and most likely to respond in time). So your 15-min timer you mentioned as one solution suddenly is multiplied by 2. And not to mention that often even the native/local faculty members are not even sure what some of the official administrative columns or fields on the form mean - clearly indicating we were never the target group (or at minimum, our expertise in Human[-Computer] Interaction was not consulted on the matter).

    I would like to point out that there are also great exceptions in this Administration Misery that we find ourselves daily in. And they should not be forgotten but rather put up front as role models. And to do so I'll give an example. I was part of an EU project (and yes, EU projects and EU in general is probably an counter example of how administration can really go wrong - but that's a topic for another discussion). One of the responsibilities there was to fill-in time-sheets and to say how much I worked on each day on specific project. And of course, I needed to work exactly X hours to justify the X*Y money we were assigned when the project was accepted by EU. Now, can anyone tell me how can I calculate how much of my time reading literature on my topic of research should I count towards the project and how much towards my PhD? I mean I understand that when you have clients and contractors, it's normal that a builder, or programmer, or designer, or whoever can clearly say when they contribute to the project and when not. However, here my contribution was (when not doing the administrative stuff for the project) deeply mixed with my own research. That was one of the reasons I was part of the project in the first place. That's why EU want's academics and industry to collaborate. So I ended up always filling in the form "by gut", or rather just making sure I that the sum is always equal to X and that I don't write anything stupid like ("on holidays" under the activity charged agains EU project), but all that after being severely late and only when the bad feeling that accompanied doing that administrative task was outgrown by the bad feeling of being late with it. Anyhow, to bring this point back to the positive example, one of our KTH administrators recognised the foolishness of us filling out said forms on monthly basis with information that nobody checks (or cares about). So when said administrator took over the role of sending us the forms (and reminding us) they were suddenly pre-filled with exactly the kind of information I would put - and always summing to X. We just needed to confirm and sign them. The same person has also given me great help on other occasions and with matters for which until then I was just bounced back and forth between people. When I finally got to her, she a) knew who to ask and how to ask b) ensured I was always kept up to date on progress, but never threw the ball back to me until everything I needed to do was perfectly clear.

    Here's hopping for change!

  2. I think it's fascinating that also ph.d. students who I thought would mainly be spared from all of this have similar experiences.

    I agree that there is nothing better than a great administrator who *fixes problems*. I would want all administrators to *fix problems* but that alas is not always the case. And fixing concrete problems (like your time sheets) is just half the problem. Even a great administrator has little control over external stakeholders' admininistration-generting demands and the fact that administration as a phenomenon keeps growing (never shrinking).

    It seems like administration is some kind of force of nature or an expanding black hole. Will administration eventually swallow all light, all time and finally the rest of the university?

  3. Oh, lord....PhD students spared? No way. Ask anybody who have tried to fill out an ISP (Individuell Studieplan), to the standards administration wants them to be. That can be quite a Kafka-esque experience. Especially when different branches of administration pitches up against each other on matters of time, points etc.

  4. I see your point. We didn't have ISPs when I did my ph.d. in the second half of the 1990's. To me, an ISP was an Internet Service Provider and nothing else...

  5. Interesting! I've been told I am the only one complaining about the ISP!

  6. Well, you´re not alone! :)

  7. So I've noticed. I think the experiences voiced are if not universal, then at least widespread and spanning many professions.

    The text could have been written by many others, I just happened to be the person "holding the pen" this time around. Last time the text was written, ph.d. student and lieutenant in the Swedish Armed Forces David Bergman held the pen. Next time it will be some doctor or policeman or nurse...

  8. I think you are correct. Just look at the quotes from doctors and nurses in Zarembas articles on swedish healthcare and NPM. School teachers in both elementary and senior high could probably also hold the pen...unfortunately.

  9. I assume you've read Jonas Söderströms book "Jävla skitsystem!" that give numerous examples of IT-systems that display the same total lack of usability as the administrative processes you mention.

    Some of the wierd behaviours that seem to emerge in large organizations remind me of the findings in the Danish article Insights into an ageing society (http://www.itu.dk/~malmborg/ID_E08/Litteratur/IAnecdotes1.pdf), for example finding ways to ritualize trivial activities so they take longer to perform, inventing new activites or attaching greater importance to core activities as a way to create "structure", and denying one's actual abilities and instead constantly trying to test one's limits. Perhaps over-administration is simply a sign of organizational dementia? :-)

  10. Thank you for your reading tips Nicholas.

    I actually haven't read Söderström's book, thank you for reminding me of it! I did read a similar book (in Swedish) ≈15 years ago about weird effects of bad computer systems (structured around the seven deadly sins). I have to look in the bookshelf at home to find it.

    The Danish text looks interesting. Perhaps over-administration is a sign of organizational aging and decreasing capacity, innovation, flexibility etc.?

    But how do you put an organisation on the psychologist's couch? I'm now thinking of re-reading Morgan's great book "Images of organization" which discusses a dozen metaphors for organisations.

    It has chapters on Organizations as Machines, Organizations as Organisms, Organizations as Brains, Organizations as Cultures, Organizations as Political Systems and Organizations as Psychic Prisons etc.

  11. Söderström's book is definitely worth reading and definitely entertaining, even if it gets its point across fairly quickly.

    The Danish text isn't particularly flashy or extraordinary, but the results are interesting and for some reason I still think it one of the most interesting articles I've read... It's just kind of stuck with me.

    There was a HCI book published 3-4 years ago that also uses the 7 deadly sins as design guidelines which is also pretty interesting, but perhaps not particularly academic in nature :-) Evil by Design: interaction design to lead us into temptation

    Morgan's book is new to me, but I'll definitely have a look at it. Thanks!

  12. And thank you for your comments and suggestions for readings!