Bureaucracy, administrative bloat, and organizational productivity

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, management experts Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini ask:

How pervasive is bureaucracy in your organization? How much time and energy does it suck up? To what extent does it undermine resilience and innovation? Which processes are more trouble than they’re worth?

To help tease out answers to these questions, Hamel and Zanini break down the costs of excessive organizational bureaucracy into these seven categories:

1. Bloat: too many managers, administrators, and management layers

2. Friction: too much busywork that slows down decision making

3. Insularity: too much time spent on internal issues

4. Disempowerment: too many constraints on autonomy

5. Risk Aversion: too many barriers to risk taking

6. Inertia: too many impediments to proactive change

7. Politics: too much energy devoted to gaining power and influence

But they don’t stop there! In their piece they also offer an assessment instrument, dubbed the “bureaucracy mass index,” that can help organizations compare respective levels of bureaucratic overkill. The instrument is specially for large private sector organizations, but smaller businesses, public agencies, and non-profit employers may find it useful as well.

Academic workplaces

Oh my, does this resonate for me as a denizen of higher education, where administrative bloat and top-down bureaucracy have sucked so much of the vitality out of colleges and universities, not to mention fueled skyrocketing tuition. A (London) Times Higher Education review of Benjamin Ginsburg’s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University (2011) captures a good chunk of this dynamic:

Administrators breed unless checked. . . . Administrative prestige is measured by the number of “reports” an administrator has, which is to say, how many people report to them. Deans need associate deans, assistant deans, deanlets and a bevy of secretarial staff, less to achieve anything truly useful than to enhance their prestige – and their salaries, because one’s pay goes up in proportion to the number of staff one directs.

It would be bad enough if the administrators were simply unproductive. . . . But The Fall of the Faculty regards many presidents, provosts, deans and their underlings as positively dangerous to the academic enterprise of teaching and research.

Ginsburg drew excerpts from his book to write a shorter piece on this topic — “Administrators Ate My Tuition” — for the Washington Monthly. (For two more good commentaries, check out these articles from The EvoLLLution and Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Administrators breed unless checked. What a brilliant line! How can those of us in bureaucratic work settings help to stop this needless bloat, unwise use of money, and harmful concentration of power?

School’s out (sort of), and summer beckons

In Boston, the weather isn’t quite there yet. I took this photo of the park near my home in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood a couple of years ago.

Hello dear readers! Classes have just finished up at my university, and I’ll be grading exams and papers for the next couple of weeks. I’m also gearing up for a busy summer of writing projects, organizing work, and speaking commitments before returning to classes in late August.

What follows is a mish-mash of items that may be of interest:

Essay about blogging

Osmania University, one of India’s oldest and largest universities, invited me to contribute an essay about an aspect of my work to a volume of commentaries in honor of its centennial celebration. I opted to write a piece about how this blog has allowed me to share ideas and information with a diverse audience inside and outside academe. Titled “Blogging About Work, Workers, and Workplaces,” the essay emphasizes the public education work I’ve been doing concerning workplace bullying and worker dignity through this blog. The book — Insights on Global Challenges and Opportunities for the Century Ahead — has just been published, and you may access a pdf of the full e-edition here (beware, it’s a huge file), with my piece appearing on page 107.

Happy 100th to Osmania U!

Speaking appearances

I’ll be heading off to participate in two of my favorite conferences this summer:

Work, Stress and Health Conference, Minneapolis, MN (June)

The biennial Work, Stress and Health Conference is co-hosted by the American Psychological Association, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Society for Occupational Health Psychology. I’ll be participating on two panels this year:

  • A panel titled “Trauma-Informed Best Practices for Responding to Workplace Bullying and Mobbing,” with Drs. Gary Namie and Maureen Duffy, during which I’ll be discussing how research insights on psychological trauma can inform employment lawyers and other legal stakeholders; and,
  • A panel titled “Non-standard work arrangements: A discussion of taxonomy and research priorities,” organized by researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, during which I’ll be discussing legal and policy issues covering workplace safety and health for independent contractors and other “gig economy” workers.

If you’d like a sense of why I value this conference so much, two years ago, Psychology Benefits Society, the blog of the APA’s Public Interest Directorate, shared my write-up on the 2015 gathering, “Conferences as Community Builders.”

International Congress on Law and Mental Health, Prague, Czech Republic (July)

The biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health is sponsored by the International Academy for Law and Mental Health. I’ll be part of two panels this year:

  • A panel announcing and discussing the launch of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a new, non-profit learned society dedicated to supporting therapeutic jurisprudence, the school of legal philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law and public policy, legal systems, and legal institutions; and,
  • A panel titled “Therapeutic Jurisprudence in Higher Education,” during which I’ll be presenting a short paper on”Addressing Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Incivility in Higher Education: The Roles of Law, Cultures, Codes and Coaching.”

As the panel topics suggest, this conference is a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with friends and colleagues from the therapeutic jurisprudence community. I did a write-up on the 2015 conference in Vienna, Austria here, as well as a little travelogue summary posted to my personal blog here.

Wallet Hub feature on securing entry-level jobs

If you have kids who are in college or otherwise preparing to enter the workforce, or if you’re planning a return to the workforce yourself, you may find helpful this extensive WalletHub.com piece on securing entry-level jobs. I was among those interviewed for an “Ask the Experts” advice section on screening and evaluating entry-level job opportunities.

Notable books

I like to feature interesting books in this blog, but I’ve been negligent about tagging relevant posts in the “notable books” category. To remedy that, I spent a chunk of time going back to previous posts that discuss important books and adding the tag. You can scroll through those posts here.

Time wasters from top management

(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

Consultant Eric Garton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, posits that various time killing practices imposed from on high undermine employee morale and productivity:

Unproductive routines, corporate bureaucracy, and “administrivia” kill ambition and sap energy for far too many employees. That’s demoralizing for employees, and a waste for companies, which badly need the full energy and commitment of all their workers.

These “practices, procedures, and structures” include “too much process, too many meetings, meaningless goals, and time wasted on work that no one will ever care about.”

Garton may be writing with mostly the corporate sector in mind, but I can readily attest that these same energy-sapping practices are rife in certain academic institutions as well. They appear in the forms of excessive committees, task forces, working groups, and — worst of all — strategic planning initiatives, replete with seemingly endless meetings and online surveys about this and that. Colleges and universities that lard up on administrators and consultants are the worst of all when it comes to this.

In looking for solutions, Garton offers what he calls his “3 R’s”:

  • refocus on strategic priorities
  • reset the budgets
  • redesign the operating model

Hmm, I have to say that the “3 R’s” sound a lot like consultant jargon replacing corporate jargon. Instead, I’d suggest creating workplace cultures in which people are valued, empowered, and treated with fairness and dignity. If you start with that and go from there, then you’re on your way toward building an organization with high morale and productivity. Plug that agenda into your “strategic priorities,” budgets, and “operating model” if you must (and I hope you don’t), but keep your focus on what truly fosters healthy and productive workplaces.

Spring break in Boston

Back Bay neighborhood, Boston

At my university we’re observing that annual academic ritual known as spring break, but Mother Nature has decided not to cooperate with the “spring” part here in Boston and along the east coast. We’re experiencing a major winter storm, and the snow is coming down heavy and wet as I write. It looks like we’ll be dealing with quite an accumulation before it’s over.

I had planned to go into my office today to get some work done, but I’ve decided it will be just as easy to work on stuff at home. Today’s (and perhaps tomorrow’s) tasks are to write a foreword for a colleague’s forthcoming book and a project report. While I might have fewer distractions in the office, I like the idea of being hunkered down at home as the snow continues to fall.

Jamaica Plain neighborhood, Boston

With no classes this week because of the break, I don’t have to worry about rescheduling snowed-out class sessions. Instead, I can once again appreciate the convenience and flexibility of being able to work from virtually any location where I can turn on my computer and access the Internet.

I count myself especially fortunate to be back home today, as this appeared to be a questionable proposition during a weekend visit with friends in northern Virginia, right outside of Washington D.C. As the winter storm forecast became more dire, my prospects for flying out of Dulles airport last night started to look a tad iffy. As luck would have it, I was on one of the last flights to land at Boston’s Logan airport, per the JetBlue arrivals board below.

Monday night JetBlue arrivals board, Logan Airport, Boston

Lee Badgett: How can professors influence public policy?

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How can professors harness their research and analysis to have a positive influence on public policy and law reform?

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett provides answers to that question in her excellent book, The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World. (NYU Press, New York: 2015). Lee Badgett is an economics professor and former director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at UMass-Amherst, as well as a distinguished scholar at UCLA’s Williams Institute. She is a nationally recognized authority on the economic dynamics of sexual orientation.

Recently Lee spoke at Suffolk University as part of a faculty workshop series that I’m co-hosting, “From Public Policy Scholarship to Public Policy Impact.” Her terrific talk centered on how faculty can create scholarship-to-impact pathways for their work. Drawing from her book, she recommended “three pillars or practices” that should inform how academicians approach this task:

First, professors should have a “big picture view of the work that they do,” which fosters an understanding of “where their work fits into the [policy] decision making process.”

Second, professors should build networks and relationships for sharing their work beyond academe.

Third, professors should “learn to communicate well with lots of other audiences,” fashioning a “jargon-free message” that “taps into people’s values.”

Lee’s talk was just the tip of the iceberg. For any professor, independent scholar, student, or publicly-minded intellectual who wants valuable advice and guidance on how to use their scholarship to influence public opinion and public policy, this book is an important starting place.

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett

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Related articles

On this general topic, I’m happy to share two of my law review articles:

Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law.” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice, 2016) — This piece recounts experiences and offers lessons and advice from the work I’ve been doing during the past fifteen years, including workplace bullying, unpaid internships, and workplace dignity in general. Alas, I was unaware of Lee Badgett’s book when my article went into production, but you’ll find plenty of complementary advice between our two publications.

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010) — This article offers a critique of the culture of legal scholarship and suggests four points toward creating a more publicly-engaged practice for scholarly work.

Related blog post

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013)

In academic leadership, resume and character are separate entities

resumeclipart

Image courtesy of clipartfest.com

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned during a quarter of century in academe is that one’s resume and character are separate entities.

Okay, a quick clarification: In academe a resume is called a curriculum vitae, or c.v. A c.v. is a resume on growth hormones, detailing activities that normally are summarized in a page or two. For someone with a lot of publications and speaking appearances, a  c.v. can easily top ten pages.

In any event, whether we call it a resume or a c.v., the bottom line is that an impressive paper record and upstanding personal character do not necessarily go hand in hand. This is especially the case with professors who enter the world of academic administration, harboring ambitions of deanships, college presidencies, and other high-ranking positions.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are plenty of good, ethical people in academic administration. Many bring a spirit of servant leadership to their work, as opposed to raw, preening ambition. But there’s another group, a pretty big one, that calls to mind writer William Deresiewicz’s excellent essay on leadership, based on a talk he gave to West Point cadets:

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.

I have quoted often from this essay in this blog. The piece is well worth reading in its entirety. For dwellers in academe, especially, there’s at least a decent chance that you’ll see some people you recognize in his descriptions — hopefully none involving a mirror!!

The rise of the type of leader described by Deresiewicz is one of the problems infecting academic life today: Too many ambitious climbers, not enough servant leaders. At a time when higher education needs its best people at the helm, I’m afraid it’s a very mixed bag.

How do you take and keep notes?

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Janet uses a hardcover sketchbook for her notes.

Okay, dear readers — especially academicians, students, lifelong learners, frequent conference goers, and other “information society” folks — here’s my question: How do you take and keep notes?

This Way Out (1972), a classic early guidebook to non-traditional higher education by John Coyne and Tom Hebert, includes some marvelous chapters on lifelong learning skills and practices, pre-digital style. It says this about taking notes:

Make a decision now for life, just how you are going to keep your lecture and reading notes. We wish we had done this earlier so that we could have saved them. We’re always in situations where we take notes. Watching a TV discussion, public lectures, conversations. We have finally settled on 4-by-6 inch scratch pads, and yellow legal pads for interviews and long lectures. There must be better systems. One friend takes notes (any size), quotes and interesting miscellaneous Xeroxes, stapes them to 5-by-8 inch cards which he labels and keeps in a card file.

Of course, their note taking system is a blast from the past. The mere idea of recording notes onto paper is foreign to a lot of folks, especially in this digital age of tablets and software programs like Evernote and OneNote.

That said, I remain drawn to taking notes the old fashioned way. It is an aesthetic as well as educational preference.

For some reason, this topic has been on my mind recently. In a recent post I wrote about a fellow singing class student who keeps written notes on each voice class session. At annual board meetings and workshops of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City, I’ve taken delight in watching peace educator Janet Gerson‘s use of hardcover sketchbooks to take and preserve her notes, as well as to host her artistic forays and distractions.

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And at times she goes artistic.

Alas, unlike Janet, and ignoring the sound advice of Mssrs. Coyne & Hebert, I have not developed a uniform personal note taking system. When I have my act together, I am biased toward Moleskine notebooks. But I also use other brands of notebooks and sketchbooks, my weekly (paper) calendar, scraps of paper, and yes, my computer and tablet. (Sidebar: Even Moleskine has bowed to technology, now offering a “Smart Writing System” that integrates paper and digital writing using a “paper tablet.”)

Individual preferences aside, for purposes of learning and retention, taking notes by hand may very well be more effective than typing them into a laptop or tablet, as suggested by a study published in the research journal of the Association for Psychological Science:

Dust off those Bic ballpoints and college-ruled notebooks — research shows that taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

So, this is my gentle case for taking notes like some of us learned in grade school. Here’s to heading over to your local stationery or office supply store and picking up a notebook or sketchbook, along with a nice pen that makes writing a pleasure.

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