Organizational Breakdown

Had a conversation with a restaurant manager when he said he hates computers. His life has gone from 90% working with food to maybe 60%. Naturally he did not get into this kind of work to spend so much time dealing with computers.

GeorgiaVIEW Admin Retreat

At first I thought the issue was empowerment. A few decades ago, important people had assistants to do all their minutia. They did not write letters so much as quickly express what it should say, someone else wrote, and had it approved before going off to send it. Now, important people write an email themselves. Well, more so than they used to do. Technology has made minutia easier and changed assistant jobs into accomplishing more complex tasks.

As it turns out the issue was more organizational complexity. The manager’s accountant found a mistake and told him to talk to another department who sent him to third who sent him to a fourth. Each admitted the mistake should be fixed, but none could correct it.

Sound familiar? You might have encountered it dealing with customer support with a utility or government agency. The organization is so big and so complex individuals within it are not capable of knowing where to direct customers to have the problem solved. Only the most tenacious can force the difficult issues. When employees are empowered with autonomy to make decisions and solve problems, they make things move along and keep customers happy.

Still sad computers take the blame for people designing organizations.

Review: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A few days ago I tweeted,

How bad would it be for me to anonymously leave a copy of @DanielPink ‘s book Drive on the desk of every exec[utive] at work?

First, I actually think every person supervising others and even those working in our flat teams should study and implement this. The good news is I already see hints of it in the work place nestled in the cracks. Knowing why these behaviors improve performance and taking it to the next level is the dream. We have superstar teams and this is why. Second, ever since I watched the Pink’s TED Talk and RSA videos, these ideas are things I mention. The book just adds more fuel to the fire.

This is a easy read. The appendix contains a summary of how to apply these ideas as an individual, an organization, or as an educator. And the bibliography gives me the changes to dive even deeper.

View all my reviews

Healing Is Anti-Entropy

The Science of Healing Places was on the radio this morning. A statement near the end to the effect that healing is life or a part of life reminded me of something. Entropy, aka the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is the force behind why when you break a glass it cannot be reversed and come back together. Similarly, it works on our bodies and cells to destroy them. Bonds break. The odds of them joining without an intervention is low.

Yet the organization of our cells runs counter to entropy. Bonds regularly join and break on what seems like demand. Take breathing as an example. Red blood cells enter the bloodstreams of the lungs. Oxygen collected there takes the places of carbon dioxide by bonding with iron. Those red blood cells travel to different parts of the body where cells strip off that oxygen and carbon dioxide joins up with the iron.

Healing though is cells recognizing a malfunction of the body and bringing resources to bear in restoring the organization of the structures. Amazing to consider this goes on without our conscious consideration.

So, death is when these reorganization mechanisms have shut down. Entropy can then break down our cells at as normal.

Solving Internal Communications With Blogs

I'm blogging this.
I'm blogging this.

Through the grapevine, a coworker heard in another organization a top administrator wants the rank and file to start blogging. My coworker was opposed. I thought it could be a cool way of internally communicating. Though the conditions to make it work very much depend on the organizational culture:

    1. Encouragement not forced. Managers are asked to pay attention to the things about which the rank and file are proud or excited. Encouraging employees to post about how they created or solved things provides an outlet to express good pride. Something arbitrary like everyone must post something every week will become forced and a drain on morale.
    2. No rules or judgement from on high. The more rules there are around what employees should say or how will stifle them offering real ideas. Instead, only regurgitated ideas from managers would be offered. An echo chamber of everyone imitating each other becomes boring really quick.
    3. Peer judgment is not discouraged. Knowing my peers throughout my organization read this blog cause me to delete about 30% of the potentially work-related posts I start. I value what they think. When I realize what I wrote is not good enough, I am willing to dump it in favor of a complete rewrite or more time to think more to maintain my reputation. Self-editing to make sure I present only my best work requires me to understand myself.

Writing is a good skill to have. Writing for a blog is different than writing an email, a web page, a report, or a presentation. Like presenting, blogging is a useful way for an employee to grow in interesting ways. The hard part is the readiness people have and growing into becoming bloggers. One especially does not want them to become discouraged early. Because then you end up with a morale problem.

At work, we have a blog built into Sharepoint. While the CIO uses it, I am not sure it is the place for me. The audience there is internal to work. My audience is both internal and external.

There is also the idea getting the rank and file to blog is some kind of weird study in improving internal organization communication. Walking around to find out what everyone is doing takes too much time. Regular reports become, “I am working on exactly what I think you want me to be working on,” regurgitation. Blogging is an interesting and difficult to pull off right idea.

Muzzled

For over a month now my team has been heads down to provide some sandbox environments for the University System of Georgia Learning Management System Transition Task Force. The evaluators are looking at a sandbox for each contender. Various technical teams are also determining how the product fits with our experience and our operations. Growing new skills and abilities is probably a good thing as long as it fits the organization.

My inclination is to blog about every discovery whether good, bad, or ugly. Yet this whole processes is overshadowed by fear. Fear of the loser initiating a lawsuit and anything I write being taken out of context to support a case is the main reason I have muzzled myself about it. Probably even private blog posts on a private blog could be requested by a subpoena.

I guess there will be plenty of time to gripe about it all when the decision is made and we surge towards meeting an absurdly short timeline to implement a production environment. That is a whole other blog post I probably should never write.

LMS Non-Negotiables

I listened in on the first town hall meeting for our USG LMS Transition Task Force on Thursday. There are 3 more town halls this week and a final one December 9th. It sounds like the task force is looking for what items are non-negotiable, extremely important, nice to have. Here are the non-negotiable items from the list. Here are my thoughts.

  • Security: Agree. Student data is critical information to keep away from those who ought not see it while giving access to those who should. I would include in this an audit log of administrative actions such as changing passwords, resetting virtual classrooms, or anything else which possibly could be abused.
  • Scalable: Agree. We’ve seen fantastic usage growth other the years. When I started with this project four years ago, we had only around 100,000 active users. We now approaching 300,000 active users. Even each user does more now than then. There is no reason we will see an end to usage growth.
  • Integrates with enterprise systems (i.e. Banner): Agree. There is a need for a relatively easy way to ensure the faculty and the students have accounts which are placed in the correct virtual classrooms. I’ve seen a desire for real-time integration. The Luminis Data Integration Suite always looked to cause more problems than it would solve.
  • 508 Compliance: Agree. Every user ought to be able to get the information in the class. However, to truly meet this I would think that would include fixing faculty uploaded content so that is accessible.
  • Don’t go backwards (features and functionality meet or exceed current functionality): Unsure. I’m not aware of an LMS option which meets every feature we currently have in Vista 8. The only way to meet this one is to negotiate which are the non-negotiable features.
  • Cross-platform and cross-browser support: Could not agree more. Most web sites I visit work in any web browser I choose. Vista 8 has limited supported operating system and browser combinations. Don’t forget the cantankerous Java Applets multiple versions of Java behave erratically and prior to Java 1.6.0_11 left in place older versions. Also sometimes new versions of Java suddenly do not work.
  • Ease of use and good user interface (student, instructor, administrator): Agree. More is not always better. I sense a frustration about a lack of efficiency accomplishing tasks.
  • Timely support and response: Agree. I understand this one to mean fix the problem in 1-2 weeks not a year plus.
  • Good communication regarding downtime: Unsure of the intent. Vista 8 has a pretty good announcements tool. Does it mean be more aggressive in telling the users when the system will go down next for a scheduled maintenance? I wonder if it means my organization (hosting) ought to take a firmer hand rather than continue to depend on the campuses in letting end users know.
  • Back up and restore capability (minimum 1 year – nice to go back farther)/archiving/back-up without significant downtime: Unsure of the intent. Our system backups are daily without any downtime involved. My best guess is it means something like a wiki history for all content and tools and maybe the whole virtual classroom. Should something bad happen the faculty member ought to be empowered to fix it and not depend on going to an administrator every time. While Vista 8 allows faculty to make their own backups, this was disabled to avoid performance issues. Also, the restore overwrites everything and not selective enough to ensure the faculty would not lose other data trying to retrieve something specific. Imagine losing 10 weeks of work in order to retrieve an accidentally deleted file. (Administrators have unintentionally done this.)
  • Ability to bring in guests to the system (i.e. collaboration): Agree. In a bricks-and-mortar classroom, the faculty can just ask a guest to come to the right room in a building. With Vista, the virtual classroom is more like a fortress requiring the faculty member to complete some kind of paperwork/memo to get an id so the guest can pass through security.

For those of you in similar searches, does this list look similar to yours? What would you add?

Some things I am surprised are not non-negotiable.

  • Better grade book: The existing one in Vista 8 is cumbersome, especially the grade calculator. A key use of the LMS is for students to understand their performance in the class. However, keeping up with the calculated grade at any given point is a lot of work for the faculty.
  • Reporting and analytics: The faculty, advisors, and tutors need to know which students are having difficulty.  Department heads and deans need to know which instructors are failing to spend enough effort teaching a class. People composing budgets need to know how much the LMS and auxiliary software are used.
  • Administrator becomes another user: Similar to *nix’s “su – user”, some problems only become apparent when using the correct account. Rather than change the password, take a look, and give the user the new password, administrators need an easier way of reviewing.

Organization Relationships

A friend of mine who I used to work with once remarked (2007-ish) the University System of Georgia does not really work like a system so much as a loose confederation fighting over money. Given I have no access to budgets, I would not know. GeorgiaVIEW works remarkably well given there are only a few people running the system and hoards of people administrating it for their campus. There is a mostly correct mix of grassroots and top down pressure.

The Board of Regents Information Technology Services have fostered a culture of “help requests must go through the tickets”. Tickets allow the team to better triage issues. Tickets show leaders we are helpful. The unintended consequence is weakening the relationships we have. Tickets indicate we are too busy to be helpful. Relationships are accountable so an individual shows vulnerability to me by admitting not understanding, breaking, or other problems. My part of the relationship is to console, advise, or fix the problems. Tickets make all this harder because they are less personal.

When I talk with my coworkers, we covet the connections we hold across the system for they are the true value. How do we develop these relationships inside the formality of processes which fail to incentivise them?

We have email lists, instant messages, weekly Wimba sessions, etc., but there is obviously  a problem when the same people who have these things only tell me about things when they see me in person. I’m reminded of the ITS CIO spending time going to campuses to talk to them about their needs. Maybe that should something we do throughout the organization especially at my level? Also, when I was at Valdosta State, my best information about the needs of faculty members and students came from visiting them not the technology I developed to encourage reporting issues.

Technology is not magic. It does make those who are not communicating start. It just shifts the form and potentially makes it more difficult. Ideally the difficulty will be so slight no one will notice. One can make communication easier by going from a more difficult technology to a more easy form. Still… It is not as good as being there with the person.