Just when you thought it was safe to go back into your email, the administrative shark returns

John Brinnamoor’s floundering doggy-paddle is no match for the voracious jaws of his university’s antiquated data-gobblers 

August 7, 2019
Filming scene from Jaws
Source: Universal/Shutterstock

Graduation is over. The banners have been folded up for another year, the tide of new graduates has ebbed from the campus, along with frenetic waves of proud parents. Stoical folk from hospitality are retrieving the last of the wine glasses from their resting places around the public statuary, while pigeons pick tentatively at the remains of the canapés.

Yet, just above the horizon, the administrative tsunami that presages the new term already looms menacingly. Or perhaps a Hollywood shark would be a better marine metaphor, stalking the helpless protagonist with cold malice. By September, the full-on horror of its process-centric reality will obsess my waking hours and invade such fitful rest as I can manage with half-remembered clerical tasks and the visceral worry of my paperwork being ill prepared.

It doesn’t help that I’m rubbish at administration and always have been. Don’t get me wrong, I really want all this stuff to be off my desk – both literally and figuratively. It’s just that whatever system I try to impose on myself always gets overtaken by events. A few of my attempts have been quite creative – and, I maintain, showed early promise – but have ultimately collapsed under the barrage of bureaucratic bullshit that has characterised my career.

The handwritten list of daily priorities, designed to give me an endorphin rush when I strike things from it, helps tactically but not strategically. It is too easy to go for the quick win, pushing back the larger, nastier and less tractable elements of my guilt list. These fragrant, steaming piles of ordure lie heaped against the dark prison walls of my conscience, growing and festering until they threaten to engulf me completely.

Structuring my week, blocking out chunks of time to address these larger issues, worked for almost 10 days – after which the messages stuck around my computer screen threatened to obscure the desktop completely, forcing the resumption of fire-fighting. Shutting the office door might have worked if it wasn’t a space shared between four of us; my practice of gently ignoring envelopes in the coffee-room pigeonholes was thwarted by overly helpful colleagues bringing them down the corridor and dropping them on to my keyboard (adding bewildering typos to the document I was halfway through composing). Turning off my email for a chunk of each day also helped briefly – right up to the point when folk started phoning me to ask if I’d received their email.

If you have read this far, you will have realised that these are the ravings of an ageing academic who is wildly out of his depth and just about at the end of his rope. Yes, of course I’m whining. But I’m probably not the only one in similar circumstances who has almost been convinced that the inability to deliver such futile and divisive metrics as “inbox zero” and a clear desk are personal failures second only to squandering a research grant on online poker.

Professional administrators, knowing a challenge when they see one, have tried to help me over the years. These fine folk, motivated alternately by sympathy and horror, have done their best to explain the arcane rituals of the academy – leading me through paper trails and sequences of cluttered screengrabs in an attempt to shave a few hours off the time I spent trying to secure some surely trivial transaction with the registry, HR or finance systems. But what is an open book to them is, to me, a terrifying expedition through some mysterious labyrinth whose central treasure is protected by evil spirits, poisoned darts and stone slabs that suddenly tip – casting the supplicant on to the skeleton-covered spikes below.

They smiled indulgently when I first explained this to them, but I think they are starting to believe me.

Clearly, I distrust – even fear – many of the data structures I’m forced to use in academic life. I do, however, have some suggestions that would help folk like me to avoid the spikes and reduce our backlogs of guilt.

First, I want to provide each piece of data only once – not every time I have an interaction with an administrative function. Hold it in the right place, in the right form, and its quality will be secure – but store it multiple times and there is a real risk of ambiguous or conflicting information.

Second, throw out any spreadsheet that was written more than three years ago, or whose original author is no longer directly maintaining it. Trust me, if you don’t understand in detail how they work, you aren’t going to know when they are broken. And they are probably broken right now.

Third, impose a total ban on forms based on Word or PDF files. If you need to collect data, build a secure page to syphon the validated data directly to where it ought to reside – and, whatever you do, don’t under any circumstances, ask me to fill in a form, print it, sign it and scan it back in. Life is just too short.

Finally, consider if you really need to ask the question. If the administrative process to gather the data didn’t exist, would you need to invent it? Come on people, it is 2019 and we are universities. We are supposed to be good at this stuff.

John Brinnamoor is a pseudonymous academic who works in a UK university and has an ambiguous and slightly questionable relationship with information systems and technology.


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Reader's comments (5)

For those of us in IT functions (and I came over form the dark side to be a geek), these tips mirror what we mostly want too: "First, I want to provide each piece of data only once" - good. We only want to hold a piece of data in one place, to give a better maintainable and more reliable single point of truth, free from anomaly. "Second, throw out any spreadsheet..." - actually, just get rid of the rest of that paragraph. Excel is evil, because it mostly allows people to decant data, away from single points of truth and mess around with it in ways which creates problems, creating unsynchronised and potentially damagingly inaccurate copies. And yes, I do mean damaging, because the effects could affect people, financially and otherwise. The promulgation of conflicting datasets, poked around with by Excel is possibly the great admin evil of them all. "Third, impose a total ban on forms based on Word or PDF files" - and while we're there, have anyone who suggests using them summarily executed, "pour encourager les autres" "Finally, consider if you really need to ask the question." - and perhaps consider if you want to be liable for the fines if theres'a GDPR incident around the data you collect from asking it. There's way too much unnecessary data collected, seemingly just because we can. One of the horrors of having to deal with these processes is the plaintive cries of people who, in a tragic display of adverse attachment, like their awful spreadsheets, and don't want to change how they work, because "we've always done it this way". We didn't before spreadsheets, and they've only really been around for around 25 years or so, but no matter. All of this is easier said than done, of course. There are huge amounts of data to store and shift, and it's also a minefield controlling who should see who should see which things, and when. This places huge demands on IT series which may not be adequately resourced to sod all of this in timely fashion. Fact is, such functions are sometimes only valued by the noticing of their absence. It says something about how IT strategy should be much more at the centre of thinking, given how much it underpins so much of the work that now needs to be done.
Absolutely, and while we are at it, can we ban people from assuming that we are Luddites every time we question the validity of a spurious university IT process? I too have been a geek so it can hardly be said I don’t have expertise. Yet the amount of times I am patronised by colleagues who weren’t yet born when I was successfully running an IT department is incredible. And if anyone wants to join me in getting my moral panic nemesis Turnitin and its evil wing man Moodle removed from the planet, I would be delighted. We are being slowly colonised through the medium of generic US IT systems. Colleagues, we can do much better than this! We must raise our aspirations!
Maybe I have an advantage, as I was working professionally in computing before I slithered into a university! I agree with the measures suggested above... and the entire computer science department here shakes its collective head at some of the badly-designed systems we are confronted with. Unfortunately our administrative colleagues don't seem to have realised the expertise in creating effective systems that resides in their own academic computer specialists and persist in creating substandard systems that are inefficient even when they do achieve the intended purpose, and often don't!
Unfortunately I have the unenviable task of picking up systems designed by academic computer specialists which are invariably written for individual use, in inappropriate languages, with no ongoing support or maintenance provision or consideration for security or integration implications. Collaboration is the key not maverick development.
John, this is clearly the problem that ServiceNow is trying to solve for Higher Education... freeing up the academic community to focus on what you're employed to do - teach students and engage in research rather than pushing paper. We've partnered with a number of Universities globally to automate manual processes across the campus, to get rid of an over reliance on email and spreadsheets, and provide a simple modern and intuitive experience for cross-departmental and cross-faculty workflow, including a course and curriculum lifecycle management solution, and many other process improvements across Teaching and Learning, Research, and broader University services. For more info, refer to https://www.servicenow.com/solutions/industry/higher-education.html


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