Archive for the ‘Bean Counting’ Category

Administering a rebuke

December 14, 2013

In which Dr Aust has a small whinge.

As I’ve been struck by one of the annoying Winter viruses, and every bit of me is aching, I have been exempted today from fatherly duties taking Aust Jr to play football (soccer for any US readers). I shall take the opportunity to post a small grumble that I penned in a cathartic hour or so yesterday evening.  It relates to the ever-rising tide of online tick-boxing that laps around the feet of all professions these days. Would be interested to hear if any other readers (readers?) have similar stories.

One of the things that has added tremendously to the general irritations of working as a University academic this last decade has been the decision that vast amounts of administrative form-filling should now be done online.

This is routinely justified as ‘more efficient’ or ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘more transparent’, though a cynic might say it mainly serves to shift the burden of record-keeping off administrators and onto academics. Not that that then leads to a decrease in the number of administrators required, you understand. You seemingly now need twice as many of them to nag all the academics, by repeated and increasingly insistent email, to fill in the latest ‘e-form’.

Anyway, being a miserable old ***!*, I tend to the view that it is not my job to fill in e-forms that I don’t know how to fill in, and would thus have to spend ten or twenty minutes, first of all finding – “It’s on the Intranet”, you are told –  and second, working out how to fill in.

It seems to me I should just be able to tell the administrator the information by email.

They want it on the form? They can fill it in.

The other point here is that the administration folk use said e-form system, which after all is THEIR system, designed by them, about fifty times a day – so they can do it in a trice. Getting me to do it – which is some cases I might have to do once a year or even less- is an utter waste of (a lot more) time. [Of course - have you spotted? - now it is my time, and not admin's. So they come out ahead. Funny, that.] This is because, even if I used the system before, there is no way I will remember how a year or more later. So I have to take the same amount of wasted time as I did LAST time re-learning it.

Comments on these lines end to be met by references to ‘the regulatory environment’  or responses to the effect that ‘the system and forms are self-explanatory’.

Right.

Coincidentally, I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme the other day featuring a bloke whose job is to read, on a computer screen, the ill-formed and mostly illegible addresses on those envelopes that the Post Office’s character recognition software can’t decipher. He can do thousands of these an hour, according to the programme. This, it was made clear, is because it is what he does all day and he is consequently the Ninja-Style 96th Dan Grandmaster of said task.

I wonder if the Post Office have ever considered getting random other people in their organisation, like, say, the folk that maintains their computer network, or the van drivers, and telling them that it would be much more efficient if they did the character recognition job instead, but only for an hour once a year each?

Answers, as they say,  on a postcard.

Anyway: yesterday’s example of eAggro:

A few weeks back, I agreed to be Internal PhD Examiner for a PhD Thesis. We have arranged a date for the viva in January.

A few days ago I got an email from the student’s supervisor.

‘Can you put the viva details into eWatch [our online in-house version of the NSA for watching over the progress of graduate students]?  We’re getting flak from the admin people.’

I wrote back, not unreasonably, I thought, as follows:

‘Haven’t a clue how to use eWatch. Do admin have an actual, y’know, email address?’

Lo and behold, I next received an email from an Important University Person bearing their title ‘Institute Postgraduate Research Director’, or something like that.

“I have attached the Guidance Notes for Examiners. It has the links and detailed guidance on the exams process.

You should have received this with the request to act as Internal Examiner.”

I looked. On the 3rd page of the ‘Guidance Notes’, I finally found the right bit. It said I could log in to eWatch with my University username and password. Well, that seemed straightforward, at least. And there was a clickable URL. Brilliant.

I clicked. Hopefully, if somewhat warily.

The following screen appeared:

——————————————————————————————–

Access Denied

Return to previous page

You do not have permission to access this page.

Page security is managed through GWE role membership. If you think that you should be able to access the requested page then please use the contacts information for the relevant GWE service to request that they add you to the appropriate role.

———————————————————————————————-

I hardly need add that nowhere was the abbreviation GWE explained. If you can work out what it means, I dare say you are probably an administrator.

Anyway, I decided to ‘role’ with the punches and leave it until after the weekend. Or later. ‘Role’ on the Christmas break, say I.

Wanted – dedicated or alive

June 18, 2011

In which we ponder the language of advertisements for University science jobs..

I was amused recently to see a Tweet from one of my friends in the scientific blogosphere, Stephen Curry (do check out his excellent Reciprocal Space blog), saying that he was:

‘arguing’ – I presume with his HR Department – ‘to be allowed to ask for someone ‘enthusiastic’ in a job advert’.

Now, this struck me as a little surprising. As I tweeted back:

For, as anyone who regularly scans the academic job ads in (e.g.) the Times Higher will know, language tending to the hyperbolic has become such a regular feature of advertisements for jobs in British Universities that it no longer seems even slightly remarkable. I remembered that I had once written a short satirical piece on this, so I headed off to my archive (the pile of mouldering papers in the corner of my spare room) to try and find it. Turns out it was a full six – yes, six – years ago. I have reproduced it, with minor amendments, updates and hyperlinks, below.

I leave you, dear reader, to judge if you think anything has changed in academic job-ad-speak in the meantime.

——————————————————————————————————

You used to know where you were with advertisements for academic jobs in science.

‘The Something-logy department of the University of Grumbleton requires a lecturer. Duties will be teaching, supervision of graduate students, and conducting research in something-ology.’

Of course, these adverts often concealed a whole raft of hidden agendas, and more often than not some research areas would be ‘preferred’, but at least the language in the advertisement was to the point.

Not any more.

Nowadays most academic job advertisements in the UK give the impression of having been written by a committee consisting of a Head of Department with messianic delusions, one or more human resources ‘professionals’ (the inverted commas are mine), and a public relations flack in the grip of a Prozac frenzy. And all of them seem to have been on some special course in mangling English.

These adverts now have a language all of their own. The odd thing, though, is that they are all so similar – despite the hyperbole and obscurantist/coded vocabulary – that they could practically have been written by a computer programme.

The simplest change is the proliferation of superfluous adjectives, or, to be more precise, Obligatory Adjectival Qualifiers (OAQs for short). An OAQ is an adjective that must automatically precede a noun every time that particular noun appears. Some examples:

‘world-class’ (institution, or research)

‘outstanding’ (individual) [also ‘exceptional’, ‘pro-active’, ‘committed’, ‘energetic’]

‘exciting’ (opportunity)

‘state-of-the-art’ (facilities, buildings)

‘leading’ (centre) [also ‘world-leading’]

‘proven’ (ability)

Then there are the phrases that have both a literal and a shorthand, or parallel, meaning. Examples:

The institution:

‘An exciting, vibrant, research-led academic community’: Research-intensive ‘old’ University / Russell Group.

‘Progressive and innovative’ (also ‘modern and innovative’): Former polytechnic / ‘post-92′.

‘High-quality student-centred learning environment’: We have a new building and are desperately trying to enrol enough students to fill it.

‘Committed to anticipating and satisfying students’, employers’ and clients’ needs’: Staff will work for food.

‘One of the countries most popular student destinations’: Nothing stands out about our University, but thank heaven the night-life and the cheap booze still brings in the punters.

‘Offering opportunities to work with leading international academics whose visions are shaping tomorrow’s world’: I don’t think they’ve got my antidepressant dose quite right at the moment.

You:

‘A committed and work-focused individual’: Prepared to work 50+ hrs a week for little money on a fixed-term contract.

‘A high-calibre and driven individual’: You should be unashamed, or at least unaware, of your Borderline Personality Disorder.

The job, and department:

‘We are committed to personal development’: We have a widely loathed staff appraisal scheme.

‘An innovative, challenging work environment’: You might get a desk.

‘We have pursued a focused strategy of appointing world-class researchers’: In: Professors with 5-year (Programme) grant funding; Out: Teaching staff over 50.

‘Staff are integrated into cross-cutting, multi-disciplinary themes’: Our senior management believe strongly in putting their oar in.

‘We aim for the highest levels of research excellence’: Five-star in the next Research Assessment, or early retirements all round.

I should say that all the above examples are real: you couldn’t make this stuff up. And this is only a starter pack. Anyone got any more particularly choice examples?

Finally, to end on a positive note (sort of) – the observant among you will have noticed that, should you ever need to, you can now write your own University job advert simply by selecting the appropriate phrases from the lists above. Think of the time you’ll save!

Assuming, of course, that HR will let you.

Enjoy.

If you’re not part of the solution, you’ve clearly precipitated something.

June 10, 2011

In which Dr Aust stalls for time. Again.

It has now been two full months since anything new has appeared here. Sorry.

Like many bloggers in such a situation, I feel a bit, well, guilty.

As usual it is hard to pinpoint an exact reason for the barren spell – well, other than that I haven’t written anything, of course. Busy writing for other outlets (a bit); busy marking exams (some of the time); a new hobby (I’ve been re-discovering some of my adolescent enthusiasm for chess – anything for a new way to procrastinate); easier to comment elsewhere than to buckle down to something extended (definitely); other people cover stories first so it isn’t worth posting on them (certainly true); the feeling of repeating myself (very definitely)… and finally the Summer, which means the children are not usually in bed until somewhere towards nine, after which I find it hard to muster up the drive to blog. Or to do anything very much apart from slump in a chair with a beer.

On the other hand… there are still a bunch of three-quarters-, two-thirds, or even half-finished posts kicking around on the hard drive. it would be a shame to let them languish there forever – assuming I can find them at all. And perhaps the drive to blog goes in cycles. I see, for instance, that the excellent AP Gaylard, one of the original BadScience blog-derived skeptical crew, and renowned for his forensic dissections of the evidence (or lack of) for complementary therapies, has returned to blogging after a long absence and is now cranking out meticulously researched stuff at a punishing pace.

Anyway, what has brought me back to the keyboard this time?

Well, two things. Or three.

The first was the just issued Mea Culpa.

The second thing is an idea.

Yet another of the likely reasons for my reduced blog activity is that some of my ideas now end up on Twitter – which has the advantage of being much more immediate than blogging, and only requiring 150 characters at a time. Since I probably fire off at least one tweet (and probably considerably more – *cough* ) per day, I have been thinking about setting up a permanent archive of them here – perhaps on a weekly basis.

Talking of ‘regular features”, any long term readers still hanging on will perhaps remember I did a David Colquhoun-style occasional diary for about a year, before it too bit the dust. A Twitter archive might work a bit like a diary, only with the advantage that the material already exists, and would only need to be cut and pasted onto a kind of blogpost. I suppose that might even salve my guilt at not blogging enough, which might in turn get me fired enough to do the occasional proper blogpost. That is, it might be easier to blog, if I didn’t feel pressure to do it. I know that doesn’t make sense, really, but there you go.

So what do we think? Twitter archive? Yes/No ? Trial run?

And… the third thing.

All bloggers, of course, like comments and emails. I got a nice email the other day from occasional reader Nick Kotarski, who pointed me to a very funny site I hadn’t seen before, Despair.com, and particularly to their “Demotivators” range.

Now, you will recall that I have been a bit snarky in the past about tedious motivational language, and the kind of trite sloganising with it that is so prevalent in modern life, including the public sector. Despair.com subvert such stuff quite nicely.

I have been checking out the ‘Demotivator’ coffee mugs in particular, and I think the one that says:

Retirement: Because you’ve given so much of yourself to the company that you don’t have anything left we can use

- might be just the thing for my long-serving research collaborator who is taking voluntary early retirement from the University this year, just shy of sixty, to do some voluntary work and (he says) “learn dry-stone walling”.

It might also appeal, perhaps, to the Jobbing Doctor and Dr Grumble.

Nick did tell me there used to me a despair.com mug that said:

Customer (Dis)Service: Because we won’t be satisfied… until YOU’RE not satisfied

- which is also very apt, especially if you have ever travelled on Virgin Trains in the UK. But I can’t seem to find that one.

Finally, one of the curses of the modern workplace in both the private and public sector is the experience of having the consultants in. Consultants are, in the immortal words of Scott Adams’ Dilbert (though I am paraphrasing slightly):

“People who are way too smart to work for your employer…

You can tell this because, when they do come in to do your job, they ask you how and then do it exactly the same as you would… but they get paid twice as much.”

Now, some of my friends in the University had some dealings with the consultants recently (no names to protect the innocent), and of course I hear many stories about consultancy from my friends in industry, in the NHS, and even from a couple of my university mates who have ended up in consulting. So I was particularly taken with the mug that summarised this thus:

Consulting: If you’re not part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem.

I don’t think anyone who has had any dealing with the consultants could doubt the truth of that.

Take a deep breath

January 29, 2011

In which Dr Aust hails a vintage piece of Corporate-balls.

One of the occasional pleasures of blogging is the unexpected emails you get offering tip-offs or material, relating to something you have blogged about. For instance, my friend David Colquhoun, having written extensively about bogus B.Sc. degrees in Unreality, often gets plain-brown-envelope anonymous deliveries of material relating to such – usually, one assumes, from academics with an actual sense of responsibility who are ashamed of what their own institutions are doing.

Dr Aust, not being in the same celebrity skeptic bracket, does not get the same level of mole-mail, but nonetheless, things do appear from time to time. They sometimes come via people I know, but just as often from people I don’t.

Now, Dr Aust is a long time collector of vintage manager-bollocks, so it is a special pleasure to post the following photos, which arrived a few days ago, relayed on by a friend of a friend from an anonymous source somewhere deep in the bowels of Big Pharma.

Take a close look at these two pictures.

You might think this is a picture of a simple packet of sunflower seeds.

But you would be wrong.

Look closer.

The corporate PR-speak is unmistakeable.

“Igniting Passion”

“Unleashing potential”

“delivering benefit to our patients”

[Funny - I never knew that drug companies had “patients”. I thought that was doctors. Silly me]

And in case you can’t read it,  the smaller lettering in the top left hand corner reads:

“Inspire to Innovate”

Hmmmm.

I don’t know about “Inspire”, but it certainly caused me to take a large breath in. After I’d spent half a minute speechless with laughter.

Anyway, the answer is that it IS a packet of sunflower seeds, but it is also much, much more.

According to the accompanying email, this is a key part of a campaign to reinvigorate the innovative-ness of a Large PharmaCo’s Worker Bees.

The idea, I gather, is that the Worker Bee should plant these seeds in their garden, or window box, and then, as the sunflowers gradually emerge and grow, they will remind the Worker Bee to ignite their passion to “grow” new ideas from small seeds of innovation.

Or not.

Now, sunflowers are nice things to have in your garden, no question. But when you see stuff like this you do have to wonder if the company management think all their workers are completely brain-dead.

And as for the slogans….

“Inspire to Innovate”, in particular, is one of those  meaningless exhortatory mantras, dreamt up presumably by a PR consultant, that cause such eye-rolling in the sort of broadly cynical milieu that Dr Aust works in. Not that that means Universities are immune from the enthusiasm for such slogans, of course. One of Dr Aust’s former Faculty Deans, a genuinely nice and usually impeccably down-to-earth bloke, once had a rush of blood and told a Faculty meeting in apparent seriousness that he thought our new Faculty watchword should be:

“To Infinity – AND BEYOND!”

[This was many years ago now, when the movie Toy Story was just out].

A spate of alternatives soon emerged in the corridors and tearooms, as such things will:

“To Inanity – AND BEYOND!”

“To Insanity – AND BEYOND!”

And finally, one which comes back to mind especially in these latter days of uncertain University finances:

“To Insolvency – AND BEYOND!”

Now, it is one thing when the Boss dreams up one of these little bon mots half-way through a dreary meeting. It is another when a company has a PR department doing it, or pays a PR consultancy good money to “strategize” or “vision” or “futurize” and then come up with this sort of platitudinous nonsense. Do they really not have anything better to spend their money on?

Personally I find it almost impossible to imagine that anyone’s reaction is REALLY some variant on:

“Great. Super. I feel SOOOO STOKED to innovate!”.

I would be predicting something more like eye-rolling, followed by complete indifference.

Though perhaps the PR folk will be doing an impact assessment for their campaign? I can see the MCQ now:

When you received your “Innovation Pack” did you feel
A despairing
B embarrassed
C underwhelmed
D queasy
E all of the above

Because most people can see through vapid slogans.

Finally, whenever I see a slogan which has the form:

“[Imperative] [Verb]“ (like “Inspire to innovate”)

I am reminded of this wonderful movie scene from my all-time favourite Clint Eastwood western, The Outlaw Josey Wales:

So perhaps there IS a message there, after all.

For if your employer is treating you to this kind of stuff, I sincerely hope that you, too, will endeavour to persevere.

——————————————————————————

PS  Getting serious for a moment, perhaps you may think that I am being a bit too negative. There is, dare I say it, little doubt Dr Aust is a grumpy old so-and-so, and he usually feels even grumpier in the Winter.  Anyway, the question of whether there actually IS a way to encourage people to be more “innovative” is sort of interesting.  There is a bit of discussion here, and some ideas in a video that Dr Grumble posted over here.

The not terribly startling message seems mainly to be to leave your more innovatively-inclined employees alone to get on with it. This is, of course, rather what Universities traditionally did until the Govt and University managers had the idea that it would be a good thing to start micro-managing everything. And having lots of “campaigns” and “initiatives”, of course. Anyway, watch the video if you are interested.

Suffice it to say, though, that sunflowers are not involved.


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