Ant-acid

In which Dr Aust finds some black humour on the Internet.

As redundancies loom in various parts of the University sector, I have to remind myself that we here in UK Universities PLC are still, despite an expanding cadre of managerial droids, comparatively “under-managed” compared to many sectors of the economy.

No, really.

Well, all of us except the folk at Imperial College, perhaps.

The NHS, it hardly needs saying, is awash with Trust Deputy Directors of Patient Experience, their PAs, Assistants to PAs, Secretaries to PAs and their Assistants, and so on. Local Government in the UK also has a long-standing reputation for managerial “layering”.

Now, some people would tell you that the private sector has less of this kind of thing – though I don’t believe it, based on what I have heard from my friends who work there . More of that later – but for now I will just say that you should read the Dilbert cartoons – originally based, of course, on its creator’s experiences in the US private sector – if you think that the private sector is immune from managerial “creep”.

This brief bit of musing was triggered by a couple of things in particular.

One was the emails on this comments thread from a fellow academic, “Bobber1″.

The second was the arrival, in an email from my father, of the following presentation (click link below to view). It has obviously been doing the rounds of the internet in various forms.

The Ant’s Story

(PS: rather annoyingly it wouldn’t embed properly using the automatically generated embed code, and life is too short to learn HTML coding).

Now, the version I originally saw had one of the final captions changed to:

“Any similarity to the Ministry of Defence, NHS, Local Government, Education or any major company big enough to have an HR department, is NOT purely coincidental.”

To which I – like, I dare say, many another who has encountered the shiny suits from HR – would say a hearty “Hear hear”.

Anyway: going back to the private sector, one of the people who laughed the loudest at this slideshow was a friend of mine who is a refugee from a large international Pharmaceutical Company. PharmaCos are often held up as the apotheosis of Sith Private Sector Evulnez, so they are arguably as far from the TopplingGlittering Spires of Academia as you can get, ethos-wise. But there too, the Hegemony of the Bean Counter is all-pervasive.

For instance, once you have perused the Ant’s Story, compare the following history related by my ex-Pharma pal, and originally recounted by me in a comment in the blog a year or two back:

“Another of my ex-sidekicks who went the Pharma route took redundancy two or three years back from a large Pharma that was “re-sizing”, or whatever the current euphemism is, its UK operation. There, what the company did to “restructure” was to convene a panel of ten mid-managerial suits and get every single member in the research teams to go in individually and present their “personal vision of their own future in OurPharmaCo, with a five-year horizon” (for an hour)… followed by a further hour’s grilling from the suits. Very Dragons’ Den.

The upshot of this process, according to my mate, was to cull, with an amazing reproducibility, the two best practical lab scientists from each eight-to-ten-person research team. It turned out that these folk tended to be the least equipped to sit and bullshit the managers in fluent Manager-ese, which ability was the characteristic that was being positively selected for retention.”

Once more, I dare say this has parallels outside science.

Oh, and before I go:

Will the last person out please turn out the lights?

I have little doubt that HR will previously have arranged an afternoon course, given by a pricey outside consultant, training you in how to do it in accordance with all standard operating procedures.

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2 Responses to “Ant-acid”

  1. Rachel Says:

    Can I be slightly protective of NHS managers. Someone, after all, has to get the drugs bought, get the right drugs to the right wards, arrange the insurance, manage the payroll et cetera.

  2. draust Says:

    Fair enough, Rachel – I don’t think anyone has a problem with people who do a necessary job, and the things you mention are obviously necessary. But one has to ask why the number of managers, and the % of the budget going on admin, has gone inexorably upward (see here, and the Times Higher article it refers to, for Universities specifically). And for the NHS I had heard figures like:

    1970s: 5% (admin cost)
    1997: 12%
    2101: 23% and probably rising

    The kind of thing that makes me and my medical friends really cross are the “there to chase you to tick meaningless boxes” type managers, especially ones who exist to chase you to tick boxes to hit targets that they themselves have invented. Another especially unpopular sub-species are those who seem to exist to set up idiotic “initiatives”, programme and sit in endless meetings with one another, and generate 100 page “strategy documents” that only other folk like themselves will ever read. One really struggles to see what useful purpose these people serve.

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