Wednesday, 22 June 2016

What's the problem? (or, A Plea for Consideration)

I can't sleep.  I have managed to wind myself up over the amount of seemingly ill-considered demands that keep flying the way of teaching staff in my College (the latest arriving at about 8pm this evening).

The first was a grand announcement that in order to save money on actual teaching time, we were all expected to create online activities instead - which would replace teaching hours, thereby freeing us all up to teach more modules.  Like a kind of MOOCAC (Massively Open Online Course At Cost).

Ok.

But they were more specific than that.  It was to take the form of an hour's online activity each week for each module.  Since we are currently teaching the equivalent of around 8-10 modules per semester (likely to go up to 12 or more with the hours freed up by this wheeze), this means we could be developing around 144 different hour-long online activities per semester.

Starting this September.

Oh and there is no money to pay for any preparation time for lecturers, so it will all need to be done in our own time.

Now, of course, there are far worse things, and people far worse off (I'm not working for Mike Ashley, and for that I am grateful).  One does wonder, though, just how much consideration was given to the demands this places on teaching staff?  Being a naturally optimistic kind of a chap, I generally assume the best.  There must be some reason for it, I say to myself.  Everyone is doing their best in difficult circumstances, and I am sure a decision like this was not made lightly.

But then along came another directive.  And another, and another.  Each one entailing additional workload.  Everyone has to do this form (which replicates information that we are already putting into another form).  Everyone has to do that form (which means copying and pasting information which already exists on the system).  Everyone has to provide this other information (which is meant to be for the students benefit, but is so tortuous that even lecturers can't understand it).

With the best will in the world, 'considered' is not a word that comes to mind.

Ok, that's the whinging part over with.  Because all of this got me to wondering what 'considered' should look like?  Any decisions that involve increasing the work-load of a workforce should, I feel, have a minimum level of consideration - a level which means that the additional demands can be clearly explained to a workforce in a way that convinces them of its value.  What this means is that before any new demands are made, managers should be able to answer certain questions.

So, rather than trying with an increasingly furious futility to get some sleep, I have been thinking about what questions these might be.  Here is the list I have come up with...

Questions to address before making a management decision:


Do we have a choice?Sometimes there are things that just have to be done, not matter how silly they seem.  It is nobody's fault (or at least, nobody close enough to be blamed), so we may as well just get on with it.

What is the problem being solved?If the workload is being increased by some process or procedure, then there should be a clear idea of what problem is being solved by it.  There must, in other words, be a reason for it.

Are there existing mechanisms to solve this problem?Replication of activities is rarely anything more than an inefficient use of time and resources.  Before any new process is put in place, there should be a careful check to make sure it is not already being done.

If there are existing mechanisms, are they clearly inadequate?Of course, just because processes already exist, doesn't mean they are any good.  It may be that they need to be replaced.  It may be that they don't.  Either way, it needs to be considered.

Is there clear evidence to justify it?If a significant new workload is going to be added, it needs to be worth it.  This means either having unambiguous evidence of its effectiveness elsewhere or trialling it and checking that it does what you want it to do.  

If it entails additional workload, is there something that can be taken away to balance things?This is one that seems rarely to be thought about.  Plenty of people seem to spend their time thinking about what more we can do, but far fewer think about what we are already doing that doesn't need to be done.  Workloads should be seen like efficient and well-maintained spaces - regularly cleared out of unnecessary dross in order to make way for The New.  Too often staff workloads are seen like an attic - everything goes in it, but nothing comes out.  At least until the bodies start to smell.

It is perfectly possible that all of these directives come from a deeper understanding of the problems than I can fathom.  It is perfectly possible that all of these things have been considered.  If they could only be explained to me, though, I would feel a lot less like I am being asked to spend every waking hour fulfilling pointless and inefficient requirements.

And I would probably be sleeping peacefully right now.