Tuesday, 22 August 2017

André Spicer on his soon-to-be-published book Business Bullshit. Guardian 21/08/2017

As students have been celebrating their exam results, pundits from across the political spectrum have been commiserating the state of British universities. Andrew Adonis, an education minister during the Blair years, has excoriated universities for offering costly courses while jacking up the pay of their senior leaders. Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s ex-advisor, thinks UK universities are an unsustainable “Ponzi scheme”. The universities minister, Jo Johnson, has written about the need to put further pressure on seats of higher learning so students get good value for money.
Behind the political point-scoring are more serious issues. The university sector has been growing for decades, but now that growth is going into reverse. The number of undergraduates applying to universities has fallen by 4% this year. Although close to 50% of the population goes through higher education, only about 20% of jobs require an undergraduate degree. One US study found that 46% of students showed no improvement in their cognitive skills during their time at university. In some courses, like business administration, students’ capacity to think got worse for the first few years. And after they graduated, many struggled to find full-time work while being loaded down with debt. Nearly a quarter of graduates were living with their parents or relatives.
On top of all this, UK universities have some significant financial difficulties. The university pension scheme is £17.5bn in the red. Senior managers have been on a building spree that has been almost entirely funded by new borrowing on the bond market. Many institutions are locked into costly private finance initiatives.
Underlying all this bad news is an often overlooked fact. Universities have been growing for a decade, but most of the resources fuelling that growth have gone into expanding university administration, not faculty. One US study found that between 1975 and 2008, the number of faculty had grown about 10% while the number of administrators had grown 221%. In the UK, two thirds of universities now have more administrators than they do faculty staff. One higher education policy expert has predicted the birth of the “all-administrative university”.
The massive expansion of administration has also fuelled an equally stark expansion of empty activities. These include costly rebranding exercises, compliance with audits and ranking initiatives, struggling with poorly designed IT systems, engaging with strategic initiatives and failed attempts at “visionary leadership”. All the while, faculty are under pressure to show they are producing world-class research, outstanding teaching and are having an impact on wider society. No wonder some faculty complain that they are “drowning in shit”.
The expansion of empty administration has some up sides. By showing universities are willing to keep up with the latest management fads and fashions, they gain credibility in the eyes of business and government. Empty administration makes some members of the university feel good about themselves. But empty administration also comes at a significant cost. It is expensive, it is disheartening, and often it diverts universities from their core tasks. Instead of educating students, doing research and contributing to broader society, universities end up developing policies, ticking boxes and trying to climb up rankings.
If universities are interested in addressing the problems they face, what is not needed is spectacular reform. Such reforms are often costly, disturbing distractions with a short shelf life. What is needed is something more modest, but more far-reaching: cutting back empty administration.
The first step in cutting back empty administration is eliminating the demand. An important aspect of this is to remove creeping government attempts to micro-manage the sector. Putting an end to the research excellence framework would save the sector £250m. It would also eliminate pressure on faculty to publish obtuse articles which are read by few people. Killing off the new teaching excellence framework will immediately save the sector £20m, plus countless hours of staff time spent complying with the exercise.
The next step is to root out the supply of empty administration in universities. A modest first step would be the elimination of “bullshit jobs” in universities. These are jobs which the people doing them think should not exist. Creeping forms of corporate escapism in universities would also be wound back. This includes everything from fanciful strategy development exercises, managerial vanity projects like opening campuses in exotic locations and overly elaborate leadership retreats. Staff need to be given space to question and even veto any new administrative initiatives. When any new initiative is proposed, faculty need to ask: “Is there any evidence this works? What is the logic behind it? And is it meaningful to staff and students?” Answering these three simple questions is likely to cut back empty administration substantially.
Finally, universities need to stop rewarding the creation of empty administration. They can do this by not rewarding empty talk with attention. Simply switching off as soon as someone begins to use empty business jargon will mean people who present new ideas think them through thoroughly. They need to make stupidity costly. One way to do this is by requiring people to fully carry out their own fanciful ideas. When people have to implement an idea, they are likely to think twice before proposing it. Finally, universities need to make it costly for individuals to increase organisational load. For instance, before introducing a new procedure they would need to eliminate an old one.
Cutting back on empty administration comes with risks. For instance, powerful groups like politicians may see universities as “out of touch”. Accessing resources used to support empty administration can become more difficult. But cutting empty administration is likely to be worth it. Universities will no longer be burdened with the cost. Staff will feel like they are no longer being crushed by meaningless and wasteful processes. Students will no longer be faced with thickets of maddening processes. The institutions themselves are less likely to be diverted from their core tasks of educating students, carrying out research and contributing to the broader society. Finally, the public is more likely to trust higher education institutions which carry out their purpose of educating students, conducting research and contributing to wider society.
 André Spicer’s new book, Business Bullshit, is out in September

Business Bullshit 1



Our organizations are flooded with empty talk. We are constantly "going forward" to lands of "deliverables", stopping off on the "journey" to "drill down" into "best practice". Being an expert at using management speak has become more important in corporate life than delivering long lasting results. The upshot is that meaningless corporate jargon is killing our organizations. 
In this book, management scholar André Spicer argues we need to call this empty talk what it is: bullshit. The book looks at how organizations have become vast machines for manufacturing, distributing and consuming bullshit. It follows how the meaningless language of management has spread through schools, NGOs, politics and the media.
Business Bullshit shows you how to spot business bullshit, considers why it is so popular, and outlines the impact it has on organizations and the people who work there. It also outlines what we can do to minimise bullshit at work. The author makes a case for why organizations need to avoid empty talk and reconnect with core activities. This provocative, lucid book is essential reading for professionals, researchers and managers.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Trump the Destructive Narcissist

Wonderful to see DT being referred to as a destructive narcissist by Fintan O'Toole in today's Irish Times. It reminded me of a manager I experienced at Wretchington University.  She was simply awful, married to a functional psychopath and both of them manipulated and were manipulated by the Director of Human Resources and the Chief Executive - the man with the air of a public lavatory attendant.  Neither of these people acted responsibly in dealing with the concerns of aggrieved members of staff who were being violently treated by the two sick managers.  It was not in their interest to accept that such violence was happening on their patch, nor on their watch.

The Destructive Narcissist I knew allegedly had her fitness to practice as a counselling psychologist fiddled by a 'very close personal friend' - a clinical psychologist - and to this day she sits on the Professional Affairs Committee of her (un)Professional Body.

So it goes.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Low Sttandards in High Places

Are all organizations the same?- the question is often asked.  At Wretchington the answer to this question may be put thus - Power is exercised to protect the reputation of the power holders, the Chief Executive, the Director of Personnel/Human Resources and so on. In other words those and their lickspittles whose behaviour and leadership evoke the two word response 'TOXIC SHITHOLE' when employees at the University are asked what life is like there at the moment.

Going through the motions, once upon a time, the Director of Human Resources - she who has the habit of peeling fruit in meetings (Monkey see, Monkey do) - in purportedly trying to arbitrate the difficulties that a significant number of psychology staff were bringing to her attention, approached ACAS (Arbitration Counselling and Advisory Service) to do its magic. ACAS had already had at least one negative experience of Personnel practices at Wretchington.  It turned out that the ACAS person, once information had been disclosed by the injured to her, saw that the process had been nobbled by Human Resources and withdrew from the process. She understood that she had been set up. To the aggrieved psychologists, it became clear that the Director of HR did not want there to be a resolution to the issues raised but rather she wished the academics in question to leave the institution- and the wrong-doers kept on. Further evidence of this was that another putative attempt at 'arbitration' saw an entrepreneurial psychologist from Harborne in Birmingham being brought in to resolve the conflict. The person had already been hired to deliver teaching by one of the Functional Psychopaths against whom most of the complaints in this case had been made.

If you buy into to your employer's reconciliation scheme, beware! Caveat Emptor.