Thursday, January 17, 2008



Thanks to everyone who answered yesterday's call! It helped, actually.

Doc made a comment that particularly struck me, and that I didn't want to answer deep in the comments. (Doc is, himself, a former dean.) In drawing a distinction between managers in corporate settings and managers in higher ed, he noted that:

[A]cademics are not generally trained to be managers/administrators, and when we get manager/administrator jobs, we're thrown into the deep end of the pool with little or no support. Watching people try to discover the decision rules that aren't written down can be painful for everyone. Dealing with people who don't understand decision-making in a group (rather than an individual) context can be painful. Seeing people who are really, really good teachers and researchers struggle to figure out how to change their approach to problems (believe me, making the correct choice about a statistical procedure and figuring out how to deal with a faculty member who's screwing up are not similar decision issues) can be painful.

Higher education is the industry that does the least, I think, to prepare people for management and administration. And we pay the price for it.

Although it's only half the picture, the half it covers it gets exactly right.

Academe is rife with unspoken/unwritten rules. Some of them are 'sorta' formal – we call those 'past practice.' (One of my great frustrations has been when different people recall 'past practice' differently, and there's no written record to settle the dispute.) Some of them don't quite rise to that level, but are something more like 'unspoken expectations.' Many people aren't even aware they have those until they're violated. (“How dare you override this committee?” “The committee is supposed to be advisory only. In that context, there's no such thing as overriding.” “Well, yeah, but you overrode the committee!”)

And the weirdly widespread contempt in which academics are trained to hold administrators tends to discourage some of the more talented from checking it out. When the better abstain, the worse carry the day.

In grad school, I was trained extensively in citing authorities, plowing through complicated and punishingly long texts, and placating some very erratic personalities. I also received some incidental training in research. I got plenty of practice teaching, though very little training. (For my first year as a t.a., my entire training consisted of “you'll be fine.”) Management training? Nope.

In my faculty role, I got some supplemental training in teaching, and heaven knows I got plenty of practice. Management training? Nope.

What I've picked up has been on the fly, on the job. And that's not at all unusual.

Making matters more complicated is the unique structure of higher ed. A neophyte corporate manager can at least turn to management books. While the ratio of hogwash-to-content tends to be high, it's at least possible to glean some basics from one industry and apply them to another. Most corporations give managers much more say in hiring, firing, defining the job, setting salary, and determining incentives than any academic manager ever gets. So some of the really basic stuff – set clear goals, set measurable benchmarks, tie incentives to desired behaviors, and clear out the plaque – really doesn't apply in higher ed, except on the margins. The administrator's toolkit is remarkably bare, compared to managers in just about any other industry.

(This is doubly true when budgets are tight. A dean with discretionary money can still make things happen. A dean without discretionary money, not so much.)

Even networking is harder. So much of the really challenging stuff involves confidential matters that it can be difficult to glean helpful ideas even from other administrators. (Even this blog, as vanilla as it is, is written under a pseudonym. If I used my real name, it would have to be blanded-out beyond any possible usefulness.)

The lack of a clear 'bottom line' also makes it harder to get agreement on the criteria for decisions. I've found it's relatively easy to engender civility even in the context of disagreement when the criteria are mutually accepted. (I think that's what several commenters meant when they wrote things like “even when I disagree, I know the reasons.”) But if one person's criterion is “what I've always thought a college should be like” and another's is “the money we lose on this could have grown that,” they'll talk right past each other.

Given all of that, it's still possible to be useful to the extent that you can translate, see the bigger picture, find ways out of jams, mediate personality clashes, and attend to the great many external commitments that faculty just can't. On a good day, those things happen. On a bad day, I find myself asking questions like the one I asked yesterday.

Thanks, everyone.

I'd say that academia is, in general, amazingly dysfunctional when it comes to training people to become better employees.

Most of my friends and relatives are in the business world, not academia. One of the things that's very different about those worlds is that corporations seem to place a higher premium on continuous training. Most provide extensive training opportunities, and encourage employees to use them. Eagerness to train and develop is also seen as a big plus in an employee, and tends to bring promotions with it.

Academic environments, in contrast, really seem to expect the employee to bring everything to the table. If you feel you need a new skill to do your job better, it's your responsibility to figure out how to get it, and it's unlikely that your supervisor will recommend any sort of specific training. Academic workers are not, by and large, "developed". Also, promotions tend to be based on criteria which may not be fully orthagonal to the needs of the workplace.

That does tend to allow academics a lot of space for self-actualization, but it also degrades the ability of a college to work as a cohesive whole. The goals of the college wind up being the vector sum of the individual goals of the workers.
Dicty & DD, I've been thinking about something really similar. I worked in the so-called "real world" before going to academia (which I do part time, as an adjunct, but would jump at the chance to do it full time), and I've been thinking a lot lately about how fully independent most of my academic colleagues are, how they never collaborate or take advantage of others' expertise!

We constantly have the department secretary & student workers e-mailing with "We're happy to do X for you" but hardly anyone takes advantage of it. A lot of professors want to but don't use technology because they don't know how it works, but don't want to get training, or it doesn't occur to them. I'm down at the "teaching and learning center" twice a semester getting one-on-one training on the more arcane aspects of Bboard so I can do cooler things, or getting the latest information & ideas on teaching and assessment methods. I love to sit in on my colleagues' classes to see how they cover different topics and get ideas for my own teaching.

The one that consistently amuses and amazes me the most is how many professors try to solve students' problems and get annoyed that students are bringing them problems they can't solve (enrollment, financial aid, death in the family) ... I immediately bounce them to student services. So many of my colleagues are used to managing their ENTIRE jobs themselves that it never occurs to them to direct students to student services, or financial aid, or whatever!

Anyway, nothing particularly interesting has come of my ponderings, except the realization that the college really makes a lot of resources available to the professors, and very, very few of them take advantage of the resources they need and want, because they're just so used to being independent.
The lack of training and prep for new administrators is well described in this blog - but what's the solution to this problem?

The really good administrators I know usually had someone higher up recognize their potential early on and helped develop those flegling folks, encouraging them to gain the skills and experiences they needed to take a leadership role in the department / school. Those mentored folks usually have less of a learning curve and are better connected to the resources of the campus.

Has the post on "finding and keeping your administration mentor so you can be an administrator too" been done? I'd love to hear more about that.
Academics of all people should remember that the plural of anecdote is not data. A few, a very few, businesses do a good job of training employees to move into management. Usually it's the giant corporations that manage to excel. The rest of them are just as dysfunctional about it as academia.

I've worked in many different settings as an accountant and in every single one it's the good accountants who are promoted to managerial positions. Good accountants are usually lousy managers. (Ever met an accountant you would describe as a "people" person? Yeah, me either. Accounting managers tend to get hung up on measurement metrics, which are poorly applied and largely useless.

The dark side of valuing continuous training is credential creep. Do you really need a college degree and a CPA license to carry out most accounting functions? Hell no. Does the ability to earn a CPA license prove anything? Sure, it proves you managed to learn a bunch of rules by rote and regurgitate them on a standardized test. It does not demonstrate the ability to think.

I'm not meaning to be all doom and gloom. I just want to point out that some of the dysfunction you're observing in higher ed is human nature, not specific to the industry.

-I'm accounting as fast as I can
Forgive this comment, but it's time to vent.

True--and very current--story. I chair a committee. My dean says to this committee, "We need a set of procedures about X." X is, in fact, in out charge. We write the set of procedures (largely adapting them from our main campus's porcuedures (we're a regional campus). The dean says, "Sorry, that's not the set of procedures I wanted. Here's what I wanted."

We rebel.

This has happened to me three or four times in the past two years. Same dean.

I agree with Annonymous 8:54.

As I read the comments yesterday, and then DD's post today, I thought to myself, really, it's pretty bad all over. It seems that in many cases, people get promoted or seek out management positions, not based on any specific management skills they may have, but because they (or others) feel it's just that time in their career and/or they want more money. As the previous poster pointed out, people may be very good at what they do and have some time under their built, but those two issues alone don't necessarily translate into being a good manager.

My own field (special libraries) is full of people who are probably excellent librarians, who have gone on to take supervisory or director positions, but are not really that good at it. Not that they couldn't learn those skills, it just doesn't seem to occur to them or their higher-ups that specific training and ongoing evaluation is needed.

This topic was discussed in a podcast One of the interviewees talked about their less than smooth transition from being a staff person to being a manager. They discovered that just because they moved into a management position, they didn't magically develop the corresponding skillsets, and needed specific guidance/assistance to do that.
Speed Accountant and bibkit: Oh, it's definitely true that people get themselves promoted into positions they can't handle.(Ever read The Peter Principle? It's pretty funny.) In the large-business world, that often results in intensive counseling or transfer into a more-appropriate position, although that's dependent on corporate culture. Some companies are far from ideal.

In small companies, a good employee without natural management skills can really gum up the works. In a small shop, the opportunities for advancement without moving into a management position are quite limited, so a company might allow a valued employee to take a possibly-inappropriate promotion rather than lose them to the competition.

That said, though, even small companies are often into employee training. Back when my husband sold truck parts for a living, his 50-person company had audiobook training materials available for free loan to the road salesmen, and scheduled very regular training sessions for everyone, including the managers. There also seemed to be some institutional awareness of what someone would need to know to be good at what they were doing.

Maybe the reason I find the lack of training in academia sort of shocking is that academics, who make their livings by teaching other people, seem to undervalue the idea of teaching within the institution.
Dictyranger - it is a teaching problem or a mentoring problem? I think anyone can read a management book but there's a lot to being an administrator that involves building relationships and finding resources where none seem to exist. Food for thought anyway....
It is important that we remember that there is another name for training that goes on in the academic world (i.e. "research"). Academia does much better than industry in that particular type of training. True, it doesn't necessarily help with management skills, but it is more useful than some of the corporate training that I had to attend when I worked at a big company.
Dictyranger: Maybe the reason I find the lack of training in academia sort of shocking is that academics, who make their livings by teaching other people, seem to undervalue the idea of teaching within the institution.

In a recently completed program which had a business curriculum, the Dept out of which it was administered, did the exactly opposite of what it was purportedly teaching its students. To this day, I find this simply amazing. I guess in this case it's "Do as I say, not as I do."
Ivory: Good question. In the healthy companies I've heard about, informal mentoring is very common, mostly because a well-trained and -mentored subordinate is pretty valuable to his/her boss.

By "informal mentoring", I mean a supervisor or more experienced colleague pulling someone aside for coffee, and using the ten minutes to work through a perceived problem. It doesn't always work, but in my observation, it often does. I've also seen a lot of instances where an employee is encouraged to bone up on (task X), because it will help make the team more effective.

At the moment, several of my friends have recently been hired as part of an IT contractor team at a very large corporation. (How large? You own things they make. I guarantee it.) They and their colleagues are busy team-building and mentoring each other...getting skills up to snuff, figuring out who should be sent out to smooth things over with an unhappy client, who should be directly managing who, and so on. It's been fascinating to watch. There's been some head-butting involved, but they all seem to regard that as unexceptional.

Most business environments are not this fluid. Even so, they do tend to be more dynamic than an equivalent academic department, and there seems to be more acceptance of this sort of informal critique and job adaptation. What my geek friends take for granted would cause full-out warfare in many academic settings I've been in.
I feel really strongly about this, but I'm having a bad headache/no sleep day, so I may be somewhat incoherent.

I worked in a non-academic department at a mid-size(?) CC for about 6 years. Our professional development budget was pathetic, enough for a few magazines, a book or two, and one or two conferences/classes. This was with 10+ people.

I was and am extremely self-motivated in my professional specialty. So I found ways to keep learning that didn't require any money, which could be...challenging. Those who were not self-motivated, or not persistent enough to argue for their share of the meager funds tended to stagnate. Which I found incredibly frustrating!

In the same vein: I really liked my boss, but he had some definite weaknesses as a manager that I think could have been remedied with some targeted training. (And with some other people being kicked in the head/to the curb, but that's another story.) But I don't think there was any training for any managers anywhere in the whole college. Which led to needless suffering, not just in my department but in some with pretty god-awful managers. (Biting tongue.)

And yes, Peter Principle is everywhere. I will resolutely resist all calls for me to do anything management-like, as I like what I'm doing and would rather do it than help other people do it. Or something like that. Yay for incoherence.

But jeez, you'd think at an educational institution there'd be more support for practical learning.
former CC employee:
But jeez, you'd think at an educational institution there'd be more support for practical learning.

Yeah, you would! Since many business and management practices (or aspects at least) came out of some sort of academic research or consulting at some point.

It's like the shoemaker's kids have no shoes. Same thing in my profession. For certain things, you would think the particular patrons we serve, would know better, but outside of their specialized area of expertise in that field, they might as well be lay-people.

Corporations change in response to the market, their perceived competion, legal/regulatory landscape, etc. They may not always get it right, but at least they don't keep doing the same thing in response to those external forces (that is if they want to continue to exist), because...well...that's just the way it's been done.

Academia, on the other hand, seems to be more likely tp cling to the same old way of doing things for as long as possible, no matter what! It also seems they are insulated to some extent from the type of external incentives that might force meaningful, regular and continuous re-evaluation.
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