Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Incentives and Intentions

Yesterday I endured one of those “how-do-we-do-this” operations meetings that drive managers to drink. (Happily, I was an invited guest for one meeting, as opposed to a member of the committee.) Without going into too much gory detail, the gist of it was how to get ‘continuing’ students (those who have already been here for at least one semester) to register online, rather than in-person. It’s fairly important for the college, since online registration saves a tremendous amount of labor. Most students have already made the switch, but there’s a non-trivial contingent that has steadfastly refused.

Leaving aside the dreary which-screen-is-which and which-bugs-can’t-we-fix discussions, the drift of the conversation was towards how to convince the holdout students to go online. Revealingly, everybody’s first instinct was to hold a series of workshops to teach the students how to navigate the website.

The group spent about a half hour discussing the logistics of the workshops, who would run them, and the like, while I sat in mute disbelief. When I finally couldn’t stand it anymore, I asked why we don’t just charge the in-person registrants an extra fee; premium service justifies a premium rate. Line up the incentives, and the behavior will follow.

There was a pause, followed by a round of “oooo.” You’d think I had landed from Mars.

In the years that this committee had been meeting, nobody had ever raised the issue of incentives. I was amazed.

Students who like to register in person do so because they don’t want to be bothered to learn another way, and/or because they like to be served. Workshops won’t change either of those; those who don’t want to be bothered certainly won’t be bothered to go to a workshop, and those who like to be served won’t attend, either. Workshops make sense if the desire is there but the know-how isn’t; with this population, it’s (almost) entirely the other way round.

The conversation that ensued was much more animated, but also revealing. As educators in a nonprofit setting, we’re so used to the ‘service’ ethic that the idea of intentionally creating an inconvenience is almost blasphemy. (That’s not to say that we don’t create inconveniences – we absolutely do – but they’re byproducts, not goals.) I argued that the same students who bitch, moan, and whine about having to navigate a website when in-person is available will miraculously get over it when it saves them fifty bucks. Those who are simply too prima donna-ish to bother are welcome to pay extra.

I’m not generally a fan of the run-it-like-a-business school of thought, but a little attention to motivation seems like a good idea.

The idea didn’t carry, of course – much too radical, and the Board of Trustees would have to approve it, which they wouldn’t, because it looks like a tax or it might disadvantage somebody or it’s just too complicated – but at least it shifted the discussion for a moment.