An Observation

As a new year commences, and I start to gently reduce my paid work I am taking the opportunity to make an observation about a topic that is not normally covered on my blog: namely management.

The following article is from The Economist of 4 January 2020 written by the columnist Bartleby. It happens to coincide with my own thoughts when I look back at the organisations with which I have worked over the years.

There seems to be to be a lot of sound thinking in the article. With few exceptions it appears to me that larger organisations are less likely than smaller to already followed Bartleby’s precepts.


A Manager’s Manifesto for 2020

Eight resolutions to adopt in the new year

The start of the year is traditionally the time to make resolutions to change your behaviour. Hardly anyone keeps them, of course, but in the spirit of optimism, here are Bartleby’s eight suggestions for what managers ought to resolve to do in 2020.

  1. Give out some praise. People don’t come to work just for the money. They like to feel they are making a valuable contribution. Praise doesn’t have to happen every day and it cannot be generic. Pick something specific that a worker has done which shows extra skill or effort and single them out; ideally so that others can hear the compliment. This is particularly important for the most junior employees, who will feel anxious about their status.
  2. Remember that you set the tone. If a manager is angry and swears a lot, that will be seen as acceptable behaviour. If bosses barely communicate, they are unlikely to receive useful feedback. If they fail to keep their promises, workers will be less likely to co-operate. And if a manager frequently belittles a particular employee, that person is unlikely to get the respect of their colleagues. In contrast, a more relaxed, open boss is likely to lead to a relaxed, open workplace.
  3. The buck also stops with you. If a team member makes a mistake, it needs to be fixed. And the manager is responsible for making that happen. It may well be that the mistake stems from inadequate instructions or giving the task to the wrong person. So the manager, as well as the staff member, needs to learn a lesson from the failure.
  4. Make your priorities for the next year clear, and communicate them well. Is the company (or division) trying to launch a new product? Or to boost sales of existing products? Or to control costs? If you are not sure, then those who work for you will have no idea. That can lead to a lot of wasted effort.
  5. To that end, cut out the jargon. The use of pretentious phrases and complex acronyms is generally designed to obfuscate rather than elucidate. In Bartleby’s experience, the reason people use unclear language is that they have nothing clear to say. If you are sending a general memo to all the staff, look carefully through it and ask whether you would have understood it on your first day of work. If not, make it simpler. Remember George Orwell’s maxim: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” It applies to other tongues, too.
  6. Listen to your staff. They are the people who are dealing with customers and suppliers, and grappling with the bureaucracy of the organisation. Their feedback is essential, beyond annual engagement surveys. You hired them for their skill and expertise: learn to rely on it. If you don’t trust their judgment, you have hired the wrong people. If you don’t like listening to employees, go and set up as a sole trader.
  7. Keep meetings short. Ideally, a meeting should be the length of a sitcom episode not a film by Martin Scorsese. Bartleby’s law is that 80% of the time of 80% of the people at meetings is wasted. If you doubt the numbers, have a think about the last big meeting you attended. Did everyone speak or was the discussion dominated by a small subset? How many people were gazing at their phones? A lot of people attend meetings out of a sense of duty or fomo(fear of missing out). And what is the purpose of the meeting? If it is just to update people on progress, that can be done in an email or in a one-to-one conversation (which has the added benefit of allowing you to talk to your staff). Big meetings involving all the staff should be reserved for big news like acquisitions or lay-offs.
  8. Drop the team-building exercises. Paintballing in the woods, tackling an army assault-course, constructing a model of the Empire State Building from matchsticks—no one wants to do this stuff. They don’t want to go to an awayday weekend, either; they would much rather be at home with their families. Why not build a team by introducing its members and explaining what you want each of them to do? It is a lot cheaper. It also wastes a lot less of everybody’s valuable time.


Changing Student Management System?

It’s the time of year when providers that are thinking about changing student management system start to do something about it. If you are in this situation you may find the notes below useful.

As you will be aware I have been involved with student management systems for quite a while, and I was responsible for the development and support of one particular system from 1998 to early 2017. At the start of 2016 my business partner and I sold our interest in that product and I was employed by the new owner until February 2017. At that point I left to return to work as an independent consultant and, I must say, life without management meetings has been a glorious relief.

I have since had the opportunity of working with clients with other student management systems, or who are moving to other systems. This leads me to make some observations which may be relevant to you if you are thinking of changing.

  •  The people who market and sell systems don’t necessarily know very much about either the technology of the system they are selling nor, for that matter, the nuts and bolts of student management. They probably also have little insight into the compliance requirements of government agencies.
  • You should ask to talk to the people who will provide support. After all a system is only as good as the support that is provided.
  • Check that the software used by the system is not out of date or possibly even redundant; for example, “Flash”.
  • Where your organisation has multiple organisational units (campuses, departments, etc.) and/or EDUMIS numbers you will want what is called “multitenancy” software. A tenant is a group of users with specific privileges. For example, users at campus “A” can’t see student records at Campus “B”, however a head office user can see all students and produce reports across the whole organisation as well as for the individual campuses. Not all systems which claim multitenancy do in fact work in this way.
  • Nobody likes reading user manuals or online help (and system developers don’t necessarily like writing this material) but you should make a point of asking to see the material and check that it is up-to-date.
  • Make sure that you own your data and can access it independently of the student management system itself and the supplier of the system. This is particularly important if your data is being stored in the cloud.

Literacy or Numeracy – a Question

As a person of a certain age I am naturally becoming both grumpier and more disparaging of modern youth. I exhibit the usual traits: often remarking on how young medical professionals and police officers look and asking are they really able to cure and protect us, since they all look like they just left school. I also begin to mutter when a shop assistant is not able to make change without the assistance of technology.

The latter trait – unease at innumeracy – is perhaps my most bothersome behaviour. I have wondered whether decimalisation is to blame. If you were trained from an early age to count your pocket money in pounds, shillings and pence, and you purchased your lollies by the ounce you were set up for life. Dollars, cents and grams simply don’t cut it.

On a related topic I recently read an article in the Economist on the question of which British universities do most to boost graduate salaries. Oxford made it into the top 10, just, at number 10. Cambridge did not. Prince William’s alma mater, St Andrews was the bottom of the list but, then, I don’t suppose he has to worry too much about income.

Portsmouth was top of list and the article noted that “Portsmouth …. provides remedial maths and literacy catch-ups for those needing them.” The article commented that a school leaver’s grades are a more important determinant of future salary than the status or research profile of their tertiary institute, and that “Subjects which include some element of maths are well-rewarded.”

All this set me thinking.

A lot of time and effort has gone into delivering literacy and numeracy in New Zealand over the last few years. I have a question (two actually) for you. Is that effort having effect? What is more important, literacy or numeracy?

Graduate Outcomes

Now here’s a tricky subject. Over the years there has been much talk about the need to collect data about graduate outcomes and, along with the talk there has been action; some clearly of value and some less so. This does seem to be a fertile area for researchers – academic and otherwise – and those of us of a cynical nature might think that there is much chasing of tails.


Several matters have struck me in reviewing the material in my own non-academic and superficial way and, for what it is worth – here are my thoughts.

Graduate outcome” seems to focus only those who have graduated, which is fair enough because “graduate” is one of those handy words which is a noun, a verb, and an adjective and all to do with being awarded a qualification. One wonders, though, what has happened to those who commenced their studies but did not graduate. Why did they cease studying and what happened to them?

Different measures obtain data from different sources. TEC’s KIS (Key Information for Students) obtains data from a range of sources, but none from the graduates themselves. The Australian GOS (Graduate Outcome Survey) collects data directly from the graduates. Both measures seem to have a common goal of providing information to those contemplating study.

But it is not just future students that have an interest in graduate outcomes. Government and its agencies, employers, and the training providers themselves have an interest.

It would appear that government may be inching forwards to the point that a graduate outcome measure could be a performance measure and, as such, presumably could affect funding and so affect the training providers. Ultimately, though, it is really only the training providers that can improve graduate outcomes. They can do that in several ways, one of which is to recruit only those students that they know are more likely to succeed. This would be behaviour likely to reinforce the existing EPI dynamic which strongly discourages the recruitment of those who might fail.

It is at this point deeper policy (and possibly, moral) questions arise all of which are beyond my competence. What I would say, though, is that training providers have a very strong incentive to collect their own reliable graduate outcome data, to match those outcomes against the profile of incoming students, and to analyse what interventions can make a difference; not just those in the classroom.