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Three posts about time

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By Jon Dron January 13, 2017 - 1:50pm

Three posts about time

The three articles presented on this page are closely related blog posts that I have made on the topic of time and its costs over the past couple of years. My calculations are likely quite a bit off - you'll see that the figures vary a bit between posts and my thoughts have evolved a bit between each post - but the general point that minutes and even seconds (might) matter is, I think, fairly indisputable. The general tldr; point is that, in an organization with 1300 employees, wasting a minute of everyone's time every day takes away the equivalent of around 3 whole days of full time staff's time every day (likely, on average, therefore costing something in the order of a quarter of a million dollars a year). But, as the articles explain, what counts as 'wasted' is a complex issue. In summary, time waiting for machines is not necessarily wasted because we can spend it doing other things, and things that are not directly related to work can play an important social binding role as well as supporting richer learning and connections. However, systems that make people behave like cogs are almost always an incredibly bad thing, especially when people perform tasks that machines could do better, faster, more accurately, and more efficiently.

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The cost of time

  • The cost of time
    A few days back, an email was sent to our ‘allstaff’ mailing list inviting us to join in a bocce tournament. This took me a bit of time to digest, not least because I felt impelled to look up what ‘bocce’ means (it’s an Italian variant of pétanque, if you are interested). I guess this took a couple of minutes of my time in total. And then I realized I was probably not alone in this - that over a thousand people had also been reading it and, perhaps, wondering the same thing. So I started thinking about how we measure costs.
     

    The cost of reading an email

    A single allstaff email at Athabasca will likely be read by about 1200 people, give or take. If such an email takes one minute to read, that's 1200 minutes - 20 hours - of the institution’s time being taken up with a single message. This is not, however, counting the disruption costs of interrupting someone's train of thought, which may be quite substantial. For example, this study from 2002 reckons that, not counting the time taken to read email, it takes an average of 64 seconds to return to previous levels of productivity after reading one. Other estimates based on different studies are much higher - some studies suggest the real recovery time from interruptions to tasks could be as high as 15-20 minutes. Conservatively, though, it is probably safe to assume that, taking interruption costs into account, an average allstaff email that is read but not acted upon consumes an average of two minutes of a person's time: in total, that's about 40 hours of the institution's time, for every message sent. Put another way, we could hire another member of staff for a week for the time taken to deal with a single allstaff message, not counting the work entailed by those that do act on the message, nor the effort of writing it. It would therefore take roughly 48 such messages to account for a whole year of staff time. We get hundreds of such messages each year.
     
    But it’s not just about such tangible interruptions. Accessing emails can take a lot of time before we even get so far as reading them. Page rendering just to view a list of messages on our web front end for our email system is an admirably efficient 2 seconds (i.e. 40 minutes of the organization’s time for everyone to be able to see a page of emails, not even to read their titles). Let’s say we all did that an average of 12 times a day -  that's 8 hours, or more than a day of the institution's time, taken up with waiting for that page to render each day. Put another way, as we measure such things, if it took four seconds, we would have to fire someone to pay for it. As it happens, for another university for which I have an account, using MS Exchange, simply getting to the login screen of its web front end takes 4 seconds. Once logged in (a further few seconds thanks to Exchange's insistence on forcing you to tell it that your computer is not shared even though you have told it that a thousand times before), loading the page containing the list of emails takes a further 17 seconds. If AU were using the same system, using the same metric of 12 visits each day, that could equate to around 68 hours of the institution's time every single day, simply to view a list of emails, not including a myriad of other delays and inefficiencies when it comes to reading, responding to and organizing such messages. Of course, we could just teach people to use a proper email client and reduce the delay to one that is imperceptible, because it occurs in the background - webmail is a truly terrible idea for daily use - or simply remind them not to close their web browsers so often, or to read their emails less regularly. There are many solutions to this problem. Like all technologies, especially softer ones that can be used in millions of ways, it ain't what you do it's the way that you do it. 
     

    But wait - there's more

    Email is just a small part of the problem, though: we use a lot of other websites each day. Let’s conservatively assume that, on average, everyone at AU visits, say, 24 pages in a working day (for me that figure is always vastly much higher) and that each page averages out at about 5 seconds to load. That’s two minutes per person. Multiplied by 1200, it's another week of the institution’s time ‘gone' every day simply waiting to read a page.
     
    And then there are the madly inefficient bureaucratized processes that are dictated and mediated by poorly tailored software. When I need to log into our CRM system I reckon that simply reading my tasks takes a good five minutes. Our leave reporting system typically eats 15 minutes of my time each time I request leave (it replaces one that took 2-3 minutes).  Our finance system used to take me about half an hour to add in expenses for a conference but, since downgrading to a baseline version, now takes me several hours, and it takes even more time from others that have to give approvals along the way. Ironically, the main intent behind implementing this was to save us money spent on staffing. 
     
    I could go on, but I think you see where this is heading. Bear in mind, though, that I am just scratching the surface. 
     

    Time and work

    My point in writing this is not to ask for more efficient computer and admin systems, though that would indeed likely be beneficial. Much more to the point, I hope that you are feeling uncomfortable or even highly sceptical about how I am measuring this. Not with the figures: it doesn’t much matter whether I am wrong with the detailed timings or even the math. It is indisputable that we spend a lot of time dealing with computer systems and the processes that surround them every day, and small inefficiencies add up. There's nothing particularly peculiar to ICTs about this either - for instance, think of the time taken to walk from one office to another, to visit the mailroom, to read a noticeboard, to chat with a colleague, and so on. But is that actually time lost or does it even equate precisely to time spent?  I hope you are wondering about the complex issues with equating time and dollars, how we learn, why and how we account for project costs in time, the nature of technologies, the cost vs value of ICTs, the true value of bocce tournament messages to people that have no conceivable chance of participating in them (much greater than you might at first imagine), and a whole lot more. I know I am. If there is even a shred of truth in my analysis, it does not automatically lead to the conclusion that the solution is simply more efficient computer systems and organizational procedures. It certainly does bring into question how we account for such things, though, and, more interestingly, it highlights even bigger intangibles: the nature and value of work itself, the nature and value of communities of practice, the role of computers in distributed intelligence, and the meaning, identity and purpose of organizations. I will get to that in another post, because it demands more time than I have to spend right now (perhaps because I receive around 100 emails a day, on average).
     
    Jon Dron

    Jon Dron

    professional learner
    About me

    I am a full professor and Chair of the School of Computing & Information Systems, and a member of The Technology-Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. I am one of the...

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A waste of time

  • pocket watch 

    A while back I wrote a blog post about the apparent waste of time involved in things like reading email, loading web pages, etc. At the end of the post I suggested that the simplistic measure of time as money that I was using should be viewed with great suspicion, though it is precisely the kind of measure that we routinely use. This post is mostly about why we should be suspicious.

    But first, my basic initial argument, restated and stripped to its bones, is simple. According to the vacation request form that I have to fill in (and, after taking vacation, repeat the process) an Athabasca University working day is 7 hours, or 25,200 seconds, long. There are about 1,200 employees at Athabasca University so, if each employee could save 21 seconds in a day (25,200/1200 = 21), it would be like getting another employee. Equally, every time we do something that loses everyone 21 seconds a day for no good reason, the overall effect is the same as firing someone. I observed then that we have lately adopted a lot of ICT systems that waste a great deal more than that. Since then, things have been getting worse. We are about to move to an Office 365 system, for instance, that I am guessing will cost us the time of at least 5 people, maybe more, compared with our current aged Zimbra suite. It's not rocket science: a minute of everyone's day easily accounted for in loading time alone, which I have  checked seems to be roughly 20 seconds longer than the old system, and most people will load it many times a day. At the start, it will take way more than that, what with training, migration, confusion and all and, if my experience of Microsoft's Exchange system is anything to go by, it is going to carry on sapping minutes out of everyone's day for the foreseeable future thanks to poor design and buggy implementation. So far, so depressing.

    But what have we actually lost?

    The simplistic assumption that time is money has a little merit when tasks are routine and mechanical. If you are producing widgets then time spent not producing widgets equates directly to widgets lost, so money is lost for every second spent doing something else. Even that notion is a bit suspect, though, inasmuch as there are normally diminishing returns on working more. Even if a task requires only the slightest hint of skill or judgement, the correlation between time and money is a long, long way from linear. Far more often than not, productivity is lower if you insist on uninterrupted working or longer hours than it would be if you insisted on regular breaks and shorter hours.  At the other end of the spectrum, it is also true, even in the most creative and open occupations, that it is possible to spend so much time doing something else that you never get round to the thing that you claim to be doing, though it is very hard to pin down the actual break-even point. For instance, a poet might spend 23.5 out of every 24 hours not actually writing poetry and that might be absolutely fine. On the other hand, if a professor spends a similar amount of time not marking student work there will probably be words. For most occupations, there's a happy balance.

    But what about those enforced breaks caused by waiting for computers to do something, or playing a mechanical role in a bureaucratic system, or reading an 'irrelevant' all-staff email? These are the ones that relate most directly to my original point, and all are quite different cases, so I will take each in turn, as each is illustrative of some of the different ways time and value are strangely connected.

    Waiting for the machine

    As I wait for machines to do something I have from time to time tried to calculate the time I 'lose' to them. As well as time waiting for them to boot up, open a web page, open an application, convert a video or save a document, this includes various kinds of futzing, such as organizing emails or files, backing up a machine, updating the operating system, fixing things that are broken, installing tools, shuffling widgets, plugging and unplugging peripherals, and so on. On average, given that almost my entire working life is mediated through a computer, I reckon that an hour or more of every day is taken up with such things. Some days are better than others, but some are much worse. I sometimes lose whole days to this. Fixing servers can take much more. Because I work in computing and find the mental exercise valuable, futzing is not exactly 'lost' time for me, especially as (done well) it can save time later on. Nor, for that matter, is time spent waiting for things to happen. I don't stop thinking simply because the machine is busy. In fact, it can often have exactly the opposite effect. I actually make very deliberate point of setting aside time to daydream throughout my working day because that's a crucial part of the creative, analytic and synthetic process. Enforced moments of inactivity thus do a useful job for me, like little inverted alarm clocks reminding me when to dream. Slow machines (up to a point) do not waste time - they simply create time for other actitivies but, as ever, there is a happy balance.

    Bacn

    pig, showing cuts of meat

    Bacn is a bit like spam except that it consists of emails that you have chosen or are obliged to receive. Like spam, though, it is impersonal, often irrelevant, and usually annoying. Those things from mailing lists you sometimes pay attention to, calls for conference papers that might be interesting, notifications from social media systems (like the Landing) that have the odd gem, offers from stores you have shopped at, or messages to all-staff mailing lists that are occasionally very important but that are mostly not -  I get a big lot of bacn. Those 'irrelevant' allstaff emails are particularly interesting examples. They are actually very far from irrelevant even though they may have no direct value to the work that I am doing, because they are part of the structure of the organization. They are signals passing around the synapses of the organizational brain that help give its members a sense of belonging to something bigger, even if the particular signals themselves might rarely fire their particular synapses. Every one is an invitation to being a potential contributor to that bigger thing. They are the cloth that is woven of the interactions of an organization that helps to define the boundaries of that organization and reflect back its patterns and values. The same is true of social media notifications: I only glance at the vast majority but, just now and then, I pick up something very useful and, maybe once every day or two, I may contribute to the flow myself. The flow is part of my extended brain, like an extra sense that keeps me informed about the zeitgeist of my communities and social networks and that makes me a part of them. Time spent dealing with such things is time spent situating myself in the sets, networks and groups that I belong to. Organizations, especially those that are largely online, that are seeking to reduce bacn had better beware that they don't lose all that salty goodness because bacn is a thin web that binds us. Especially in a distributed organization, if you lose bacn, you lose the limbic system of the organization, or even, in some cases, its nervous system. Organizations are not made of processes; they are made of people, and those people have to connect, have to belong. Bacn supports belonging and connection. But, of course, it can go too far. It is always worth remembering that 21 seconds of bacn is another person's time gone (for a large company, it might be a second or less) and that person might have been doing something really productive with all of that lost time. But to get rid of bacn makes no more sense than to get rid of brain cells because they don't address your current needs. An organization, not just its members, has to think and feel, and bacn is part of that thinking and feeling. As ever, though, there is a happy balance.

    Being a cog

    cogs

    I've saved this one till last because it is not like the others. Being a cog is about the kind of thing that requires individuals to do the work of a machine. For instance, leave-reporting systems that require you to calculate how much leave you have left, how many hours there are in a day, or which days are public holidays (yes, we have one of those). Or systems for reclaiming expenses that require you to know the accounting codes, tax rates, accounting regulations, and approvers for expenses (yes, we have one of those too). Or customer relationship management systems that bombard you with demands that actually have nothing to do with you or that you have already dealt with (yes - we have one of those as well). Or that demand that you record the number of minutes spent using a machine that is perfectly capable of recording those minutes itself (yup). This is real work that demands concentration and attention, but it does nothing to help with thinking or social cohesion and does nothing to help the organization grow or adapt. In fact, precisely the opposite. It is a highly demotivating drain on time and energy that saps the life out of an organization, a minute or two at a time. No one benefits from having to do work that machines can do faster, more accurately and more reliably (we used to have one of those). It is plain common sense that investing in someone who can build build and maintain better cogs is a lot more efficient and effective than trying (and failing) to train everyone to act exactly like a cog. This is one of those tragedies of hierarchically managed systems. Our ICT department has been set the task of saving money and its managers only control their own staff and systems, so the only place they can make 'savings' is in getting rid of the support burden of making and managing cogs. I bet that looks great on paper - they can probably claim to have saved hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars although, actually, they have not only wasted tens of millions of dollars, but they have probably set the organization on a suicide run. But they could as easily have gone the other way and it might have been just as bad. Over-zealous cog-making is harmful, both because ICT departments have a worrisome tendency to over-do it (I cannot have assignments with no marks, for example, if I wish to enter them into our records system, which I have to do because otherwise the cog that pays tutors will not turn) and because systems change, which means many of the cogs inside them have to change too, and it is not just the devil's work but an accounting nightmare to get them all to change at the right time. Well-designed ICT systems make it easy to take out a cog or some other sub-assembly and replace it, and they use tools that make cog production fast and simple. Poorly designed systems without such flexibility enslave their users, just as much as those that have to submit to cog-retraining are enslaved when their systems change. As ever, there is a happy balance.

    Wasting time?

    I'm not sure that time is ever lost - it is just spent doing other things. It can certainly be wasted, though, if those other things do not make a positive difference. But it is complicated. Here are just a few of the things I have done today - not a typical day, but few of them are:

    • reading/responding to emails from staff, students and others: roughly 2.5 hours
    • writing a forward for a book: roughly 2 hours
    • writing this post: roughly 1 hour
    • walking: roughly 45 minutes
    • making/consuming food and drink: about 30 minutes
    • reading/ making notes on books and papers: roughly 1 hour
    • replying to interview questions: approximately 45 minutes
    • checking my boat didn't die in the rainstorm: roughly half an hour
    • cleaning and tidying: maybe half an hour
    • writing a book: about 20-30 minutes
    • replying to student posts: roughly 1 hour
    • marking: roughly 1 hour
    • waiting for computers: perhaps half an hour
    • grooming/washing/etc: maybe half an hour
    • checking/listening to the news and weather: roughly 45 minutes
    • taking an afternoon nap: about half an hour
    • Skyping: roughly 15 minutes
    • Deleting spam from the Elgg community site: about 10 minutes
    • Drying a wet dog: about 5 minutes
    • serious thinking: roughly 12 hours

    There are still a couple of hours left of my day before I read a book and eventually go to sleep. Maybe I'll catch a movie while reading some news after preparing some more food. Maybe I'll play some guitar or try to get the hang of the sansula one more time. With a bit of luck I might get to chat with my wife (who has been out all day but would normally figure in the list quite a bit). But I hope you get the drift. I don't think it makes much sense to measure anyone's life in minutes spent on activities, except for the worst things they do. Time may be worth measuring and accounting for when it is spent doing the things that make us less than human, but it would be better to not do such things in the first place. I have put off responding to the CRM system today and only spent a few minutes checking admin systems in general because, hell, it's Monday and I have had other things to do. It is all about achieving a happy balance.

    Jon Dron

    Jon Dron

    professional learner
    About me

    I am a full professor and Chair of the School of Computing & Information Systems, and a member of The Technology-Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. I am one of the...

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True costs of information technologies

  • Switchboard (public domain)Microsoft unilaterally and quietly changed the spam filtering rules for Athabasca University's O365 email system on Thursday afternoon last week. On Friday morning, among the usual 450 or so spams in my spam folder (up from around 70 per day in the old Zimbra system) were over 50 legitimate emails, including one to warn me that this was happening, claiming that our IT Services department could do nothing about it because it's a vendor problem. Amongst junked emails were all those sent to the allstaff alias (including announcements about our new president), student work submissions, and many personal messages from students, colleagues, and research collaborators.

    The misclassified emails continue to arrive, 5 days on.  I have now switched off Microsoft's spam filter and switched to my own, and I have risked opening emails I would never normally glance at, but I have probably missed a few legitimate emails. This is perhaps the worst so far in a long line of 'quirks' in our new O365 system, including persistently recurring issues of messages being bounced for a large number of accounts, and it is not the first caused by filtering systems: many were affected by what seems to be a similar failure in the Clutter filter in May.

    I assume that, on average, most other staff at AU have, like me, lost about half an hour per day so far to this one problem. We have around 1350 employees, so that's around 675 hours - 130 working days - being lost every day it continues. This is not counting the inevitable security breaches, support calls, proactive attempts at problem solving, and so on, nor the time for recovery should it ever be fixed, nor the lost trust, lost motivation, the anger, the conversations about it, the people that will give up on it and redirect emails to other places (in breach of regulations and at great risk to privacy and security, but when it's a question of being able to work vs not being able to work, no one could be blamed for that). The hours I have spent writing this might be added to that list, but this happens to relate very closely indeed to my research interests (a great case study and catalyst for refining my thoughts on this), so might be seen as a positive side-effect and, anyway, the vast majority of that time was 'my own': faculty very rarely work normal 7-hour days.

    Every single lost minute per person every day equates to the time of around 3 FTEs when you have 1350 employees. When O365 is running normally it costs me around five extra minutes per day, when compared with its predecessor, an ancient Zimbra system.  I am a geek that has gone out of his way to eliminate many of the ill effects: others may suffer more.  It's mostly little stuff: an extra 10-20 seconds to load the email list, an extra 2-3 seconds to send each email, a second or two longer to load them, an extra minute or two to check the unreliable and over-spammed spam folder, etc. But we do such things many times a day. That's not including the time to recover from interruptions to our work, the time to learn to use it, the support requests, the support infrastructure, etc, etc.

    To be fair, whether such time is truly 'lost' depends on the task. Those 'lost' seconds may be time to reflect or think of other things. The time is truly lost if we have to put effort into it (e.g. checking spam mail) or if it is filled with annoyance at the slow speed of the machine, but may sometimes simply be used in ways we would not otherwise use it.  I suspect that flittering attention while we wait for software to do its thing creates habits of mind that are both good and bad. We are likely more distracted, find it harder to concentrate for long periods, but we probably also develop different ways of connecting things and different ways of pacing our thinking. It certainly changes us, and more research is needed on how it affects us. Either way, time spent sorting legitimate emails from spam is, at least by most measures of productivity, truly time lost, and we have lost a lot of it.

    Feeding the vampires

    It goes without saying that, had we been in control of our own email system, none of this would have happened. I have repeatedly warned that putting one of the most central systems of our university into the hands of an external supplier, especially one with a decades-long history of poor software, broken or proprietary standards, weak security, inadequate privacy policies, vicious antagonism to competitors, and a predatory attitude to its users, is a really stupid idea. Microsoft's goal is profit, not user satisfaction: sometimes the two needs coincide, often they do not. Breakages like this are just a small part of the problem. The worst effects are going to be on our capacity to innovate and adapt, though our productivity, engagement and workload will all suffer before the real systemic failures emerge.  Microsoft had to try hard to sell it to us, but does not have to try hard to keep us using it, because we are now well and truly locked in on all sides by proprietary, standards-free tools that we cannot control, cannot replace, cannot properly understand, that change under our feet without warning, that will inevitably insinuate themselves into our working lives. And it's not just email and calendars (that can use only slightly broken standards) but completely opaque standards-free proprietary tools like OneDrive, OneNote and Yammer. Now we have lost standards-compliance and locked ourselves in, we have made it unbelievably difficult to ever change our minds, no matter how awful things get. And they will get more awful, and the costs will escalate. This makes me angry. I love my university and am furious when I see it being destroyed by avoidable idiocy.

    O365 is only one system among many similar tools that have been foisted upon us in the last couple of years, most of which are even more awful, if marginally less critical to our survival. They have replaced old, well-tailored, mostly open tools that used to just work: not brilliantly, seldom prettily, but they did the job fast and efficiently so that we didn't have to. Our new systems make us do the work for them. This is the polar opposite of why we use IT systems in the first place, and it all equates to truly lost time, lost motivation, lost creativity, lost opportunity.

    From leave reporting to reclaiming expenses to handling research contracts to managing emails, let's be very conservative indeed and say that these new baseline systems just cost us an average of an extra 30 minutes per working day per person on top of what we had before (for me, it is more like an hour, for others, more).  If the average salary of an AU employee is $70,000/year that's $5,400,000 per year in lost productivity. It's much worse than that, though, because the work that we are forced to do as a result is soul-destroying, prescriptive labour, fitting into a dominative system as a cog into a machine. I feel deeply demotivated by this, and that infects all the rest of my work. I sense similar growing disempowerment and frustration amongst most of my colleagues.

    And it's not just about the lost time of individuals. Almost always, other people in the system have to play a role that they did not play before (this is about management information systems, not just the digital tools), and there are often many iterations of double-checking and returned forms,  because people tend to be very poor cogs indeed.  For instance, the average time it takes for me to get recompense for expenses is now over 6 months, up from 2-4 weeks before. The time it takes to simply enter a claim alone is up from a few minutes to a few hours, often spread over months, and several other people's time is also taken up by this process. Likewise, leave reporting is up from 2 minutes to at least 20 minutes, usually more, involving a combination of manual emails, tortuous per-hour entry, the ability to ask for and report leave on public holidays and weekends, and a host of other evils. As a supervisor, it is another world of pain: I have lost many hours to this, compounding the 'mistakes' of others with my own (when teaching computing, one of the things I often emphasize is that there is no such thing as user error: while they can make mistakes and do weird stuff we never envisaged, it is our failure to design things right that is the problem). This is not to mention the hours spent learning the new systems, or the effects on productivity, not just in time and motivation, but in preventing us from doing what we are supposed to do at all. I am doing less research, not just because my time is taken with soul-destroying cog-work, but because it is seldom worth the hassle of claiming, or trying to manage projects using badly designed tools that fit better - though not well - in a factory. Worse, it becomes part of the culture, infecting other processes like ethics reviews, student-tutor interactions, and research & development. In an age when most of the world has shaken off the appalling, inhuman, and empirically wrong ideas of Taylorism, we are becoming more and more Taylorist. As McLuhan said, we shape our tools and our tools shape us.

    To add injury to insult, these awful things actually cost money to buy and to run -  often a lot more money than they were planned to cost, making a lot less savings or even losses, even in the IT Services department where they are justified because they are supposed to be cutting costs. For instance, O365 cost nearly three times initial estimates on which decisions were based, and it appears that it has not reduced the workload for those having to support it, nor the network traffic going in and out of the university (in fact it may be much worse), all the while costing us far more per year to access than the reliable and fully-featured elderly open source product it replaced. It also breaks a lot more. It is hard to see what we have gained here, though it is easy to see many losses.

    Technological debt

    The one justification for this suicidal stupidity is that our technological debt - the time taken to maintain, extend, and manage old systems - is unsustainable. So, if we just buy baseline tools without customization, especially if we outsource the entire management role to someone else, we save money because we don't have to do that any more.

    This is - with more than due respect - utter bullshit.

    Yes, there is a huge investment involved over years whenever we build tools to do our jobs and, yes, if we do not put enough resources into maintaining them then we will crawl to a halt because we are doing nothing but maintenance. Yes, combinatorial complexity and path dependencies mean that the maintenance burden will always continue to rise over time, at a greater-than-linear rate. The more you create, the more you have to maintain, and connections between what we create adds to the complexity. That's the price of having tools that work. That's how systems work. Get over it. That's how all technology evolves, including bureaucratic systems. Increasing complexity is inevitable and relentless in all technological systems, not withstanding the occasional paradigm shift that kind-of starts the ball rolling again. Anyone that had stuck around in an organization long enough to see the long-term effects of their interventions would know this.

    These new baseline systems are in no way different, save for one: rather than putting the work into making the machines work for us, we instead have to evolve, maintain and manage processes in which we do the work of machines. The complexity therefore impacts on every single human being that is having to enact the machine, not just developers. This is crazy. Exactly the same work has to be done, with exactly the same degree of precision as that of the machines (actually more, because we have to add procedures to deal with the errors that software is less likely to make). It's just that now it is done by slow, unreliable, fallible, amotivated human beings. For creative or problem-solving work, it would be a good thing to take tasks away from machines that humans should be doing. For mechanistic, process-driven work where human error means it breaks, it is either great madness, great stupidity, or great evil. There are no other options. At a time when our very survival is under threat, I cannot adequately express my deep horror that this is happening.

    I suspect that the problem is in a large part due to short-sighted local thinking, which is a commonplace failure in hierarchical systems, and that gets worse the deeper and more divisive the hierarchies go.  We only see our own problems without understanding or caring about where we sit in the broader system. Our IT directors believe that their job is to save money in ITS (the department dealing with IT), rather than to save money for the university. But, not only are they outsourcing our complex IT functions to cloud-based companies (a terrible idea for aforementioned reasons), they are outsourcing the work of information technologies to the rest of the university. The hierarchies mean a) that directors seldom get to see or hear of the trouble it causes, b) they mix mainly with others at or near their hierarchical level who do not see it either, and c) that they tend to see problems in caricature, not as detailed pictures of actual practices. As the hierarchies deepen and separate,  those within a branch communicate less with others in parallel branches or those more than a layer above or below. Messages between layers are, by design, distorted and filtered. The more layers, the greater the distortion. People take further actions based on local knowledge, and their actions affect the whole tree. Hierarchies are particularly awful when coupled with creative work of the sort we do at Athabasca or fields where change is frequent and necessary. They used to work OK for factories that did not vary their output much and where everything was measurable though, in modern factories, that is rarely true any more. For a university, especially one that is online and that thus lacks many of the short circuits found in physical institutions, deepening hierarchies are a recipe for disaster. I suppose that it goes without saying that Athabasca University has, over the past few years, seen a huge deepening in those hierarchies.

    True costs

    Our university is in serious financial trouble that it would not be in were it not for these systems. Even if we had kept what we had, without upgrading, we would already be many millions of dollars better off, countless thousands of hours would not have been wasted, we would be far more motivated, we would be far more creative, and we would still have some brilliant people that we have lost as a direct result of this process. All of this would be of great benefit to our students and we would be moving forwards, not backwards. We have lost vital capacity to innovate, lost vital time to care about what we are supposed to be doing rather than working out how the machine works. The concept of a university as a machine is not a great one, though there are many technological elements and processes that are needed to make it run. I prefer to think of it like an ecosystem or an organism. As an online university, our ecosystem/body is composed of people and machines (tools, processes, methods, structures, rules, etc). The machinery is just there to support and sustain the people, so they can operate as a learning community and perform their roles in educating, researching and community engagement. The more that we have to be the machines, the less efficiently the machinery will run, and the less human we can all be. It's brutal, ugly, and self-destructive.

    When will we learn that the biggest costs of IT are to its end users, not to IT Services? We customized and created the tools that we have replaced for extremely good reasons: to make our university and its systems run better, faster, more efficiently, more effectively. Our ever-growing number of new off-the-shelf and outsourced systems, that take more of our time, intellectual and emotional effort, have wasted and continue to waste countless millions of dollars, not to mention huge costs in lost motivation and ill will, not to mention in loss of creativity and caring. In the process we have lost control of our tools, lost the expertise to run them, lost the capability to innovate in the one field in which we, as an online institution, must and should have most expertise. This is killing us. Technological debt is not voided by replacing custom parts with generic pieces. It is transferred at a usurious rate of interest to those that must replace the lost functionality with human labour.

    It won't be easy to reverse this suicidal course, and I would not enjoy being the one tasked with doing so. Those who were involved in implementing these changes might find it hard to believe, because it has taken years and a great deal of pain to do so (and it is far from over yet - the madness continues), but breaking the system was hundreds of times easier than it will be to fix it. The first problem is that the proprietary junk that has been foisted upon us, especially when hosted in the cloud, is a one-way valve for our data, so it will be fiendishly hard to get it back again. Some of it will be in formats that cannot be recovered without some data loss. New ways of working that rely on new tools will have insinuated themselves, and will have to be reversed. There will be plentiful down-time, with all the associated costs. But it's not just about data. From a systems perspective this is a Humpty Dumpty problem. When you break a complex system, from a body to an ecosystem, it is almost impossible to ever restore it to the way it was. There are countless system dependencies and path dependencies, which mean that you cannot simply start replacing pieces and assume that it will all work. The order matters. Lost knowledge cannot be regained - we will need new knowledge. If we do manage to survive this vandalism to our environment, we will have to build afresh, to create a new system, not restore the old. This is going to cost a lot. Which is, of course, exactly as Microsoft and all the other proprietary vendors of our broken tools count upon. They carefully balance the cost of leaving them against what they charge. That's how it works. But we must break free of them because this is deeply, profoundly, and inevitably unsustainable.

    Jon Dron

    Jon Dron

    professional learner
    About me

    I am a full professor and Chair of the School of Computing & Information Systems, and a member of The Technology-Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. I am one of the...

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