About productivity as well...

I have just received a link from the John Sviokla blog about a study on productivity. However, in this case is nothing directly related to forest, but rather linked to our performance as researchers.

The summary says that: "(i)n our work so far, we've discovered the primary difference in how (employees) do work is that they have the power to shape their work environment — which means that they can customize, upgrade, and even create new information technology to propel their productivity", and adds: "(...) Yet many firms — in their desire to save money by creating "standard" information environments — actually hamper the potential productivity of their knowledge workers. It's the knowledge work equivalent of outlawing backhoes."

I found this a very interesting idea, and it is explained in a very easy way to understand. The resulting lessons can have many applications in our every-day research. (I believe that for many researchers, although otherwise very logical, has been a constant source of frustration to deal with their e.g. IT services). You can find here the whole article.

(A final question: Is the reverse of a bit-smith a bit-neck?)

Epilog: About bit-necks

The tragedy of the standardization carried out by the IT services (aka known as ATK keskus in some circles) is that potentially creates a very vicious circle. We have to analyse in detail the situation: the idea is to reduce costs and risks by standardising the computer systems and software, so the people in charge to maintain these systems can operate faster and with a good knowledge of the situation. If the software possibilities are reduced and common for everybody, the licenses can be better negotiated for possible price reductions and the IT staff can be trained with more precision to be ready for these specific problems. The system therefore leads to a standardisation and a strong hierarchysation where the decisions are centralised in a reduced amount of people.

The objective of this structure is to provide a good and efficient service, at a reduced cost. However, we all know that many ideas that work well in the theoretical level do not necessarily have the expected consequences. That usually happens when good objectives are not followed by good mechanisms that incentive the good practices and avoid excesses. Are there mechanisms working in this scheme? Some people could argue that the interest of these small and reduced IT decision makers is to simplify their own job, so they can avoid great responsibilities and excessive work load. Therefore, is in their interest to transfer the responsibilities of maintenance to the companies that supply software or equipment. At the same time, by simplifying the options and the decision freedom of the final user, they act in a relatively safe environment where they can easily deny alternatives that would cause additional work load or risks for their teams.

The structure then leads to a progressive increment of the decision power of these IT decision makers at the expense of the final user. In addition, the fear of a security crack adds convincing arguments to the IT decision makers, that can use at any step of the negotiation with the user. The objective of “good service” for the user is the replaced for the objective of “safe and simple”.

But in research this situation is not desirable at all. At the universities and research centres, thinking and working in alternative ways is an important value that leads to advances in research. The freedom to configure alternative software options, to develop programmes, to create different computer environments are core values. All these and many more possible alternatives can not be forecasted by the minds of these reduced IT decision makers (or IT planners) and, in addition, is not in their interest to try to forecast these needs as they lack the incentives to do so. They turn reactive to the situations.

This generates frustration among researchers, as they have to deal with more bureaucracy and restrictions associated to their computer systems, which reduce their capabilities and productivity. Many researchers prefer to buy their own computers and software, which then contradicts the main idea of reducing costs. Strictly speaking, the university and the IT can show a cost reduction (as the alternative laptops and software are paid by other budgets or by the researchers themselves), but in practice, that has been a consequence of a total failure of the IT service as such. The researchers that have to deal with this bureaucracy (and that have not yet surrender to its diktat) then require more time of the IT services in order to find solutions to their needs inside the restrictive environment created by the IT services, as the researcher needs to ask for permissions (administrative rights, specific licenses…) that otherwise could have been solving by themselves. This results in a more frequent dependence of the IT services, which become overloaded and demand additional technicians and staff, which increases their weight and power inside the Faculties, and yet again suppose additional costs.

The result of this vicious dynamics is a reduction of the productivity, a reduction of the quality of the research, and a terrible increase of costs, among others, which are at the same time very difficult to quantify and evaluate. The system results in unexpected consequences.


  1. Pretty well said. All this reflects a compromise between economy and quality. The path of reducing costs may only lead to more cost reduction measures. And quality will suffer no matter how many quality assurance guides are written.

  2. Thanks Andrés! I guess reducing cost is necessary. But it is also a matter of efficient measures and mechanisms. The idea is how to decentralise the decisions to get closer to the user needs... and to reduce costs at the same time.
    I understand that IT requires a very complex management, but my idea is that concentrating almost all decisions in a very small group of people cannot a good idea: there is no cost reduction (bureaucracy increases) and there is no good service (bureaucracy increases).

    One last though: Why is it called "IT Centre" instead of "IT Servcices"?