Battling Administrivia Using an Intramural Question & Answer Forum

The life of a modern academic involves juggling many disparate tasks, and like a computer using more physical memory than it has, swapping between various tasks leads to inefficiency and low performance in our jobs. Personally, the time fragmentation and friction induced by transitioning from task to task seems to be one of the main sources of stress in my work life.  The main reason for this is that many daily tasks on my to-do list are essential but fiddly and time-consuming administrivia (placing orders, filling in forms, entering marks into a database) that prevent me from getting to the things that I enjoy about being an academic: doing research, interacting with students, reading papers, etc.

I would go so far as to say that the mismatch between the desires of most academics and the reality of their jobs is the main source of academic “burnout” and low morale in what otherwise should be an awesome profession. I would also venture that administrivia is one of the major sources of the long hours we endure, since after wading through the “chaff”, we will (dammit!) put in the time on nights and weekends for the things we are most passionate about to sustain our souls. And based on the frequency of sentiments relating to this topic flowing through my Twitter feed, I’d say the negative impact of adminsitrivia is a pervasive problem in modern academic life, not restricted to any one institute.

While it is tempting to propose ameliorating the administrivia problem by simply eliminating bureaucracy, the growth of the administrative sector in higher education makes this solution a virtual impossibility. I have ultimately become resigned to the fact that the fundamentally inefficient nature of university bureaucracy cannot be structurally reformed and begun to seek other solutions to make my work life better. In doing so, I believe I’ve hit on a simple solution to the adminstrivia problem that I’m hoping might help others as well. In fact, I’m now convinced this solution is simple and powerful enough to actually be effective.

Accepting that it cannot be fully eliminated, my view is that the key to reducing the time and morale burden of administrivia is to realize that most routine tasks in University life are just protocols that require some amount of tacit knowledge about policies or procedures. Thus, all that is needed to reduce the negative impact of administrivia to its lowest possible level is to develop a system whereby accurate and relevant protocols can be placed at one’s fingertips so that they can be completed as fast as possible. The problem is that such protocols either don’t exist, don’t exist in a written form, or exist as scattered documents across various filesystems and offices that you have to expend substantial time finding. So how do we develop such protocols without generating more bureaucracy and exacerbating the problem we are attempting to solve?

My source of inspiration for ameliorating administrivia with minimal overhead comes from the positive experiences I have had using online Question and Answering (Q & A) forums based on the Stack Exchange model (principally the BioStars site for answering questions about bioinformatics).  For those not familiar with such systems, the Q & A model popularized by the Stack Exchange platform (and its clones) is a system that allows questions to be asked and answers to be voted on, moderated, edited and commented on in a very intuitive and user-friendly manner. For some reason I am not able to fully explain, the engineering behind the Q & A model naturally facilitates both knowledge exchange and community building in a way that is on the whole extremely positive, and seems to prevent the worst aspects of human nature commonly found on older internet forums and commenting systems.

So here is my proposal to battling the impact of academic administrivia: implement an intramural, University-specific Q & A forum for academic and administrative staff to pose and answer each other’s practical questions, converting tacit knowledge stored in people’s heads, inboxes and intranets into a single knowledge-bank that can be efficiently used and re-used by others who have the same queries. The need for an “intramural” solution and the reason this strategy cannot be applied globally, as it has for Linux administration, Poker or Biblical Hermeneutics, is that Universities (for better or worse) have their own local policies and procedures that can’t be easily shared or benefit from general worldwide input.

We have been piloting the use of the Open Source Question Answer (OSQA) platform (a clone of Stack Exchange) among a subset of our faculty for about a year, with good uptake and virtually unanimous endorsement from everyone who has used it. We currently require a real name policy for users, have limited the system to questions of procedure only, and have encouraged users to answer their own questions after solving burdensome tasks. To make things easy to administer technically, we are using an out of the box virtual machine of OSQA provided by Bitnami. The anonymized screenshot below gives a flavor of the banal, yet time-consuming queries that arise repeatedly in our institution that such a system makes easier to accomplish. I trust colleagues at other institutions will find similar tasks frustratingly familiar.

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The main reason I am posting this idea now is that I am scheduled to give a demo and presentation to my Dean and management team this week to propose rolling this system out to a wider audience. In preparation for this pitch, I’ve been trying to assemble a list of pros and cons that I am sure is incomplete and would benefit from the input of other people familiar with how Universities and Q & A platforms work.

The pros of an intramural Q & A platform for battling administrivia I’ve come up with so far include:

  • Increasing efficiency, leading to higher productivity for both academic and administrative staff;
  • Reducing the sense of frustration about bureaucratic tasks, leading to higher morale;
  • Improving sense of empowerment and community among academic and administrative staff;
  • Providing better documentation of procedures and policies;
  • Serving as an “aide memoire”;
  • Aiding the success of junior academic staff;
  • Ameliorating the effects of administrative turnover;
  • Providing a platform for people who may not speak up in staff meetings to contribute;
  • Allows “best practice” to emerge through crowd-sourcing;
  • Identifying common problems that should be prioritized for improvement;
  • Identifying like-minded problem solvers in a big institution;
  • Integrating easily around existing IT platforms;
  • Ability to be deployed at any scale (lab group, department, faculty, school, etc.)
  • Allows information to be accessible 24/7 when admininstrative offices are closed (H/T @jdenavascues).

I confess struggling to find true cons, but these might include (rejoinders in parentheses):

  • Security risks (can be solved with proper administration and authentication)
  • Inappropriate content (real name policy should minimize, can be solved with proper moderation);
  • Answers might be “impolitic” (real name policy should minimize, can be solved with proper moderation; H/T @DrLabRatOry)
  • Time wasting (unlikely since whole point is to enhance productivity);
  • Lack of uptake (even if the 90-9-1 rule applies, it is an improvement on the status quo);
  • Perceived as threat to administrative staff (far from it, this approach benefits administrative staff as much as academic staff);
  • Information could be come stale (can be solved with proper moderation and periodic updating).

I’d be very interested to get feedback from others about this general strategy (especially by Tues PM 17 Sep 2013), thoughts on related efforts, or how intramural Q & A platforms could be used in other ways in an academic setting beyond battling administrivia in the comments below.

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13 thoughts on “Battling Administrivia Using an Intramural Question & Answer Forum

    • I think it will take some time for any formal recognition about contributions made through such a system. But informally, people are already expression gratitude to each other for having posted useful information, both on the system and in person. I’ll take this goodwill as “credit” anyday, though.

  1. I am right now preparing my first submission as PI and I could not have this idea in better regard!

    I have needed to pester senior faculty (mentors and collaborators) to work out the rules and while they have been very helpful, having a place where to ask questions would have been an advantage.

    I can see a further practical advantage: with time, many questions one may have will be already answered in the forum, where they can be accessed 24/7. This would be great when deadlines are looming and people around you may not be available with short notice.

    • Cheers Joaquín! Having just come through the “junior” phase myself and struggling to come to grips with all the procedures needed to start a group is actually the main motivation for setting this system up. If something like this had been in place when I started, the last 5+ years of my life would have been a lot more productive and pleasant.

      Excellent point about the 24/7 availability. Given that we are often working late to hit deadlines or catch up on backlogs when offices are closed, having this knowledge available at any time of day is a big plus. It’s on the list now.

  2. This is a great idea.

    How does it cope with identical questions, posed in different ways – I assume this needs a human to identify them as synonymous?

    There is a lot of knowledge embodied in individuals – so linking to the appropriate knowledge holder may be useful. I am not sure “pestering” is a problem in the case of a grant application: much of info is part and parcel of learning how to polish an application. However, here again we are not effective: where is that up to date list of “people who know X”?

    • The platform automatically text indexes each post by content and user supplied “tags”, then generates set of posts with high similarity (displayed on the right hand side of the screen when browsing). Related questions are also displayed to the user when entering a new question, which is helpful for preventing redundant posting. Redundant posting does happen in bigger online forums, but usually a senior moderator will link to an old post and close the new one to prevent answers from getting scattered among different posts.

      Part of the great thing about the StackExchange/OSQA model is that users can also be editors and moderators, which allows off-topic/inappropriate/redundant information to be edited by multiple people in the community, often in real time. This feature really enables community interation and helps focus what the forum should (and shouldn’t) be about. In an academic work setting, I think it will be important to have several senior moderators (admins) who represent various interest groups in the Unviersity, and can make sure that content properly reflects all aspects of the organization. I’m hoping that where real differences in philosophy arise in how to moderate/admin the system, they will be used to identify pinch-points for wider structural improvements in the University.

  3. Excellent idea! Obviously a great asset for us junior staff, but what’s the motivation for more senior people to contribute (given they have a lot of experience). Trying to think of ways of selling it to then.

    • Well, I’d hope that increasing the productivity, morale and retention of junior staff would be incentive enough : ). You could argue that it will ultimately reduce their workload, since they only have to answer a question once rather than N times. Additionally, I’m finding the system is an excellent place to make notes to myself for how to complete rare tasks (e.g. poster printing), so it might make their own (future) lives easier as well. Finally, the “kudos” system might be enticing to some, regardless of seniority. I think the “why contribute” issue is important, but won’t be restricted to any particular group. Any amount of contribution should be valuable, and the more useful the content is, the more engagement there from all ranks will be I suppose.

      • Especially if login to the server were linked to other uni account details (so I don’t have to remember another password), I could see (for me and I guess for others) the “useful place to keep notes to myself that could be useful to others” a useful angle for promoting it’s use; I use a wordpress site to keep track of “open” how-tos for myself, having something like this for relevant “internal” how-tos sounds like it could be handy even without lots of other users being involved (thus getting over some of the problems of starting having something like this perceived as really useful even without lots of users)

        I also love the community-building aspect to this – people who maybe don’t even know each other, in similar positions, may get to know each other this way, in a context where they’re all already helping each other, could be a great source of pleasant, useful, internal professional contacts, which can be soooooo hard to promote.

        Love this idea, would be really interested to hear of an update to this once it has been going longer.

      • Thanks for your comments Aidan, it sounds like we have very similar views of how such a system could promote organizational efficiency and cohesion.

        You also hit on one of the key technical issues to achieve before the system can be rolled out more widely – linking it into our standard university authentication systems. This is important both for ease of use, but also to ensure real user identities. In fact this point was one of the key things to come out of my presentation to our management team, and one of the things I need to work on in the next phase of the project.

        Similarly, we also identified that to get the system to work in a professional setting, it will be necessary to formally describe what the rules are for use, as well as the responsibilities (i.e. “job description”) are for “admins”. I hadn’t anticipated this latter issue in the pilot phase of this project, but it is one that I realize now is needed to get commitment from, and allow time to be allocated by, a core set of staff who play a more intensive role in the building of the knowledgebase.

        I’ll keep you posted as we roll along with this project…

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