Problems of service provision and why can’t I have a personalised class timetable?

The next step in my journey as a full-time Uni student happened today when I saw a notice announcing the draft class timetable. As a result I offer some commentary on the problems of “service” provision as the metaphor for many modern universities/organisations.

A personalised timetable

As with most universities, the one I’m studying at has spent a significant amount of money on a ERP. In this case PeopleSoft. This is the system that knows what courses I’m enrolled in and is used to manage just about every administrative aspect of what I do (pay money, exam timetable etc.). But, at least at the institution I’m enrolled in, it can’t generate a class timetable. Well, there’s something called a “class schedule” but it’s empty.

I remember back in the late 80s as an undergraduate trawling through the UQ handbook manually trying to find the times and locations for the classes for the courses I was enrolled in. On the plus side, UQ had the timetable set in stone with sufficient lead time to produce a printed handbook. The current institution has a draft timetable available a few weeks before the start of term.

Given the wonderfully expensive ERP systems it would make sense to me that I could login some system with my student number and the information system could find out what courses I’m enrolled in, compare that with the timetable information and generate me a personal timetable. Such a system would be easy to use, save all the students time and probably reduce instances of human error.

What I have to do

Instead of a personalised timetable system, I have to

  • Visit the institutional timetabling site;
  • Pick the right link for the 2011 draft timetable;
  • Pick the link for my campus;
  • Pick the link for the faculty to which the program I’m studying belongs to (assuming that I’m aware of this information); and
    Of course, I’m in trouble if I’ve enrolled in an elective that is run by the other faculty.
  • Manually search through a web page with timetable information for 145 courses for the four courses I’m enrolled in.
    This assumes that I know the course codes for the courses I’m enrolled in. Now I have to go look those up. Oh dear, all face-to-face sessions are on Mondays. 9 to 6 with an hours break for lunch, that should be fun.

Moving backwards

The funny thing is that the institution had a personalised timetable system around late 1999/early 2000. I should know, I helped write it and published a description of it in a paper explaining how to thrive with an ERP.

And it’s not as if that system couldn’t still work. The institution is still using the broader system that personalised timetable was a part of for other purposes and the personalised timetable system was designed to scrape data from a web page. Just like the one I had to manually trawl through above. It was smart enough to automatically update the timetable as the draft changed.

Why isn’t there one?

I was going to write something new about why the institution doesn’t have a personalised timetable system for students, but have decided to start with the explanation I gave in 2003

  • Mismatch between system owner and users.
    The system owner of the CQ timetabling system is CQU’s student administration division. Their major timetabling role is managing the allocation of space and time. Distributing this information to staff and students is a secondary smaller task of less importance. As a result the choice and use of the supporting information system is driven more by the requirements of the management role than the distribution role.
  • Organisational Silos.
    Contrary to CQU’s “one University” approach there is significant distance between CQU’s commercial and CQ campuses. There is even distance between the two largest commercial campuses, Sydney and Melbourne, and their smaller cousins at Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
  • Organisational Holes.
    There is no central software developer allocated to helping support divisions like student adminstration support and implement systems like timetabling (unless they hire their own). Instead most rely solely on the features of commercial packages that are known for their inability to integrate with other systems..
  • “Bad” technology.
    The software used on the CQ campuses is not designed to integrate with other software and offers limited support for the distribution of timetabling information. The system used at the commercial campuses is based on infrastructure that does not scale well.

Some of the details will have changed, but the categories are about right. Today, I would probably add in

  • Misaligned governance structures.
    The apparently rational and logical governance structure that guides information systems development at the institution is biased toward the senior managers located within the existing organisational structure.

The problems of service provision

Which brings me to the problems of service provision. A big part of the governance structures that have arisen within higher education institutions is based around the idea of service provision. That is, the faculty’s – the large organisational gatherings of academics – are clients of the service divisions (information technology, library, student administration, central L&T etc.). The aim of the service divisions’ is to provide the services requested by clients, and only those services. It’s generally the role of the governance structure to determine this process.

But there are problems, including:

  • The dumb idea;
    This is the situation where the professional within the client organisation knows that the request service is a “dumb idea”. But there job is not to question, there’s is to provide the service.
    For example, the situation where a senior academic leader will require a central L&T organisation to expend vast amounts of time and resources on a capstone course that has a design which requires students to write thousands of words of prose each week. The capstone course is delivered primarily to non-English speaking background students.
  • Gaming the client;
    The dumb idea problem and a range of other factors mean that the service divisions have to start “gaming the client”. One example of this is the under promise and over deliver tactic. ie. when important senior manager asks the job X be completed, the appropriate response is to explain how difficult and expensive job X will be to complete. This generally involves lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth before finally agreeing to try, but reinforcing that it probably can’t be done. At which stage the service provider assigns one of the junior programmers the 10 minutes required to complete the task. Once complete, and at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner the impossible task is revealed as completed.

    There is a reason why experienced service provision divisions employ special “client liaisons” who have significant similarity with used car salesmen.

  • Blame the budget;
    This one generally occurs in the 2nd half of the budget year and involves a great deal of agreement about the value and importance of the requested task before explaining how it could be done, if only we had the resources/money. This is typically followed by the suggestion of getting together to generate a joint proposal for the next budget to ensure that the necessary resources are available. The success of this budget proposal ensures the purchase of The machine that goes ping
  • The next version will do that;
    This is a special, prevalent example of “blame the budget” usually invoked with enterprise information systems. In these situations it is usually considered inappropriate to mention that simply because the next version will have this feature, that doesn’t mean the organisation will ever be able to complete the tasks necessary for the feature to be usable. For example, the “class schedule” feature in the ERP at the start of this post.
  • The thicko client liaison;
    This is where the service provider’s representative in the governance structure (either a client service manager or the head of the service provider, depending on how many other senior institutional managers are in the room) says “yea” or “nay” to some request without realising that the request is either utterly impossible (always when they said “yea, we can do that”) or is almost trivially simple (always when they said “no, that can’t be done”).

    This is why client liaison folk absolutely hate having the technical expert in the room with clients. They inject too much knowledge into the conversation.

  • Fall between the cracks;
    Since representation in the governance structure is based on the organisational structure and limited to appropriately senior folk, there are significant problems and opportunities that are never seen and fall between the cracks. This is the problem which I think the personalised timetable above suffers from.
  • Everyone is different;
    If a service provider has to deal with x clients. Then every “widget” the service provider puts in place will have x versions. One for each client. One potential example is the case of 2 student handbooks (where 2 equals the number of faculties) I mentioned previously.
  • If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
    This is a particular problem when it comes to fads and fashions. For example, if the current fad is e-portfolios or iPads, then every time a client asks the central L&T division for advice, there’s a chance the answer will be “e-portfolios” or “iPads”. In the case of IT divisions the answer will almost always be one of: ERP, CRM, LMS, Data warehouse, student portal, staff portal etc.

What are the problems I’ve missed?

Conclusions

The above argument is not to suggest that “service” divisions shouldn’t aim to perform the tasks required by their clients. I lived through an organisation where one of the service divisions dictated too much. It’s a worse situation.

But it is to argue that the “client/service” metaphor is far from perfect. It creates a power differential that encourages, often even requires, the weaker party (usually the service provider) to work around the stronger party. It is to argue that the focus should be on developing better metaphors (e.g. teamwork, partnership), while at the same time realising that nothing will ever be perfect and it will require hard work, collaboration and good does of cynicism.

3 thoughts on “Problems of service provision and why can’t I have a personalised class timetable?

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