Collaborative Efficiency in Higher Education


Hang around college faculty and administrators and you will hear lots of talk about collaboration, participation, and shared governance. You might also hear talk of increasing demands on faculty time, time wasted in meetings, frustration with low quality analyses and reports (and the bad decisions they support). Something you probably will not hear mentioned are new tools and procedures for improving collaboration. In this essay I introduce several tools and techniques commonly used in other organizational realms that might profitably be adopted in higher education.

Six Common Problems

Imagine you are given an assignment: quickly list things that you have seen in your job at a small liberal arts college that fit the categories “annoying,” “frustrating,” “waste of time,” “inefficient,” “poor quality product.” How long would it take you? Here are six I will address below.

  1. Surprise Negative Backlash When New Policy Announced

  2. Email Cascades Among Committee Members

  3. Bad Data Analyses Create Illusion of Information

  4. Administrative/Committee Reports Do Not Meet Even Lax Scholarly Standards

  5. Logistics of Collaboration More Important Than Results

  6. Documentation Failures Create Ignorant Communities

Surprise Negative Backlash When New Policy Announced

A group of deans comes up with a new set of titles for non-tenure-track appointments. When it is announced, all hell breaks loose; it turns out they have managed to offend just about every subgroup in the college with their solution. Or a proposal for a new major is well thought out by three faculty members but it is completely shot down by an odd coalition of colleagues from a completely different division.

A common response to these experiences is to form larger committees, but that just invites all the pathologies of large committees (see section X).

Email Cascades Among Committee Members

A committee member sends an email raising an issue about discussion at the last meeting, ccing all. Another committee member responds hastily, and then another. Then a fourth one sees the last email but doesn’t look at the previous two and responds to the sender without CCing. The recipient of this email replies to whole group but most members have not seen the previous email. And so it goes, all in the space of two hours. Then later that day one member who was away from her email writes a missive about the process. And so on and so on.

Bad Data Analyses Create Illusion of Information

A chart or table is put up on the screen by a committee chair or administrator and you think “that’s a bad chart” or “I wonder where that came from” or “hmmmm, that doesn’t seem quite right”? But neither the chart itself nor the person showing it can explain where the data came from or who made it. Despite these shortcomings people seem to buy into it as support for that bad new policy being proposed.

Administrative Reports/Analyses that Would Not Stand Up to Normal Scholarly Standards

One of the biggest reasons to doubt we are doing well in the teaching of critical thinking is the complete absence of in our work as stewards of our institutions. Most of the reports and proposals we produce and committee conversations we engage in do not come up to even the lowest of intellectual standards. Clarity, coherence, and logic are not required. Most of our analytical work is carried out as if the results simply do not matter.

Logistics of Collaboration More Important Than Results

An observant wit once noted that “collaboration is an unnatural act.” But when we decide to work together, it is rare for any resources to be devoted to the task beyond the challenge of finding a time when eveyrone can meet. Even though everyone of us rants about time wasted in meetings, the most aggressive thing we have ever done about it is use a doodle pool to pick a good time for the meeting.

Lack of Documentation Standards leads to Community Information Base Pathologies

How many times have you received an announcement or proposal of a new policy or a report from some administrative office with no date, no indication of who the author is or under whose authority the document has been distributed? How often do you get attachments with file names like “report.docx”? How often can no one find any copy of the minutes of a meeting from last semester? How often do we produce documents that incorrectly incorporate something from faculty handbooks or course catalog? How many different ways is “advanced seminar” abbreviated in our databases?

Surprise Negative Backlash When New Policy Announced

Email Cascades Among Committee Members