At one of our regular Thursday seminars earlier this year, the speaker repeated what we have often heard more casually: the productivity of an academic worker goes down when assigned administrative tasks; administration is not productive work.
Remarks to that effect pass for platitudes, seldom questioned. Yet, if one dispenses with prejudiced frames for a moment and gives it a second deliberate thought, it should seem a paradox. Administration is not productive work? Why ever not? The answer lies in the definition of what is being produced. The seminar speaker implied an assumption. That particular piece of research was concerned with producing new knowledge – publishing. Naturally, administration of taught programmes adds little to research output and the assumption is quite valid.
If we look at academia more broadly, however, the product can be variously defined. Here at our institute, we offer graduate programmes. That is the other product, aside from research. The fiddly business of concatenating appropriate metrics for the combined product stream is a different matter. But if we were to acknowledge that the taught part of our product catalogue is a ‘well-administered graduate programme’, suddenly the very definition of the product deems administration a core productive activity.
That is not to make a point exclusively about what we value in academia, although the above is hardly a trivial point. There is a larger discussion. Assessing productivity has much to do with how products are defined. And defining products has to do with value propositions.
Take cars. (What else? Indeed, nothing is more symbolic of the old economic paradigm. But this is to connect to words of a promising young scientist I have closely followed for a while. He uses the example of cars. And it ties in nicely with the last two posts on this blog.) You leave home every day at 0830, arrive at office 0850 and park your car. Your neighbour leaves at 0910, arrives 0925, and parks. Your colleague has a lunch appointment at a hotel near your house, leaves 1225, arrives 1245, parks. All the cars parked for hours do not provide anyone with any value. Usually, they are just taking up precious space, arguably a drain on the economy if anything.
In a more wired world, where sensors at home and office and in phones and vehicles could coordinate and synchronize it all for us beautifully, we could share cars. Fewer cars would need to be produced to give equivalent or greater value. Why then be in the business of selling cars? Why not be in the business of selling person-kilometres? At my old institute (IIIEE at Lund University), we were accustomed to asking questions of that sort. At my current institute (UNU at Maastricht), would we not want to accordingly recalibrate the study of productivity?
We are nearly there – a world where less is more, a world with a more sustainable economic engine. We ought to redefine value propositions, products, productivity, and yes, our bread-winning term for the creation of new value – innovation.
by Sachin Kumar BADKAS, PhD fellow, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. Images: Flickr / E.Weaver / R.Zymurgy