Wandering Thoughts archives


Explaining some university staff peculiarities

I think that universities not having a return on investment as such may go at least part of the way to explain some weird university behaviors around staff. The core issue is that without an ROI it becomes difficult to see the cost of how staff spend their time.

(With a ROI for projects it is easy to see how having staff spend their time on a lower-ROI activity more or less directly costs you money.)

Not only does this effectively make staff into a constant sunk cost regardless of what you have them do, it means that it is very hard to cost-justify spending more money on a problem when you could just throw staff time at it. Until something gives way explosively, one side has at most fuzzy costs while the other side has very firm numbers; unless the firm numbers are small, you can guess which side is likely to win.

(One degenerate case is that if you just use staff time, you don't have to persuade someone to give you more money.)

Without being able to clearly assign costs or benefits to staff activities, a university lacks good signals on what is a sensible allocation of staff time. As a result, it is easy to slip into what an outsider would consider very peculiar decisions about what (expensive) staff spend their time doing, because staff time is as likely to be decided by what people can do as by what people should do.

(This is not just an issue of management; even if the staff themselves are making the decisions and want to make smart ones, they can be at least as lost in the forest as everyone else.)

tech/UniversitiesSunkStaff written at 23:56:16; Add Comment

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