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Generalists vs. the Army of Waste

In many larger organizations, there is often a push to put things in a certain “order” that administration (non-educators and non-developers) is comfortable with. In the case of higher-ed, especially with its large, cubicle-seated, vertically organized groups, there is a strong trend to divide technology into The student learning management system (LMS) that covers “all” students’ teaching and learning needs, and into The content management system (CMS) that, managed by marketing people, is meant for “administrative” websites. And, of course, research is under a separate VP and thus needs to have its own systems and staff. And so on, for all the lovely silos. The more broken down, the merrier; this system creates more bureaucracy, more reporting and analysis. It is disconnected both from within itself and from its users, so it requires more staff to keep it going, more managers and more analysts.

This approach is a very typical and also very wrong one, as the expertise and resources needed to run and support, let’s say CMS (seen as “administrative” or “marketing” tool, though some of the best research or teaching and learning websites are built using UBC  CMS), are identical to those of an open publishing framework for teaching and learning (such as blog or wiki platforms) and shouldn’t be separated – one general, flexible and robust platform is capable of responding to most web needs. To further complicate things, in the administration’s desire to do things “properly” (like mid-’70s-IT properly) we are introducing too many flavours of unnecessary overhead or waste (Lean terminology), known as learning or web strategists (my title actually, though I wear few other hats), project managers, business analysts, faculty liaisons and many other fancy names.

We work (teach, design, code…) in the environment of rapid and constant change (perpetual beta) and by building so many layers between the faculty member who wants to experiment and embrace change, and the developer who wants to give, hack and create change, we are actually killing the experiment and killing the change itself.  We kill creativity and innovation, while we are supposed to support it. By stripping down web developers to the role of only coding whatever project manager or business analyst requires (and because managers and analysts are not creators and producers, they are not in business of inventing, hacking, dreaming and designing), we kill the much needed seeds of agility and entrepreneurship and we leave very little room for linchpins in us, with hard and practical skills.

That’s the shame, because the best of Web2.0 is telling us that we need to simplify things, not over-plan or over-analyse. Hear the idea, build, measure, learn. That’s why instead of many unnecessary roles, we need developers to be more of the generalists (Scott, thanks for this find) – for typical web company that’s the person that does information architecture, UX, coding front-end, back-end, db, scaling, bit of design; at the university, it is all of that plus bit of pedagogy and learning design. Not a biggy, few months of the right exposure for a reasonably intelligent individual.

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10 thoughts on “Generalists vs. the Army of Waste

  1. barishgolland says:

    I’d have to add “Learning Eco-systems Support and Solutions Manager” to the list of fancy names you mentioned – happens to be my title. I totally agree that we need more creative thinkers, dreamers and designers in this arena, otherwise we may find ourselves being quickly surpassed by disruptive Web 2.0 innovation. I like the lego picture too, spot on.

  2. Thanks Barish. That’s the problem – we are completely clueless on just how behind we are. And we seem to be pretty relaxed about it. I guess when you don’t know the things you don’t know, you don’t need to worry!

  3. Dobar dan! Kako si ti? :)

    Interesting…though in reality there isn’t a single platform that meets all the needs–particularly of LMS teaching and learning management. Yes there are plug-ins for WP that approximate many of the functions–but they don’t make a coherent whole.

    I think you’re perhaps underselling an important element of this: ease of use for non (or poorly) supported end users–most faculty. The workflows for creating course content in some platforms means faculty often either do a poor job or skip the task entirely. Academic staff will never technology generalists in the way you describe here–even the ones in computing-focused disciplines. It’s the intersect of bandwidth and priority: for researchers, teaching often is priority last. Alas.

    Come to Auckland for 6 months and work within the scope of a faux LMS. You’ll appreciate more what a proper LMS offers. No, really…

  4. I agree with you – there isn’t and shouldn’t be just one platform. But that isn’t the point – the point is that we shouldn’t build artificial boundaries between different online activities. On the contrary – we should encourage mixing of the experiences. The best marketing for the university is the work of its community – so let’s expose that. By doing that, we are also helping students promote their work and build portfolio and careers. We are contributing to public domain and sharing knowledge that would otherwise stay locked behind the secure doors of closed LMS and then erased at the term’s end.
    So, teaching, learning, research, producing, marketing should all happily cohabitate. Often within one, same web space. The system behind it, who cares, as long as it delivers (…but the only few that can deliver on such diverse number of fronts and be easy to use and managable are WordPress, Drupal, perhaps Canvas…) And this is where generalists come in – they can see across boundaries and make meaningful contributions (understand learning design, code, UI, IA …) And this is where generalists come in – they can see across boundaries and make meaningful contributions (understand learning design, code, UI, IA …)
    Coming back to the old ‘hood any time soon? You are entering summer over there – invite me for a visit :)

  5. John Egan says:

    Was in the ‘hood in June–I’m not big on flash, attention-seeking entrances so I slithered in and out. Come on down: summer’s almost exactly like Vancouver’s except much more humid. Really nice, actually!

  6. So much to like about this post. I think you move an analysis to suggest that a set of defined “technology needs” that are defined be people who hold the role of technologist as essentially a service position (rather than a creative educator role) are a root cause of so much of the shitty educational software we are saddled with…

    Even though your indictment of manager/analysts hits a little close to home.

    Thing is, when I read “waste” here, I don’t think “lean”, I think Pynchon…

    http://cl49.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Understanding_W.A.S.T.E.

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  8. Hi Novak,

    Thanks for the post. I like your point about simplifying. Too often I think specialist orientations lead to over complicating, over building and over analysing. Probably the most important skill that a generalist can bring to the table is empathy. When we can put ourselves in the shoes of someone with an idea, help them get to the core of it and bring the skills we have together with their willingness to experiment, we’ll usually have something to build on. Hopefully, we’ll have some more good conversation about this in weeks to come!

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