Analysis of Existing "Administrative Culture"


This element of the model was presented as a paper at the annual conference of the Society for College and University Planning , August 3, 1992, and at EDUCOM on October 30, 1992 (in a joint presentation with Steve Relyea, UCSD, and Richard Katz, UC Office of the President). The presentation/paper (of which an edited version follows) was entitled Implementation of "Sustaining Excellence." This paper benefitted from extensive input and review from key "customers," particularly the Campus Academic Business Officers.

Implementation of "Sustaining Excellence"*

In a university, there is no way to dictate process transformation top-down, due to the cultural inability of the university to move monolithically (ignoring the question of whether it would be desirable to do so). Successful implementation of the "Sustaining Excellence" framework requires us to consider how different we are from the corporations from which we are importing management concepts. Most of these corporations could produce an understandable profit and loss statement, organization chart, and mission statement. In our case, directives and authority may work in our administrative services and student services organizations, but most of the "administrative" effort of the university takes place in numerous, widespread, and loosely-coupled deans' offices, departmental offices, and administrative offices of research units large enough to support such staffing. The term "loosely-coupled" is not meant to disparage. My point is that the "tools" that are effective to induce change in these diverse administrative settings may differ from those that work in a corporate culture. (Of course, some process-improvement tools can be used successfully in both environments.)

The Role of Policy

Many administrative functions in the university are loosely-coupled to the authority structure but, in remarkable contrast, are rather tightly-coupled to the policy structure, which embodies an impersonal type of authority. The reason that the policy structure inspires as much respect as it does in such a diffuse, non-authoritarian setting stems from (1) reasons of expediency (getting transactions through other parts of the organization that adhere more strictly to a policy infrastructure); (2) avoidance of audit problems (for policies that stem from auditable external regulation -- especially ones that could produce disallowances, regulatory interference, or public embarrassment); (3) avoidance of disputes (for personnel, contractual, EH&S, and procurement practices that can result in grievances, administrative appeals, regulatory penalties, or litigation if procedural flaws are challenged); (4) inherent respect (to the extent that policy is seen as the embodiment of Regental intentions, ethical business practices, or professional standards); and (5) perhaps simply because the structure of personal authority is "loosely-coupled."

From the standpoint of a departmental administrative officer, the window on administration is mainly the policy interface, and the systems which link a department to the larger administrative apparatus (which embody inherent policy), rather than a hierarchical line of delegated managerial authority.

Accountability in the University Setting

All of this changes "accountability" compared to the concept we sometimes uncritically import from other settings. Accountability in the university necessarily takes on a different form, in terms of accountability for what, and to whom. In fact, administrative staff in academic units show great loyalty and commitment to the form of excellence in research or teaching that is typically a shared understanding in such settings, and the "accountability" one consistently observes is alignment of decisions and transactions with the particular form of academic excellence that is valued at the subunit level. In fact, this accountability is so high that there is limited regard for institutional-level statements of mission, and little tolerance for policies that are not supportive of local goals. Inside this "high boundary," loyalty is not to the University of X, but to School X, Department Y, or Research Institute Z. This is real results-oriented accountability at the unit level -- the kind of internalized accountability that the corporate sector works hard to instill. How administrative functions are performed in these loosely-coupled units is secondary to the localized sense of mission. Accountability for "how" in terms of transactions that are policy-compliant, audit-ready, fund-appropriate, and legal, stems largely from the everyday desire of administrative staff to interface without conflict with other staff who are closer to the center of the administrative apparatus -- people who have more of a control perspective than a service perspective, between which stalemates are a hazard to be avoided. With decentralized accountabilities linked to localized missions, and given a "loosely-coupled" authority structure, the policy infrastructure assumes a pivotal role in either enabling administrative transformation, or frustrating it.

A central concept in the "Sustaining Excellence" framework is that employees will be empowered and held accountable to do more responsible tasks at lower levels in the organization. This means that they need access to a particular kind of policy structure -- one that is results-oriented rather than means-limited; one that is understandable rather than requiring administrative specialists to interpret it; and one that is electronically accessible, so that it can be up-to-date, widely disseminated, and interrogated quickly using the kinds of tools that search text and do instantaneous cross-referencing. Without this kind of policy system, it will be difficult to delegate responsibilities to lower organizational levels -- particularly in the presence of auditors, who will see lower delegation of responsibilities without policy accessibility as falling short of the basic essentials for "accountability." Although audits often call for more redundancy, more checking, additional signatures, and more subdivision of tasks, if auditors thought that people at the "transaction level" had access to the kind of policy system outlined above, they would recognize real accountability instead of what they know is often the illusion of control, in practice.

In addition, we need to rewrite many policies that are transactionally specific, of which some should not even be called "policies." Many policies are procedural because of the way they stemmed from federal regulations and specific audit findings. Considerable negotiation will be necessary with federal contract officers and auditors in order to migrate transactions from a pre-authorization mode to a post-audit model.

"Bottom-Up" vs. "Top-Down" Strategies

Campus experience in response to "Sustaining Excellence" suggests strongly that administrative transformation has to be both "bottom-up" and "top-down." The latter includes what is typically described as "re-engineering" of administrative processes, which aims to remove big systemic bites in order to attain big savings. The "bottom-up" approach looks at transactional-level symptoms, and shares some of the characteristics of "total quality management" programs; its gains constitute cost-benefit improvements at the margin (not to deny their significance, as many such improvements add up to a worthwhile impact).

These approaches are opposites in terms of most of their attributes, but not in terms of objectives. At UCI, a "bottom-up" approach must accompany a "top-down" approach for four reasons: First, "top-down" re-engineering is a management-driven process that is not necessarily consensus-seeking. In our institutional culture, re-engineering would be alienating if not accompanied by a "bottom-up" process that enables individuals, who need to feel like stakeholders with something to gain as well as to lose. Second, viewing a system through its "output" can reveal needed structural changes that extend well beyond transactional refinements of localized "symptoms." Third, many staff feel overworked and under-appreciated; however, most recognize that some of their workload stems from overly bureaucratic policies or processes. Fourth, both "top-down" and "bottom-up" analytic perspectives are required in order to inform process transformation.

Bureaucracies produce systems of rules, policies, and procedures that attempt to anticipate every outcome and to provide for their resolution in a manner that embodies perceived fairness for everyone. In practice, this is impossible, and nonconforming problems that materialize "at the bottom" surface at much higher levels for either one-time executive resolution or "top-down" systemic innovation. "Sustaining Excellence" requires a system that distributes authority as well as responsibility -- not merely a vague notion of empowering individuals. Discrimination in the ability to respond at the "transaction level" is a management objective, rather than bureaucratic uniformity. Engaging staff to find different ways of working which shed redundant functions and streamline their efforts will support both process transformation and morale.

Avoid Mixed Messages Through Clear Actions, Values

Although the message from the top must say "the status quo is not viable," it must be sensitive not to suggest other messages that staff will easily infer, such as "you're not doing it right." The best way to avoid the latter inference is by action, not words -- by setting a tenor that "we don't have all the answers." Real transformation of administrative functions requires a willingness to be critically evaluative of the status quo. The culture which supports this kind of action-oriented introspection is characterized by a simple value that must emanate from the top down, from the President: that in this administration no one is rewarded for looking good at someone else's expense. Rather, people are dedicated to each others' success. This is the essence of teamwork. In a bureaucracy, when people feel that they can be rewarded by looking good at the expense of another, they use information for its tactical value -- to make themselves or their boss look good, to make someone else look bad, to garner insights that some other part of the organization lacks, or to appear heroic by "discovering" the critical data at just the right moment.

Avoiding "Management by Slogan"

Vague and lofty rhetoric about "new paradigms" and private-sector successes has obscured the need for a crisp, insightful, location-specific model that can actually be applied by a campus endeavoring to fundamentally improve its performance of administrative functions. UCI managers and employees are notably intolerant of much of the language of "TQM," "CQI," and "BPR" programs, reflecting the view that some of this language has become an impediment to the thoughtful application of analysis and judgment to improve operations -- reduced, at worst, to simple answers that amount to "management by slogan." One of Deming's principles is to eliminate slogans, exhortations, and workplace targets that call for zero defects or new levels of productivity. These only serve to create adversarial relationships, since quality and productivity problems are rooted in the system of management, largely beyond the power of the workforce. Of course, this systemic view is at the core of "TQM" and "BPR" programs. Nonetheless, at UCI neutral, jargon-free, underexposed language will constitute an important feature of a credible process improvement program that will draw out the organization's best efforts.

Consistency and Coherence

Consistency and coherence are essential attributes of any management change model that aims to change "administrative culture." When people sense even the slightest inconsistency or incoherence in the "new rules of the game," they retreat to the safety of status-quo behaviors. Coherence calls for a complete, fully integrated set of goals, foundations, and tools that together strike a balance between technical and behavioral dimensions. The "coherent" management change model contains strong elements in each cell of the following table.

Goals & Objectives Foundations & Principles Streamlining Tools
Technical Dimensions (data-based, technological elements, and protocols) x x x
Behavioral Dimensions (value-based, beliefs, rewards, normas, etc.) x x x

Coherence in a management change model means that no essential pieces are missing, and that all components of the model -- symbols, premises, implicit values, rewards, communications, and improvement tools and protocols -- are painstakingly consistent.