Sunday, October 01, 2006

Faculty Inservice, Fall 2006: Redesign

As I mentioned earlier, the LCC the faculty start Fall term a week and a half before the students. Besides preparing for our classes, there are many meetings called "inservices". Some are to learn new skills, such as the Starboard training I mentioned before. Others are to discuss pedagogy.

This year's inservices were dominated by discussion about the future of community colleges in the U.S. The Secretary of Education has just completed a big report on this topic (warning: last link is a PDF).

Community Colleges are terribly effective economically. (A while ago I linked to this article that sings their praises.) One estimate cited at an inservice was that the education of LCC graduates increase the county's total wage income annually by four times the amount of LCC's annual cost. (Such estimates are admittedly subjective, and in part depend upon how much Oregon's natural beauty would attract other workers if Lane county natives were too unskilled. But at the very least LCC pays for itself, and helps locals acquire good jobs locally. It is difficult to find someone in Lane county that disagrees with either point.)

The problem is not that LCC is worth its cost to fund; the problem is that LCC has very little accountability and can clearly be run more efficiently.

For example, a history of badly planned computer system upgrades has produced a current mess where the computers for the Budgeting department and the Human Resources department cannot talk to each other. Since about 80% of LCC's costs are payroll this circumstance makes it nearly impossible for the Budgeting department to do its work.

(There are plenty of other examples of structures and systems that are broken. That one is simply the easiest to understand without any background explanation.)

Since a number of "big structure" items need to change, the administration's motto for this year is Instructional Redesign.

In practice, the challenge is twofold.
  • LCC needs to redesign its workings, especially its bureaucracy, quite broadly to make it as efficient as the Secretary of Education's report requires. Otherwise redesign will in the future be forced upon the college from outside.
  • At the same time, the administration wants to avoid firing anyone. This is less of a constraint that might first appear, for I have seen that employees at LCC are unusually willing to be transferred to other departments and/or do slightly different work when the college needs to better use its human capitol.
So the administration desires a process of redesign that identifies new, productive roles for people as often as it identifies wastefully unproductive roles. The solution is to focus on instruction, which can almost always be done better with a few new roles. Thus the new motto is "Instructional Redesign", not "Fundamental Redesign".

This is not how a competitive business would go about redesign. Efficiency will increase, but will not become nearly as optimized as through a redesign model constrained only by acknowledging the company's physical infrastructure.

But if done well this plan will improve LCC enough to satisfy everyone: the Secretary of Education's report whose criteria will be met, the LCC employees who retain jobs at the college they love, and the Lane county community which realizes LCC is a net gain by any measure even as things currently stand.