From INORMS to new norms: the future of work

The sign of good conference is one that challenges you to think differently, to think about a problem in a different way. Happily, one of these is the conference of the annual event of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA), this year held this June in Edinburgh.

It was a time to lift my head up above the grant applications, forget the worries over REF and share time with people who know their FEC rate and aren’t afraid to use it. And this year was set to be even more informative than usual as it was ARMA’s turn to host the biennial international meeting for the network of international societies of research administrators (known as INORMS).

As I set off, I checked my conference app with my personalised agenda. It’s always hard choosing sessions but if the one I was in didn’t hold my attention, I could always check my Twitter feed for comments on those I couldn’t attend. I had to sneak out for a bit for a teleconference with a couple of colleagues, but that is modern working life. Going off to a conference is no longer about getting away from the office. Let’s not forget updating Facebook to show my friends how great Edinburgh was looking.

Given my fixation with technology, it might not be a surprise that I choose a session on the future shape of work. It started with a retrospective on how technology has changed university administration. Going off to a conference used to mean being entirely shut away from the world; true no longer. Back in the office, my first job involved writing lots of memos. Admittedly these were written on computer but there was no point emailing them, as email systems couldn’t cope with attachments and very few staff had a computer to receive the message. HESA returns were just being launched and REF (then RAS) returns were printed out on a dot matrix printer and delivered to HEFCE by transit van.

Memo to self

I can’t remember this last time I wrote a memo. I’m writing an article for a blog, encouraged by someone I’ve only spoken to via Google hangouts. Email is now seen as a such a curse that we have Slack to avoid it, planning is done via Trello, collaborative tools mean colleagues can critique my documents whilst I’m still writing them. Data floats on clouds and staff can send apologies for meetings from the Australian outback. Meanwhile, in another session, my colleague got to experience the latest in video conferencing, a virtual reality system.

What of the future and a discussion on what systems we would like? Why hasn’t anyone produced a system to automatically minuting meetings, or an online assistant for report writing, or one that automatically fill in forms for us? If we can have computer programmes that write academic papers, albeit badly, why not one that can write and cost grant applications? What we are all struggling to find is the system that takes away the most boring elements of our work.

But this is the point where the conversations started to take a darker point. Has technology really helped or is it sometimes “a solution in search of a problem” as one of the presenters suggested? How many times has the cry gone up that what we really need to fix a problem is a technological solution, rather than the more mundane solution of focussing on poor processes. There were dark mutterings about new systems, which seem fantastic at the start, but turn into a beast that you have to keep feeding with more and more data, but which you can’t get anything useful out of. I bet you all had at least one reminder from an online app that you’d forgotten about using once until a GDPR remainder appeared. We spend time worrying about the use of metrics to assess outputs, but how will we feel about some artificial intelligence system being developed to review research grant applications? A time saving idea? Or does being judged by a computer make you twitch?

The personal touch

Given the tedium and stress that I used to experience having to do exam timetabling by hand, I can’t deny that technology has improved my working (and personal life) immensely. I like to think that my conference attending has been improved by social media and other apps. But perhaps it isn’t the time to ditch the pen and paper just yet. Electronic to-do lists are fine, but there is a joy in a handwritten list, where you can physically cross off the tasks you have completed. I’m also a fan of visual minutes as a way of capturing the essence of an event and some of my favourite moments in the conference were the face-to-face discussions. This is probably why, when I was asked about my favourite collaboration tool, I said coffee and cake. Get interesting people together in a room and watch the sparks fly.

And I’m going to be honest, even if the technology has advanced to the point where I could attend the next INORMS in Hiroshima virtually, by Skype or virtual reality headset, I’d really, really much prefer to visit the place in real life. Anyone else think otherwise?

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