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Engaging Staff

by Adam on April 9th, 2010

A lot of discussion has surrounded engaging a student population but not too much has been said about engaging staff. David Johnston said recently at the town hall meeting that staff at uWaterloo are innovative and are always asking how things could be made better in their own areas. This is great and I agree it is mainly true, however a lot of these innovations are not shared. It is entirely possible that the proverbial “wheel” is being constantly re-invented on campus.

I commented on Ryan Jacobs blog about this the other day. Here is an excerpt…

Internal conferences like WatITis help to expose innovation occurring on campus, but more needs to be done. The communication channels at uWaterloo are often ad-hoc and ineffective; mailing lists just serve to annoy. I know quite a few people who pipe mailing lists directly to a sub-folder they never review. But what is the answer? Staff at uWaterloo are very busy due to the hiring freeze, do they have time to participate in social communication? My hope is they will make time if a better format exists, we just need to discover it.

We all know that communication is important and make strides toward that goal, but is it enough? I certainly won’t be surprised when the “we’re already doing this!” comments roll in, but my point is I haven’t heard about these things.  The new Waterloo Be Engaged initiative is a great step for a key issue, its goal is to create a community surrounding student engagement. Time will tell how effective the approach will become, but I like it so far.

On the Information Systems (IS) side I am keeping my ear to the ground for similar efforts, but at the same time I am thinking of ways to help. The current mailing lists don’t really seem to be working and committees are not communities. Will forums work? I’m not sure, but it is worth a try to get things going. We are working on building a forum at web.uw for web involved staff to converse and I am hoping to summarize monthly reports from the result.  I envision the reports being posted to the mailing lists and given to interested committees such as CTSC and WAC.  Time is an issue and reading is the first thing to go when the ToDo list becomes unmanageable, but if anything this would be a start.

I am very interested to hear your opinions and any other ideas you might have!

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2 Comments
  1. I think staff engagement and contributions are critical to making uWaterloo tick (on a daily basis) and prosper (for the future). And yet, sadly, we rarely have the time or space — or proper forum! — to truly collaborate, learn from each other, and pool our collective intelligence to solve problems that are common across units.

    I hate to admit it, but I think you’re right: “the proverbial ‘wheel’ is being constantly re-invented on campus.”

    The staff conference was good for disseminating useful information and generating some positive feelings — but if anything, for me, it brought into sharp focus how isolated we all are from each other at the end of the day.

    I had to agree (reluctantly) with your observation in your comment on my post the other day: “communication channels at uWaterloo are often ad-hoc and ineffective … Staff at uWaterloo are very busy due to the hiring freeze, do they have time to participate in social communication? My hope is they will make time if a better format exists, we just need to discover it.”

    After having a full day of meetings today (six, to be precise!), I am more convinced than ever that, as you say, “staff at uWaterloo are innovative and always asking how things could be made better in their own areas.” But the reality of our disconnectedness across the organization — despite some well-intentioned attempts to bring like-minded people together (e.g., Communications Council) — means that too many really smart people are working in total isolation from each other, and not benefiting from the collective intelligence of the broader staff community.

    Surely, at the “most innovative university in Canada,” we could find some creative ways to facilitate better cross-pollination of innovative ideas and brilliant solutions!

  2. One of the reasons for the disconnectedness is, I think, an unintended consequence of a deliberate design feature. The founders wanted a decentralized structure wherein each faculty was relatively independent. I haven’t closely examined other universities, but I know that things like our IT support model certainly reflect this – I think we’re one of the most decentralized IT support organizations in Canada, with little pockets of sysadmins and web folks and help desks scattered through each of the faculties and some of the admin support units as well.

    It should come as no surprise that when you build six big silos and encourage a few more (either explicitly or otherwise), that what you get is six big silos and a few more smaller ones. Back each of those silos with a Director, Dean, or other interested individual, and you get the University of Waterloo. This is both our strength and one of our greatest weaknesses.

    One of the keys, as (I think) in many large organizations with tons of factions, is for individuals within those factions to informally gather. We’re not given many opportunities to do so formally, as you point out. I’ve used the various campus mailing lists as a startoff point for discussion, meeting with interested individuals at places like Tim’s, the Grad House, and so on, both during and after work hours. As I move around on campus (I’m in my third job now) I meet more and more people as well, and this, I believe, fosters strong inter-group ties, as well as putting faces on names.

    Part of this is my managers have given me the freedom to do so. I know that not all managers would agree; they should, and should be told to not just allow, but to encourage this.

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