[NB: VIDEO is now available here. The talk has gotten an astonishingly wide and positive reaction, which is very gratifying for my ego. So much so, in fact, that I may simply abandon the LII and wander the Earth, like Kwai-Chang Caine, righting wrongs and spouting incomprehensible but wise-sounding gibberish. I hope you enjoy it. I did.]
I’ve had a number of requests for the text of my CALICON10 plenary talk, and so I am posting the raw text here. Viewing it would be preferable — I’m posting this hastily, and will not have time to include the slides or video clips, which are important to understanding what is going on.
Knowing my tendency to mumble, however, I thought the actual text might be useful to some even once the video is up. It varies a little from what was actually said.
A final note: a lot of what I said about professions and social groups was taken from Andrew Abbott’s The System of Professions, which I first encountered in 1990 in a seminar taught by the techno-ethnographer Steve Barley at Cornell. Dick Danner drew on it heavily in his article, but was perhaps a little shy in his embrace of what Abbott has to say about subordinated professions. A second reference I’d recommend to anyone seeking to actually do anything about any of the stuff I yap about here is Influence Without Authority, a management classic in which the two quotes at the end of the talk appear — and which I first encountered on the bookshelf of a law librarian.
So, who wants me to talk about student printing?
[SLIDE : R RATING]
The template for a goat-roping like this one requires that I tell you how honored I am to be speaking here today. And for once that is truer than you can possibly know. This is a privilege. And I intend to abuse it.
A long time ago — twenty years, six months, and twenty days — I stood in front of an AALS meeting room in San Francisco and made the case for a gathering of technologists working in law schools. Unsuccessfully.
AALS proved not to be the vehicle for gatherings of technologists, as it is not the vehicle for so many things. But a few months later, CALI — in the person of Ron Staudt — stepped forward and offered to host the first of these conferences. John Mayer, who began as the computing director at Chicago-Kent, has been the impresario and guiding spirit of this conference from the beginning, and later became the Executive Director of CALI. For those who are wondering, he is not the Earl of Kent I will talk about today. Nor did he really spend time in a Turkish prison.
Disclaimers first. I have no law degree. I am no kind of librarian. I have no formal education in computer science. More to the point, I have not run a law-school technology operation for nearly 18 years and I no longer have the slightest idea how that is done.
This will not be a comfy chat, either for me or for some of you, because law schools are often uncomfortable places for many who work to make them better. This is a talk for people who want to use technology in innovative, focussed ways, but who instead operate under vague mandates to keep everybody happy.
[[ SLIDE: ROD SERLING ]]
It is a talk for anyone who has ever sat in a meeting wondering at what precise moment Rod Serling is going to step out and confirm that you have entered some academic, bureaucratic Twilight Zone. It is a talk for people who are not allowed to do what they are asked to do, who have been tied to a chair and commanded to dance.
And above all it’s a talk for all of you who are sitting in the back row, fiddling with a Linux laptop,vaguely aware that some pompous old fart is droning away at the lighted end of the room and hoping the whole thing will be over soon so you can go talk to somebody about some fucked-up thing that PHP is doing.
The Earl of Kent
Now, I went to drama school. When you tell people that I think they imagine something like a 3-year series of sexual adventures with actresses — or actors — punctuated with an occasional class where people paint their faces white and practice pulling on imaginary ropes. But they don’t have the nerve to ask you about that. Instead, they ask you who your favorite Shakespeare character is.
You need to be careful about your answer if you want to look like you know what you’re talking about. Hamlet? Ptui. Too easy. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, satisfyingly obscure but a little cute, what with Stoppard and all. Coriolanus? Good for some riotous gags based on the name, but on the whole, nah.
That’s how I always end up with the Earl of Kent. He’s in a well-known play — Lear — he’s visible enough that people might remember him, although they usually confuse him with Gloucester, who gets his eyes put out in a much juicier scene that was a sort of Elizabethan version of 24. But he’s also obscure enough to make me look like an aficionado. And, as it happens, Kent really is my favorite character in Shakespeare.
We’ll see him in action in a minute. But first, how many don’t know the plot of King Lear?
Here’s what SparkNotes says:
Lear, the ruler of Britain, enters his throne room and announces his plan to divide the kingdom among his three daughters. He intends to give up the responsibilities of government and spend his old age visiting his children. He commands his daughters to say which of them loves him the most, promising to give the greatest share to that daughter.
Lear’s scheming older daughters, Goneril and Regan, respond to his test with overblown flattery. But Cordelia, Lear’s youngest (and favorite) daughter, refuses to speak. In response, Lear flies into a rage, disowns Cordelia, and divides her share of the kingdom between her two sisters.
And it is at that point that we pick up the action. Let’s watch.
[[SLIDE: KENT CLIP]]
So, to put all that in more familiar terms: Kent disagrees with the Dean about the way in which he’s allocating the budget and dividing up administrative responsibilities. The Dean thinks that Kent is talking about things that are way above his pay grade, fires him – with a severance package – and tells him to clean out his desk and be gone by close of business.
Make no mistake: this was a shocking scene in its day. Lear is doing things that kings should never do, and Kent is calling him on it.
For Shakespeare, the guiding spirit of a company called “the King’s Men”, this was theatrical nitroglycerin. It needed careful handling. He had to establish Kent’s loyalty beyond question, so that Kent’s questioning of Lear would be acceptable. That is why he gives us Kent’s resume as brave soldier and faithful servant, and why the director of this production shows him following the outward forms of obedience by kneeling even as he is disciplined — nearly killed — for disagreeing with the King’s decision.
Who is Kent supposed to be loyal to? Lear, himself? Lear as occupant of the throne? The institution of kingship? The kingdom? I’d say that it’s all of those, and that Kent is in effect a meditation on which of them is most important. As he steps outside his position in the social order, the focus is thrown on his judgement. Like any good lawyer, he is trying to save the client from himself. He raises questions about service.
[SLIDE: GAS JOCKEY]
As you have probably guessed by now, I intend to talk about service. It would be hard to do that without a passing nod to the recent exchange of papers between Dick Danner and James Donovan. They have been arguing about professionalism and law librarianship.
These papers have a lot to say, and it is hard to summarize them in a way that is not too obviously self-serving. And although they are papers about librarians and libraries, I’d ask you to filter what I say a bit and imagine that I am talking about technologists and technology. The two are very different in some ways, but in some ways they are not.
Donovan had the choice of weapons at the start of this duel, and he chooses loaded language to describe the positions — a so-called “weak’ model of librarianship, which holds service to the patron as its goal; and a so-called “strong” model, that honors a lofty professional ideal and assumes a higher calling in the construction of libraries as a kind of cultural museum. The fight is about which of the models is a better response to technologies that threaten to make librarians irrelevant. Search engines in general, and Google in particular, are held up as Satanic poster children.
The essence of Donovan’s argument is in this quote:
“The future of libraries therefore depends upon which of two responses are taken to patrons’ demands for Google-like experiences. The weak model will capitulate in the belief that the librarian’s highest obligation is to satisfy the patron on his own terms; the strong model will not allow these pressures to detract from other obligations of the profession, which looks to the construction of socially useful institutions of cultural knowledge.”
Danner is harder to summarize, mostly because his arguments are more nuanced even as they range much more widely. In general, Danner is a realist. He knows technology is here and can’t be fended off by building monuments. He is seeking other ways for librarians to respond to the changes it brings in the particular tasks that librarians perform. The claim — and I think he’s right — is that although the objects librarians treat and the techniques they use to treat them will inevitably change, there are fundamental activities that will not. Those activities are no less fundamental just because they seem slightly vague and abstract when we try to describe them in ways that will survive beyond the technologies of the moment. And while Donovan starts the fight by pushing Danner into a corner labelled “service”, I do not think that the service Dick wants to offer is unquestioning fulfillment of every user whim. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
There are three points worth noting here.
This is a longstanding argument in sociology and organizational behavior, and it sets up a contrast between servant and priest that can be applied to practically any workplace group. Arguments about what professions are and how they come and go and who gets to be one and who doesn’t are never permanently resolved.
Neither Danner nor Donovan take much notion of the context in which libraries exist. They seem to be talking about a dysfunctional love triangle whose members are individual librarians, patrons, and librarian aspirations. That discussion takes place in and around something called a library, which appears to be floating in space. One would have us see the library as a monument to culture; the other as a service center. Neither puts the library in a law school, a law firm , or any other context.
The facts of modern institutional life are otherwise. Librarians and technologists are institutional employees and they are stewards of institutional resources. It would be very hard for them to pursue their activities without law schools to buy the books and computers and assemble an audience for them. There are exceptions, of course — the Jenkins Law Library, which stands not too far from where we are now, is a great example. But for the most part libraries and technology departments are parts of larger enterprises, and the people who steer them spend much of their time as managers of — and as competitors for — budgets, space, and personnel.
[SLIDE: SOCIAL DISTORTION]
Both positions are easily distorted. Donovan kicks it off by referring to the models as “strong” and “weak”. But it just won’t stop there. A service model can be easily caricatured as creating a class of co-dependent, passive-aggressive servants — and is often corrupted by the status structure of law schools toward exactly that unhappy result. Donovan’s strong, values-centered model can be seen as the establishment of a self-serving priesthood whose devotions take no account of larger institutional priorities or the needs of those it imagines to be among its faithful — and is often corrupted by people with a poor grasp of user needs to do exactly that.
And there are some examples. Long ago, one Ivy League law school had a network administrator who made the faculty take exams before he would let them on “his” network. And most people find that a Latin High Mass is easier to understand than a geek’s explanation of what has gone wrong with some thing on the network. On the other side of the fence, I once heard somebody tell a room full of people at this very conference that she had to create document folders and subfolders on the hard drives of her faculty members because they could not be expected to do it themselves. And the stunning thing was that nobody started yelling “MY GOD WOMAN DON’T YOU HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO?”
Law schools don’t need priests and they do not need lackeys. Law-school reality is both more complex and much simpler. Real activities in real workplaces in real law schools involve competition for institutional resources, the abilities of individuals, and continual bargaining between service providers and service consumers about what consumers can be expected to do for themselves. Those bargains get made differently in different places at different times, and they are constantly renegotiated in the face of change. We usually point to technology as the disruptor, but in fact the shopfloor realities are conditioned by personalities, by organizational structure, by the availability of services from third parties in the larger University, on the Internet, or in the private sector, and by a rising level of user comfort with technology among many other things.
[SLIDE: WHO CARES?]
Those are the complexities. There is a simpler, far more important part that we can only get at by asking just why the hell anyone cares about any of this.
In my experience, most of us don’t think about professions most of the time. We just get up and drag ass to work, whether we’re law teachers or opera singers or technologists or librarians or plumbers. We like to go to work if that is a place where our expertise is respected. And if we are not respected and we see ourselves as having little control over the very things for which we are held responsible, all of us get very, very unhappy. At the simplest level talk about professional models is nothing more and nothing less — on both sides — than displaced anxiety about where we stand in the workplace. Librarians have, for a long time, been able to draw some comfort and stability from trappings built up around the technology of print. That is going away. Technologists never had such a stable place to stand. And universities and law schools are particularly anxious workplaces now.
So maybe we should spend less time debating professional models and concentrate on why it is that we need to talk about them so badly. One way to investigate that is to concentrate on the question of independent judgement and on when, and why, and how it is exercised. I was surprised that neither Donovan nor Danner explored this question in any detail. And I brought along the Earl of Kent this morning because he provides such a dramatic example of what I am talking about. No Dean has ever skewered an IT director with a sword, even in the wake of an e-mail system collapse. But the exercise of independent judgement, particularly by technologists, remains problematic. It is the kernel in the middle of a complex set of institutional and cultural problems that prevent effective communication and interaction between the different groups that every law school must house.
Simply put, independent professional judgment is the ability to recommend or to do what the client needs rather than what the client says they want. On the surface, it’s simple.
But in modern society, even in uncontestably professional fields like law and medicine, that is almost always a matter of negotiation rather than something that arises a priori from roles. These days, patients shop for doctors, and clients shop for lawyers and they do so from a position of strength — the more so as the Internet and services like WebMD reduce information asymmetries. Indeed law school classrooms may be one of the last places on the planet where it is presumed that all the expertise is at one end of the room. Even there it seems fragile, as fears about WiFi and students with laptops reveal.
Why should anybody care?
First, without mutual respect, it is impossible to have any kind of effective collaboration. That is especially true when the collaboration has to occur across status boundaries. Second, any effective attempt at stewardship of school resources demands similar respect. Where there is competition for finite resources, someone is going to have to be told “No”. That “no” needs to be given for good reasons and it needs to be respected; the alternative is at best a kind of tragedy of the commons where attempts to satisfy everyone end up satisfying no one.
Finally, dismissing the expertise of others can be really, really expensive. Here’s one that cost about $50 billion. The man testifying to Congress is Harry Markopolos. He tried unsuccessfully for nine years to get the SEC to take action against Bernie Madoff (I apologize for the bad sound, which is on every clip I could find)
[[SLIDE: The Markopolos Case. ]]
In his written testimony, Markopolos put this much more clearly : “SEC securities lawyers did not want to hear from a non-lawyer SEC staffer like Mr. Manion with 25 years of trading and portfolio management experience. As much as Boston’s financial community looks up to and respects Ed Manion, that’s how much the SEC lawyers looked down upon and ignored Mr. Manion’s repeated requests for SEC enforcement action against Mr. Madoff.”
I chose this highly loaded, unfair example both because it is so very dramatic and because Harry Markopolos is so thoroughly convinced that the problem was lawyer arrogance at the SEC. A more detached observer might see less arrogance, and instead look at the corrosive effects of bureaucracy on people who are strongly process-oriented by virtue of their professional training. Another might talk about the difficulty of communication between two professional cultures. One of those cultures is called to action when it finds funny things in those numbers that pile up around any kind of engineering, financial or otherwise. The other culture is most persuaded by how well or poorly the problem fits with process and precedent.
Just to be clear, I do realize that I am talking about three things at once: the exercise of independent judgment, a more general problem of communication across workplace cultures, and the idea that collaboration is somehow essential to the law school enterprise. These things are tightly bound together. The honest exchange that forms the basis of collaboration is impossible without mutual respect. And I am no different from most people in that I see those things that have been essential to my own successes as equally important to everyone else.
A lot of what I have been able to do over the last 18 years has been the product of a remarkably comfortable collaboration with a law teacher and former Dean. And one of the things that has struck Peter Martin and I most forcibly over the years is just how reluctant everyone else was to see our work as a collaboration. We have laughed about this a lot. To many law faculty, the LII was always something Peter Martin did with the help of a capable if wild-eyed servant. And at geek-gatherings the LII was always a technical project that Tom Bruce did despite having to carry a law professor on his back. Whatever the perception, the LII was, is, and always will be a product of strong collaborations among many people, and those collaborations have become the lens through which I see professional work in law schools.
Sadly, collaborations are not easy to pull off. The reasons are built into the institutional terrain, into micro-transactions between individuals, and everything in between. Let me catalog a few.
[[SLIDE: WORKPLACE CULTURE]]
For all that academic institutions value freedom of speech, plain speaking is not really part of the culture. Recently, I heard a Cornell administrator describe a particular committee structure as a “triumph of consensus over accountability”. That is as true of the ways we talk to each other as it is of the larger processes in which that talk takes place. Plain speaking that is seen as confrontational in law schools simply would not be seen that way in other workplaces. There is no doubt that tact is a necessary form of social lubrication, but there is also such a thing as an excessive emphasis on the possibility that someone, somewhere might find the bald statement of a fact unwelcome. It is hard to be the bearer of any urgent information, let alone bad news.
Up until a few years ago, law schools had very limited experience with other professional cultures. Multidisciplinary collaborations are now changing that among faculty. But when technologists began to come on the scene in the mid- to late 1980s, there had been no experience with a new professional group inside law schools since the advent of law librarians at the turn of the last century. The ground rules in place at the time were not particularly helpful to technologists.
Partly, that was because all prior experience had been with groups whose flagship technology was well understood. Familiar technologies like print are invisible, and unfamiliar, unstable technologies are as highly visible as they are hard to predict and to manage. Technology and technologists have stuck out at least in part because what they do is unfamiliar, there is no settled method by which they do it, and there is a great need for experimentation. That is because the technology itself moves at a dizzying pace and because the expectations of technology users are not only constantly rising, but are strongly conditioned by what they see in a marketplace that extends well beyond the law school. Students arrive each year with a bewildering array of devices that they expect to be able to use as part of their legal education. And if the technologies are strange, the technologists are even stranger. There are ways in which they just don’t fit.
[SLIDE: DRAWN AND QUARTERED] Peter Martin once pointed out to me a longstanding and important belief that membership in the club called “faculty” brings with it benefits that are equally shared among the members. There is equal access to library books, to research assistants, to travel money, and so on. That’s a rule honored in the breach, but there is a basic notion of equity in at least some things. Technologists are not so easily shared.
That plays out in an interesting way when we look at frontline support. I shudder to think how much time the people in this room have spent trying to create both real and imaginary equity in the way that help-desk requests are processed. The fact is that user support is an inherently inequitable process and a politically dangerous one. It is inequitable because the least capable users are the most demanding, and the most capable users are the most fun to play with. That risks excluding the middle, and in this political environment as in so many others that is simply unwise. The uproar that greets the failure of an e-mail system is testimony to this. Of course an e-mail failure is a disaster. But the response to it becomes more vehement because most users, the ones in the middle, are thinking, “You know, I don’t ask for much from these guys, but at least they could keep the DAMN EMAIL SYSTEM RUNNING”.
The fact is that we expect technologists to exercise independent judgement in determining what gets serviced and how and when, and we almost never like the way they do that if we are the ones having a problem. And sometimes we don’t know, or don’t stop to think about, just how thinly spread the shared technologist resource actually is.
Many years ago I did a consulting gig for a small law school where things had gone badly wrong, on all sides. One of the groups I interviewed was a faculty technology committee that was hell-bent on giving beepers to the technology staff so that their problems would be responded to immediately. I had only one question about that: whether or not they wanted to be the person whose problem was being worked on when the beeper went off. Seen from that point of view, the beepers were much less popular.
A corollary to the idea the technologists are shareable is the idea that technologists are interchangeable, or should be. Mostly this is an impatient reaction to having problems referred from one technician to another; there’s an idea that any technician I grab should be willing and able to solve any problem I might pose. That is unlikely to happen at any price point that law schools can afford, and so compromise is necessary. And like all compromises that result in a less than perfectly responsive system, this one needs to be understood by all those who are affected by it.
[SLIDE: A few dozen servants ]
While we are on the subject of resources, it’s worth keeping in mind that lot of management is simply good playground behavior. Most technology managers learn quickly that you shouldn’t bring gum to school unless you bring enough for everybody, but that isn’t always possible. And that leads to resource competition among faculty members who are in any event highly competitive, and who in many institutions see themselves increasingly as independent contractors. Over time, this competition hardens into the belief that the law school is a zero-sum status game in which anyone’s gain in status is made at the expense of someone else. On this view, command over resources becomes important less because the resources themselves are important than because possession of them is a clear indicator of enhanced status.
That is a particularly pernicious belief and technologists are not the only ones who have to deal with it. Most Deans and Deanlets know that the on the morning after everyone finally has one of something there will be some son of a bitch — usually, in fact, the same son of a bitch – who will show up in her office wanting two.
[[SLIDE: LOST logo ]]
Law schools have a hard time evaluating the work of technologists, and so they have a hard time managing them and the programs they supervise.
Senior administrators often don’t know a lot about what IT people do, how to figure out whether they are doing it well or not, or how to make IT work in the interests of the institution. But they have to have something to steer by, and that can lead to problems. Many institutions evaluate their IT departments exclusively by random sampling of the “happiness factor” among users, particularly faculty users. End user satisfaction is important, to be sure. But so is avoiding overreaction to particular end users who can never be satisfied, and to those who use strategic behavior around the presumed sins of the IT department to advance private political agendas.
[[SLIDE: lemming butt]]
When it comes to institutional strategy, far too much reliance is placed on what other law schools are doing, and far too little on the particular needs and opportunities of particular institutions. I’m a great believer in information sharing — that’s why conferences like this one are worth doing. But when things reach the point where the only acceptable evidence of merit is the fact that some other law school is doing it — at that point our view of technology is a wide-screen view of the butt of the lemming in front of us.
By the way, never, ever search Google images for “lemming butt” with safe search turned off.
I see furious keyboarding in the back row. Did you guys find the Kim Kardashian picture yet?
[[SLIDE: CYLON ]]
As to the technologists themselves: How do you know a good one from a bad one? What would a good one look like, anyway?
Senior administrators are hard put to answer those questions. So they get very, very nervous and inclined to look for some credentialing method that seems familiar. It is easier to think that you can manage technologists just like a group you already understand, and that the good ones should look a lot like you. But loading up the job description with prerequisites drawn from everyone’s list of comfy credentials has never been an especially good way of hiring the talent that you really need. And if you can’t be sure you’re hiring the right people, you can at least put the entire department under the supervision of someone or something that is familiar.
So technology gets placed under someone who kind of knows about all that stuff, or gets put under committee review, or given to someone with more acceptable credentials. This creates apparatus that is often more familiar than functional. Like anybody else, technologists find it difficult to be supervised by people who don’t understand what they do. That can lead to an uneasy sense that the school thinks technology is too important to be run by anyone who knows anything about it. There is probably not much that can or should be done about that, and I’ll have more to say about that later.
In many cases, the net result of all this is that the entire deep strategy becomes “just keep everybody happy”, and that is never realistic. That also makes it alarmingly easy for administrators to make decisions for which others are ultimately held accountable, and to offer little protection to subordinates when clients and customers act out.
Every organization needs to ensure that its people can exercise some control over the things for which they are responsible, and frankly law schools are not especially good at that. And the management of technology is vulnerable to externally-created expectations that don’t play well against institutional realities. HL Mencken once remarked that a wealthy man is one who earns more than his brother-in-law. Most technologists have long since concluded that, so far as end users are concerned, anyone’s brother-in-law knows more about computers than they do. Similarly, any institution where a troublesome faculty member has just been on a one-semester visit becomes enshrined as a place whose technology rivals that of the Starship Enterprise.
[[SLIDE: FIRST STONE ]]
I have thrown a lot of stones here, and it’s worth pointing out that neither I nor any other technologist is without sin. Most of those sins are centered either in the belief in technology for its own sake, or in poor consulting skills.
I say “consulting skills” because people talk all the time about “communication skills” and that’s only part of the problem. Awareness of what a law school does and how it does it are crucial.
[[SLIDE: JOBLESS MEN]]
How many people here are involved in projects that involve your alumni and placement offices, and were started in the last year? None appear on the program. And yet you’d think everyone here would be, given that the biggest external threat to any law school right now is the shrinking market for its product.
[[SLIDE: WE SPEAK GIBBERISH]]
Technical people — whether they work with computers, or fix cars, or teach law — often don’t explain things well. Some of this is lack of social skills; some of it is lack of communication skills; and some of it is a kind of joie de vivre that comes along with expertise. Most often, it is a radical misunderstanding of what users want to hear by way of explanation, made worse by user impatience at actually having to learn anything.
For a while, I found it easier to explain all networking problems by blaming them on sunspots on Neptune; it sounded sort of scientific, and the users who realized it was not a serious explanation thought it was a sort of funny shorthand for “I can’t possibly explain this to you in the time you have”. And so it was. But too often technologists really do speak a separate language.
At the worst, this separate language and institutional blindness combine, and harden into a separate culture with its own language. Sometimes this is simply baffling techno-gibberish; these days, it is just as likely to be management-speak full of words like “enterprise”, “partnering”, or “core competency”. Both are the language of priests and gatekeepers, not of consultants and collaborators. The LII is not immune to this; we once hired a fundraiser who was perpetually baffled by phrases like “winter has been taken out of the cluster so that its back end can resync”. At least she was honest about it, which improved our internal communication enormously. I am not honest about it, and Dan Nagy believes that I still understand the mail he sends me. Please, nobody tell him.
We are all familiar with technology-for-its-own-sake in the form of the wildly misguided experiment. There was, for example, the law school that wanted to use online chat as a teaching tool in one of its classes. Finding it too difficult to support chat clients on students’ home computers, they installed a chat client on all the computers in one 30 seat lab, where they held class via keyboard.
More often, though, technologists practice technology for its own sake because that is what interests them. They wouldn’t be technologists if it didn’t. But they need to understand that this makes them sometimes seem both out of touch and far too easy to bribe. It’s amazing how much you can buy with a bigger monitor.
[[ SLIDE: POUTING]]
I said I would return to the problem of technologists being managed by nontechnologists, and this is a good time because at root it really is a communication problem. Sooner or later anyone working at any level of any organization is going to be saddled with a supervisor who needs to be educated. Educating supervisors about operational realities is simply a requirement in most organizations, whether the organization knows it or not, and whether the staff knows it or not. Technologists need to make every effort to communicate clearly up the hierarchy — and if the organization persistently fails to listen, leave. It does no good to pout, though of course we all do.
[SLIDE: daggers visual]
Many bad acts that screw up organizations are just too petty to catalog in a talk like this. I think of them as tiny little daggers. Slights, snubs, and acts of individual arrogance are inevitable, particularly in law schools. I think law schools are stupid when they ignore such injuries, because the effect is cumulative. You could think of them as repetitive stress disorders. It does not take much of this sort of thing to make a workplace dysfunctional, and that is especially true when a few bad actors can act out without consequences. That creates a cynical resentment that is all the more resilient because it gets slathered with platitudes about “developing consensus”, “respecting differences”, and my personal favorite, “being a team player”. None of those are bad ideas, except when they result in the treatment of symptoms rather than disease, or covering up real problems with corporate cliches. There may be no “I” in team, but there is a “U” in suck.
Is this just carping? No. No, it isn’t. And if I’ve been scolding it’s with a larger purpose in mind.
I believe that law schools are facing a period of highly disruptive change over which they will have a great deal less control than they think. It will last far longer than they think it will, and it may be permanent. A free-market alarmist might say, at this point, that 1 in 4 law schools needs to go away and that the survivors need to cut their tuitions in half. That’s a radical statement of a radical view, but I think few would deny that big changes are coming for many of us, whether as a result of direct economic pressure on our institutions or because legal jobs are going away and large employers are rethinking their business models. So that’s scary in itself, but what is really scary is the fact that no resolution of the situation will be stable. Legal education may not be significantly downsized — but it will almost certainly be globalized, commodified, reorganized, and repriced. That will happen again and again at what will seem like dizzying speeds, though in fact the pace of change will be far slower than it would be outside academia.
American business — and particularly American management science — began to deal with this kind of volatility in the mid 1980’s. Two years before this conference began, Peter Drucker wrote in the Harvard Business Review that [SLIDE]
Every enterprise is composed of people with different skills and knowledge doing many different kinds of work. For that reason, it must be built on communication and individual responsibility. Each member has to think through what he or she aims to accomplish — and make sure that associates know and understand that aim. Each has to think through what he or she owes to others — and make sure that others understand and approve. Each has to think through what is needed by others — and make sure others know what is expected of them.
and Rosabeth Moss Kanter remarked that [SLIDE]
This new kind of hero .. must learn to operate without the might of the hierarchy behind them. The crutch of authority must be thrown away and replaced by their own ability to make relationships, to use influence, and to work with others to achieve results.
By contrast, I work in a place that once had a food fight over whether or not a pre-tenure visiting faculty member was allowed to use the word “colleagues” as the salutation in a memo. He was trying to organize a faculty-student softball game.
In her 1995 commencement address to a small college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Judith Martin — a/k/a Miss Manners — remarked that societal concern with etiquette becomes greatest during times of social upheaval and cultural change. I hope that we will find a new etiquette that supports communication across hierarchy – one that rewards initiative — rather than allowing the etiquette we have now to harden into creative paralysis.
As to the “crutch of authority”, I would add only that lack of authority can also be a crutch. ” You know, what can you do? It’ll never change. Why bother?” Good questions. But if we are willing to bother, if we are willing to bother people by being unmannerly when Lear is mad, then here are some ways to do it.
[SLIDE: how to bother]
Stop the turf wars
We are fighting turf wars that have their roots in fears about the erosion of professional work, anxieties about status, and very real competition for resources. They need to be replaced by clear functional analysis that asks who is most capable of what, and what should be bought and what should be built. That analysis needs to take place without regard to existing departmental lines, and it must assess needs without respect to rank.
Communicate directly and honestly, especially about capacity
Organizations talk to themselves constantly about what they are able to do. Sometimes they are less than honest. We pad budgets knowing they’ll be cut. We skew our organizations excessively toward “customer service”, using the help desk as a way to patch systems that would not need repair had they not been planned by people distracted by help desk calls. We do too much underpromising and overdelivering when we should just be promising and delivering.
We don’t talk about failures nearly enough, because it is not safe enough to fail, let alone talk about it in polite company. Good organizations fail all the time and the best ones learn from it. Constant, inexpensive experimentation, even with a fair share of failures, is far cheaper for the organization than ponderous commitee-laden approval processes, memoranda, strategic plans, and so on. There is a zone between heedless and hidebound and the price of staying in it is that things go wrong some of the time. So what?
Reward, or at least respond to, innovation
We need to pay attention to innovation and we need to respond to it rationally. The recent history of legal education is littered with innovations whose potential either went unrecognized or unfulfilled. There is a world of useful technique out there and we are still putting up Powerpoints and talking about whether it would be seemly to evaluate students outside the exam period, or let them bring a basic professional tool into the classroom.
For twenty years now, this conference has existed as a space where there is the potential for honest conversation between law teachers, law librarians, and law school technologists. We all share a common curiosity and a common purpose. This conference has things to show and tell that are worth seeing and hearing.
Too often we sing to the choir, just as I have at times been doing here. Honest conversations are hard. But the most meaningful conversations, the ones that over the long run bring the greatest rewards, are difficult to begin. They start with misunderstandings or with news that the parties find uncomfortable, with things that both just can’t help but say. They are risky. I hope that some of those conversations — or at least the mutual reconnaissance that leads to them — will start here in the next few days. And if Kent is unmannerly, well, big fucking deal.
[[SLIDE: FINIS ]]