Organization of Academia

Tower of Babel - Wikipedia
Tower of Babel – Wikipedia

The organizational model of academia has evolved to be quite dysfunctional. Universities have put up little resistance to and frequently support forceful efforts to close the Overton window of acceptable speech and discussion. The remaining opening is so narrow on many topics, that fears of getting swept up in a career ending, social media outrage driven, political correctness campaign, have resulted in lack of open and robust debate, and departure from fact-based science-backed decision making.

The STEM fields have sexism, racism, discrimination, inclusion, and attrition problems resulting from the mistreatment of many individuals and, statistically, too often mistreament of individuals from protected groups.

Drilling down to the physics academia hierarchy we see highly imbalanced power relationships, a tragic surplus of competition for the dwindling number of tenured or senior positions, intense intellectual bullying and intimidation, and generally intolerable work conditions for many individuals entering the field.

Progress on the many issues in the physics community has been slow at best. The intellectual and administrative hierarchies are each bureacracies more intent on serving their own self interest than serving the individual contributors who do the bulk of the science. There is zero accountability as long as you keep your head low and enjoy your privilege. The entire situation reeks of one requiring bold leadership from university Chancellors and Presidents to design the research and development organizations for the future and establish a strategic plan to make it happen. I believe that the paradigm shift to the NPQG era presents a tremendous opportunity to realize a new vision for science organizations, one designed for healthy power relationships and behaviours. Frankly, I would start over with a big brand new clean sheet of blank paper.

Let’s dive down a level into the hierarchical structures and organizational behaviour of academia. In particular, let’s brainstorm ideas for employment of skilled scientists and engineers. I think the gig economy is a trend that will continue to flourish. Imagine a professional gig economy emerging from a blend of the blue collar gig economy and the professional independent contractor type of employment. Many aspects of the gig economy are also present in corporate direct employment, but with a different implementation, economics, and power structure. The de-nesting of individuals from corporations is a trend that started long ago with fewer and fewer benefits and shifting compensation structures such that pay becomes the main economic connection. Somehow in all those debit-credit transactions the dealer ended up winning for the house.

Ultimately it seems that many professional jobs will be independent contractor to corporation relationships. Business to business. I think with corporate responsibility and government support for workers, a favorable set of rights could be crafted. Even without such support, the balance of power will quickly shift towards the scientists and engineers that take advantage of the opportunities enabled by NPQG.

Personally, I prefer an independent contractor relationship with a corporation, and I think the case for it is good and getting better. I want to have a negotiated employment contract agreement that protects both parties and defines all aspects of the relationship considered important by them. I would want to have non-disclosures each way. I would want pre-negotiated financial settlement indexed by early termination of the contract period. Basically I would use these contracts to implement the protections from the mistreatment that has occurred to so many employees in the ‘nest’ as direct employees. Even though this idea departs from the U.S. past practices, we must ask ourselves if the U.S. ideal has failed to materialize for many and I think the answer is quite evident. Adopting this new idea would afford contractual protections beyond that covered by employment law. Why don’t the organizations just treat people well in the first place? How did we get here? I hope historians cover this in their analysis of the GR/QM/LCDM era of physics.

When professional employment is structured on an independent contractor to corporate employer basis, it would open the door to new options and flexibility to negotiate the best deal for each party to the contract. I am sure there are many areas of flexibility possible that could establish a fair power balance and reduce tension in the relationship. Here are a few :

  • Contract term and ‘shape’. This could be very important for many,
    • Those who prefer a longer period of stability in a world where tenure is disfavored by the employer.
    • Those who prefer to be more agile with a shorter commitment.
    • Those who require flexibility during life events for themselges or their partner, i.e., parental pregnancy and birth leave, medical situations, elder care, sabbatical, etc.
  • Publication requirements,
  • Fundraising requirements,
  • Intellectual property ownership,
  • Media ownership and independence, including monetization, etc.
  • Agreement on specifics for early termination of contract, such as exceptions to standards of behaviour or speech, media statements, independent arbitration and mediation, and negotiated outcome and settlement. The idea is to thwart a mob based rush to judgement and ensure that a fair or at least legally bounded review be conducted.

I spent a decade of my four decade corporate R&D career in management roles, and I have given a lot of thought to executive, hierarchical, and management dysfunction of all ilks. As a person who is practical, down to earth (when I’m in the here and now and not imagining), and inclined to drive for rapid progress, I have experienced the poor quality of management in publicly traded companies where I worked and in those I worked with. The more I have seen and learned, the more my disappointment has grown with U.S. corporate management of publicly traded companies. Years ago, I was awed with Harvard Business Review but now, not so much. Frankly, HBR should be held accountable for the poor state of U.S. management after decades of their influence.

I don’t have the answers for excellent management paradigms, but here are a few things I would want to incorporate and test in some form or another.

  • Radical transparency, as championed by Ray Dalio. This is very hard to do and many people are ill-prepared to thrive in such ego-bare environment. Part of the beauty of it is that through radical transparency it does offer psychological safety. A matrix of characteristics of each individual and scorecard helps weight inputs to decision making All meetings are video-recorded and available to anyone in the organization. There is much more to Ray’s system and he describes it well in his outreach videos and books and has even released some of the supporting technology.
  • I think the organizational hierarchy has outlived its usefulness. There are too many points of failure in a branching hiearchy. Whether it is grift, power, discrimination, bullying, favoritism, incompetence, you name it, humans are humans. There are so many opportunities for failure in the classic branching hierarchy that I believe it needs to go.
  • I have worked with the agile structure for several years and I really like the model. Despite the objections of traditional software developers this more reactive, informal, flexible style functions well and can be adapted for many forms of professional work. There is plenty of supporting technology for workflows and automation. There are more opportunities for team participation in forming consensus and reaching decisions. Of course all of this assumes highly skilled and capable professionals, scientists, engineers, scrum masters and agile coaches.
  • I also spent quite a bit of time thinking about scaling agile organizations where groups of skilled senior members of various departments acted as highly involved team management reviewing recommendations, making level appropriate decisions, delegating responsibility, and providing guidance for the agile teams. The patterns established by the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFE) council were quite impressive in my opinion although I did not enjoy the chance to implement them.
  • So the pattern I am envisioning is as follows :
    • The executive team in one orbital structure.
    • Then parallel management team orbital structures focused on excellent operation of a scaled agile framework.
    • Then parallel agile teams each with its orbital structure.
    • Who is orbiting who? It doesn’t really matter in this structure. You can look at it bottom up, top down, side to side, and crossways. Teams report to teams. People belong to teams.
    • There are no direct managers except from the CEO to the executive team.
    • Human resources provides workflow tools for employment contract review.
    • An emphasis in this structure is empowering and scaling excellent decision making over many parallel teams while also running a highly efficient organization.

Would such a structure design be a strong foundation for healthy organizations that improve the well-being of the stakeholders? By stakeholders I mean customers, independent contracted employees (in my ideal), investors, benefactors, and the community. By community I am including corporate social responsibility and environmental improvement. The good and bad aspects of organizations derive from individuals and the emergent structures they form and populate. Can we architect new organizational structures that minimize and design out failure modes that were inherent in the legacy management hierarchies? My view is that if we can crack the code for nature and the universe, we ought to be able to form organizational structures of teams of individuals that serve to improve well being and reduce suffering of all individual stakeholders. NPQG enables the age of abundance. With abundance building our ships and powering our sails, intelligent life will have the opportunity to take the next major steps forward in evolution.

p. s.

I recommend the following conversation between Lex Fridman and Robert Proctor. Dr. Proctor has some incredibly fascinating perspectives on science and what I would call the corruption of science. Such corruption may arise based upon a confluence and variety of factors and incentives from financial, political, moral, as well as plain old ignorance combined with hubris. There are more factors that lead to corruption of science, two of which I’ve discussed at length are false priors and the lock-in of group think.