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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Finnish Bureaucracy: A Case Study

One of the few ways I've found the clichés about Finland to be accurate are those involving bureaucracy and meetings.  We've had several meetings where librarians, technology staffers, international faculty orienters (rough translation of their title), and statisticians have explained to us what they think we need to know about the university.  (I was about to type "drone on and on" to us, but that would be rude.)  It's particularly funny/frustrating given the amazing guidebook that the Collegium itself gave us when we first arrived; it really does answer everything, although, now that I think about it, I should've been forewarned by the long section on organizational structure that even began that booklet.

From the point of view of a foreigner who's only here for a year, these meetings can be absolutely hysterical once you get over the mind-numbing boredom.  Let me give today's example.

Today all new fellows who are officially employees of the University of Helsinki have had to attend a 2-hour orientation of the online reporting system UH uses to keep track of all our research and other activities.  While I'm not a huge fan of administrative meetings and the numerical accounting of academic work, I understand why administrators feel they need to do it.  Besides, I'm only here for a year.  It's not my job to reform the Finnish education system!

So I sat down at 10 am with my laptop in our seminar room to learn everything I ever wanted to know about Tuhat, the accounting system.

OH     MY    GOD!
Let the mind-numbing boredom begin.

It took 20 minutes for the presenter to get us to the log in stage, because after all, we had to learn everything about the place of Tuhat in the university system, the complications of integrating it into the servers, the connections between Tuhat and the libraries, etc.  The log in section moved at usual speed, which would have been way too fast for someone who wasn't familiar with the system or a native English speaker.  I'd already gotten bored enough that I was about 8 screens ahead and coming up with a list of questions.  It has almost certainly made me annoying, although it at least made me look as if I was paying attention.

When we got to the page where we're supposed to report our publications, there was a list of ca. 10 different types of publications.  Instead of explaining the categories or telling us where to find the explanations, the presenter moved right into the most obvious category ("scientific publication," alias a research monograph).  Then the minutia festival started in earnest.

To illustrate what we were supposed to do, she asked our director to let us use his page.  Although he did so, about every 10 minutes thereafter he punctuated the meeting with comments about how this wasn't really representative because he'd spent so many years at other institutions, he hadn't imported his work into the system, etc.  It was quite sweet actually; a group of us wanted to go up and tell him not to worry, he was the Director of the Collegium, and we thought he was a good scholar.

In any case, she pulled up his article and proceeded to go through EVERY single possible permutation of the record about it, being sure to read to us every category, subcategory, and subcategory of a subcategory.  Then there were detailed discussions between her and another library staff member about how things were classified within the library system, the way the coding really looked without the nice user interface (demonstrated to us, of course), etc.  At one stage I went out to go to the bathroom, which is on a separate floor.  When I left they were discussing how to determine the best key words for a search; when I came back ... well, you guessed it: same topic.

By this time, my fellow fellows and I reverted to our undergraduate days.  I'll admit I started it--needed something to do between checking Facebook (stinks when most of my friends are in vastly different time zones!).  Emails were soon flying around the seminar room about the mind-numbingly boring and pedantic presentation.  One involved someone faking a heart attack, with the other two promising to carry him out.  Another involved a fellow just packing up at about 11:30 after sending us an email telling us that his grandmother had just had an accident.  Meanwhile, I was chiding one of our Collegium staff members who was spending time reading "The Independent" and BBC World News. :-)

My colleague with the injured grandmother missed, however, what has been the highlight of the presentation thus far.  After we finally got away from article minutia and moved to how to use this system to make our cvs--completely useless for those of us who already have a long academic life and/or who aren't going to spend their lives at universities where this system is used (Finland, Denmark, Scotland, and England--one of our chief administrators here asked a question that had clearly been bugging her for awhile: given that most of us are on short-term (1-2 year) contracts, how is she supposed to convince us that it's worthwhile for us to go through the hassle of completing this online accounting--other than through the obvious method of harassing us until we comply?  In other words, as Minna asked, what's the use of this system to people like us?  

Here's where a great aspect of Finnish style comes out.

The presenter thought for a second, looked around the group, and gave a totally honest answer: 

It isn't useful.
(At all. Period. De nada. Nichts. Ne...pas. Never in a bazillion years.)

I thought I was going to die laughing.  Let's hear it for the proverbial Finnish honesty!

I guess I'd better go back to listening to the presentation.  Yes, even after admitting it wasn't useful to us, they are debating the ways it is not useful while we're sitting here. :-)

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you found this out so soon. (It took me years to realize that nearly everything they make us do is not useful.)

    If I had several hours extra time, I would share the looong story about the bureaucracy when I got a travel grant from the University. I actually had to apply for its payment, and through a system I wasn't allowed to use! I'd still be waiting for that money (and I know some people are) if a member of the staff hadn't been so helpful and made the application for me.