Monday, September 17, 2012

One Major Reason College (The Institution) Will Change

Once upon a time, I worked at a big company with a lot of people I really liked. But there was a problem: everybody agreed that the people in Customer Service were assholes. They changed the web site unpredictably and ignored us when we told them not to.

In fact, these people were changing the web site because this was 1998, and we had a weekly rollout schedule for new text changes. We had a complex publishing system written in Perl, which I had been brought on to maintain, and the Customer Service people didn't have access to it and wouldn't have understood it if they had. The publishing system was responsible for creating the help pages that the Customer Service people knew about, but also for creating contextual help pop-ups which Customer Service usually forgot about completely.

Deprived of the ability to participate in the existing system, and facing repeated calls about the same incorrect content, they corrected the content they knew about, and not only left other content to rot -- with the result that the help site contradicted the help pop-ups -- but also routinely saw their own changes automatically overwritten by this publishing system which they had no access to.

Consequently, everybody in Customer Service "knew" that my department was full of assholes.

I rebuilt the system into a CMS, before I had ever heard of a CMS, and set it up with a clearly-defined workflow, including permissions and an approval process, which gave them the ability to change the root content while depriving them of the ability to change the final output.

This solved the whole problem, because what was really going on was that the earlier, crappier system had enforced a poorly-conceived workflow which made problems inevitable.

This is why college, the institution, will change in the near future.

Software doesn't just make it easier or quicker to do things; it also encodes workflows. In my story, encoding workflows created peace and cooperation, but that's not the only thing that encoding workflows in software can accomplish.

The space between learning a technical skill and learning how to exercise that skill effectively is the distance between a student and a professional. It used to be space you could only cover with apprenticeship or training. But software tools like GitHub, and my own little primordial CMS, can build workflows into their design.

This happens already and is the major point of the widely misunderstood Reality Is Broken, the closest thing the gamification "scene" has to a manifesto. It will only increase in future.

Well-done workflow design is like an experienced mentor guiding you through every step of a process. It is as rare as any other kind of well-done design, but it is also as crucial a competitive advantage as any other kind of well-done design, and also as easily mass-produced as any other kind of well-done design. The easier it becomes to operate with the guidance of automated mentors, the less important it becomes to study with human mentors before beginning your career.

I doubt interacting with humans would ever be obsolete, but an educational system built in a world without automated mentors cannot be perfectly suited to a world which can mass-produce automated mentors. When something precious becomes a commodity, a system designed to maximize the value of the formerly precious resource often becomes obsolete, and always becomes less essential.