The UKZN Griot. Of Paper, Uncompletion Quotients and WorkLaw and Management Studies

Keyan G Tomaselli*

‘There’s too much damn paper work.’ This was my A-rated colleague’s observation on having to sit through an interminable meeting on research centres.  ‘How does anyone get any real work done?’ he asked me.

This 75-year-old is delighted that he will retire soon – no more paperwork.  No more officious HODs. The paperwork, of course, is now all electronic, with no storage or budgetary limits.  Whole university divisions have been established simply to extract data from all of us.  We’re drowning in information.  But that information is useless because there is too damn much of it, and nobody really knows what to do with it. So, managers just ask for more and more of it.

Universities set up committees to process useless information, now known as “big data”.  But often they don’t know where it is or how to access it.  So they recurrently ask the academics to re-generate the same data, often on different forms and in different templates.  In a previous 2010 column I suggested that my student readers explain to their parents that what academics do is fill in forms [1].

One head of School told his staff to keep all correspondence to just four lines.  Failing which, he did not have time to read it, let alone act on it.  So, what we get now are templates.  Templates feed Charles Vail’s axioms of hierarchicology.  Vail was once a university vice-president.  He was the first to study the bureaucracy.   Vail’s Axiom 1 reads:  ‘Work seeks the lowest level’, but at UKZN it seeks a higher level where academic co-ordinators now do the work once done by secretaries and messengers.  Vail’s Axiom 2: ‘The percentage of work at any level of the hierarchy that remains undone is invariant, which is why bureaucracies expand ad infinitum.’ 

Why create just two levels when four will do?  Corollary 2 is relevant here:  ‘The amount of material to be filed increases in proportion to the amount already filed’; which then re-activates Axiom 1. The bureaucracy is unable to locate, connect or process the information already filed with it by academics now doing basic admin jobs also.  So the academics are instructed to re-generating the same data over and over and over again.

This circularity creates the ‘Backlog Syndrome’. If we do not have a backlog we cannot make claim to continued employment.  So, the bureaucrats devolve their backlogs to the academics where the buck stops, mainly because the academic co-ordinators at UKZN don’t have a natural lower (secretarial) level to which to devolve their backlogs.  So the highest uncompletion quotient (UQ) in any institution is to be found in the higher ranks. Thus, was management science borne. But I wonder how many still teach Northcote Parkinson’s theory of hierarchicology?  In this context Corrollary 2 of his First Law states that: ‘Officials make work for each other.  They also make work for everyone else and hijack time that was previously available for productive work.   

Recently – after some resistance to being treated like a factory worker – I insisted on composing my own performance template, explaining what academics actually do. But the un-negotiable section of the form still ranks annual article output as follows:  ISI (WoS), Scopus, IBSS, accredited, other.  Why?   I don’t write for indexes. I write for readerships.  Indexes are not publishers but publisher positioning and marketing devices.  Academics are usually suspicious of ‘the market’, but when publishing they tend to be driven by it. Are they oblivious of the contradiction?

Though lecturers work in terms of annual cycles, researchers do not.  These are linked to what is feasible during specific phases of the research, in light of time, funding and non-tangible resources, and are dependent on external factors that cannot always be anticipated.  Measuring output that does not include in-preparation, rejected or under-review publications on an annual basis is thus inaccurate.

Research is reliant on a series of considerations that emerge out of the projects themselves.  So I have called on Vail’s Axiom 2 and included in my performance management (PM) form my backlog:  stuff I am still thinking about, half-done articles, writing these kinds of columns, wasting time at conferences,  doing peer reviews, community engagement, footling around in the field etc.  Since the PM industry took Parkinson seriously, instead of seeing his irony, I have furthermore entered the filling in of my PM form on the form itself.  Now, I have allocated a percentage to the amount of time consumed in this form filling exercise which simultaneously addresses the Vail and Northcote principles of how to keep ever-expanding bureaucracies busy. As more staff are appointed, more work is undone and so more people must be brought in to do it. But this does not axiomatically apply in the academic sector where fewer and fewer staff do more and more work in less and less time.

My objective in developing this thesis is to develop a huge backlog and to be employed until I am 80, as Minister Blade Nzimande has suggested.  I will then bequeath my backlog to my successor and wait for my articles in the pipeline to appear over the next 10 years. 

She or he can then fill in the forms. Paper still rules.


1.       “Of Managers and Forms”,

·         Keyan G Tomaselli was the first academic to go electronic at Natal University in 1985.  The Finance Division kept asking why he was asking for a PC.   Why would a typewriter not do?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are the author’s own.

Keyan G Tomaselli