Brooks was here

I went for a walk across campus yesterday from Page Hall to the Subway on Hillsborough Street. I’ll do that a few times a month in nice weather. It’s a nice North Campus walk. Fringing the Court of North Carolina, past the Strolling Professor, through the brickyard, and along Hillsborough Street to the other side of campus.

It’s usually a reflective time for me. I probably could pass dozens of people I know and I wouldn’t notice because I would be so lost in thought. Yesterday was no different. I kept “hearing” the voice of the character Red, from the movie The Shawshank Redemption. On campus folks have probably heard me relate some campus event to Shawshank a time or two or three. And with reason, there’s a lot of shared experience that the movie evokes.

The quote I kept hearing in my head was when Red uses the word institutionalized:

These walls are kind of funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized. They send you here for life, that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyways.

There are days that I don’t wonder if I haven’t become institutionalized.

The University may be a unique place. Large sections of the administrative staffing is very much like a traditional Government operation, with many of the stereotypes that are attributed to Government. Other parts operate like a fly-by-the-seat of the pants startup. Others like a for-profit business. Still others like a charitable service organization, Some parts even like the recipients of the services of many charities. And oh yeah, our largest constituency comes through and gets out in 4 (okay, 5 or 6) years.

But there’s still an almost borg-like institutional effect. We caught up in “committees” and “processes” and throwing around buzzword bingo winners that sound good, but don’t say much and mean even less. A culture that fails to look inside itself, ask questions, examining our own Wolfpack Red Colored Glasses, and worse, discourages the questions of others – and I’m not talking about some “Academic Ivory Tower” myopia that the afternoon talk-radio pundits that I often listen to would ignorantly blast. We aren’t alone. It’s not unique to my University. It’s not unique to Government organizations, regardless of what the stereotypes would lead one to believe. I read enough corporate weblogs that I see echoes of the same “institutionalized” behaviors. I can name two Microsoft examples – I can read the overt frustration in the voice of the writer of the Mini-Microsoft weblog. I can even read (less overtly) the frustrations of someone like Robert Scoble

I’m not picking on Microsoft – quite the contrary in fact, with as many people as they have communicating about Life at Microsoft, they are leading on the openness and transparency front, and I’d wager that they are and will continue to be much the better for it. Their overt and between-the-lines frustrations are underscored by a passionate desire – a hope to follow with the Shawshank theme – to make their organizations better.

In a meeting earlier this week, I quoted a portion of an article by a Google employee named Joe Beda that wrote something in the midst of talking about something Google employees are granted called “20%” time – that has Joe’s industry peers all agog (and because he’s a former Microsoft employee – causing a bit of back and forth with a Microsoft vs. Google argument – which might well be an example of “Blogosphere Institutionalism” – because it misses a lot of the point). The point that struck home for me was this:

The intranet in Google is super transparent. Teams are actively encouraged to share the most intimate details of their projects with the rest of the company. This happens through tech talks, design docs, lunch table conversations, etc. When two teams are doing similar things, people start with the assumption that they must have their reasons and that the situation will be worked out in time. There isn’t a huge push to over optimize and have only one solution for each problem. This means that there isn’t an adversarial relationship between teams that can lead to long standing animosities and information hiding.

I called this the antithesis of University IT organizations. Pot. Kettle. Gray.

The quote came during a discussion of yet another proposed process being undertaken by yet another committee. And don’t get me wrong, the process sounds great, and the committee has great people. It all sounds agreeable. But something is still missing. Agreeable really isn’t enough. I think what’s missing is the “believe-able.” [sic.]

What passionate, underlying belief, what mission, what hope gives the stakeholders in all of this a common foundation – a common experience? Something to rally around?

For the record, I’m not talking specifically about this committee itself that came up in the meeting, an investigation into campus-wide email and calendaring. It’s chaired by a very good, very engaged University staff member and is made up of other staff members that believe whole-heartedly in doing the right thing. What I’m talking about is that the managers of IT organizations, myself included can talk and talk and talk about communication and chart an outline of a decision-making process and “transparency” – but there is still no guiding, underlying principle – no core belief that permeates through the IT groups, and therefore transparency is just a word, bound up in a lot of other words.

I wrote two years ago, in an essay that recalled Andy Dufresne, the protagonist from Shawshank – and I’ve quoted it in this blog before:

There’s something extraordinary though, about Andy’s time that he spent at Shawshank. It says more than the words “Get busy livin’ or Get busy dyin’” He turns tar into bohemian-style beer. He plays arias that uplift a prison. I think I am fascinated, not so much by the tunnel, but maybe just the carving of the chess pieces as much as anything . He builds a library. He makes a difference. Andy never finds his place there, but in his time, he makes one.

I’m not sure we are ever going to change the culture until enough people have some idea of what kind of place we want to see us be at. Where we want the equivalent of Andy’s Zihuatanejo to be for us? And how do we make a place along the way? What are our arias, our chess pieces, our prison libraries? Even more fundamental – both Zihuatenejo, the arias, the bohemian-style beer, the chess pieces, the library – they were all outward manifestations of an inward passionate belief in something. Enough belief for Andy – and the seemingly-institutionalized Red also.

What do we believe in?

Having rambled my way to this point, I know that these are just words too. As much – or actually more – talk just adding to overall chatter. These words are as much for me to read and contemplate as anyone else – perhaps more so. My own public pep talk to myself. I just know that somehow, someway, I need to find a way to transcend (there’s another word) that institutionalization that Red’s words echo. I need to find those ways, that common foundation, that makes the Google transparency to be the de facto culture of my own group, and that of those we interact with. To find that:

I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.

I hope.