Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Issues, Quo Vadis?

Two of the most important lessons that I have learned in my duty as an administrator is the difficulty and sensitivity in 'managing' people (what we actually do is really manage their actions/tasks) and finding solutions/alternatives to conflicting goals/interests. This post is about these matters. At certain places, I will be very blunt and this post might not be liked by many but the issues raised deserve some deep thoughts if people really cared about the institute. Some requires a certain amount of selflessness and devotion to an idea or a goal, for otherwise we can continue bickering about small matters and not progress to a greater good.

So what are the issues that I thought would be good to thrash out in the best interest of the institute? There is no particular order in what I have listed below:

  1. Does the institute have a hidden agenda beyond what is written in the vision, mission, goals and functions of the institute?

    I certainly hope not. Is there a need for a non-written agenda? Should it serve interests of an individual, a group, a department or a faculty? I think there is no problem with working together with an individual, a group, a department or a faculty as long as it is transparent and clear to its members and players. With regards to faculty-institute relationship, one should see complementary roles ideally. There should be plenty of cooperation between faculties and institutes but it doesn't make sense to have us competing against each other due to the large overlap of members of institute and faculties (leading to conflict of interest of members). Administrativewise, however, the institute should be considered independent from any individual, group, department or faculty given that it is a separate identity serving the needs of the university to which we all belong to. The institute has its own vision and goals to achieve beyond the individual and any group. The independence also make sense if the institute is supposed to complement the faculty particularly in research. How this is done, my take is that there is still plenty of room for us to experiment on what is best.
  2. How much should we change for the better?

    I have said this to my colleague that we ought to be careful how we put in changes to the institute. We already had a system of doing things for the past 14 years and only recently we have seen a change in the institute's leadership. Any change has to be gradual so as not to uncontrollably perturb the system. The same wisdom actually applies beyond the institute; there are too many changes to the point that we can't really tell the difference between transient phenomena and the outcomes of the instituted changes. Also, underlying changes are also changes in utilising resources. Hence limits and constraints of resources should be factored in.

    Whether there should be changes or not is a nontrivial matter but certainly we need to be adaptable enough to respond to external changes. I say this because I believe there must be some core values and ideals to education and research. These core values can be changed according to 'market forces' or alternatively the core values can shape the society we want.
  3. Matters of the meetings

    Time and again, we always find grouses of having too many meetings. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which meetings are meaningful or not and worse, it can be subjective. If one is in charge of a certain duty, then meetings related to the duty will be meaningful to the person but they might not be so to those who are distant to the duty. In recent discussions, there are proposals to reduce the frequency of the management meeting and the research officers' meeting. I find the proposal misplaced. The more frequent meetings are the ones coming from our many activities. Management meeting is only twice a month and the research officers' meeting is once every two months. Management meetings are too important to reduce their frequency further since many matters (financial, appointment etc) requires the management's endorsement. Also, if one believes in the institute is of the faculty's stature, then really one should operate as such with the appropriate number of management meets.

    The research officers' meeting is currently more of the reporting type and hence can be reduced in frequency. Caution is needed though since there is still a tendency of the "out of sight, out of mind" attitude - not all officers have the same degree of commitment to research and being relatively younger in terms of research, a certain amount of monitoring is needed. However more importantly to me is the fact that the research officers are permanent officers of the institute and they should have more collective sense of responsibility towards the institute's development. There is a tendency for the research officers to go tangent off to their specialised areas of research with little interaction with others. I find this does not concur well with the nature of the institute which should have some form of interdisciplinary research. Being permanent researchers of the institute, they should in fact be catalytic agents for bridging different research areas/disciplines while retaining the importance of specialised research skill sets. I find it disappointing to see young researchers to dismiss off other research areas as totally unrelated and worse, unimportant. I foresee that a good platform for discussing bridging research ideas and charting future research directions of the institute would be the research officers' meeting together with the management members.

    To address back the issue of many meetings stemming from many activities, a partial solution is to make these meetings more decision-making and task oriented (as opposed to reporting). Another solution will be discussed next in the "Division of Labour" item.
  4. Divisions of Labour

    In the institute, it is certainly an issue of how we distribute the work among staff since the number of staff members is quite small. In fact, the number of staff has in fact decreased over the years due to lack of funding. Perhaps another thing conveniently ignored is the number of academics that are temporarily seconded to the institute are only a few (director, deputy director, heads of laboratories, members of management and graduate studies committee). Thus, many administrative tasks are carried out by these academics and the staff. On specific events, we have also our associate members helping us out to do these activities as part of their contribution to the institute (voluntarily).

    As mentioned earlier, much of our workload comes from research-related activities. Some of these are at institute level involving almost all disciplines of mathematical sciences and hence the need to mobilise the whole institute. Many of our activities however are meant for specialised disciplines. The experience that I had in the previous institute I was in is that such events are organised by interested parties of the relevant laboratories. Thus in our case the research officers, relevant associate researchers and students of the interested laboratory will be involved. Of course, we still need the support of central expertise of a webmaster, banner/bunting/poster designers, financial officers. We can also cut down all the ceremonial matters (which often gives additional costs anyway) and focus more on the scientific content.

    Another possibility is to minimise the activities themselves, which I guess will be the easiest to do but not necessarily desirable. I would agree this to be the case for the conferences; there are already too many conferences in the country to cater our relatively smaller pool of mathematical scientists. However for seminars, workshops and the likes, one should emulate the well-known and prominent institutes that have plenty of such activities, providing intense research atmosphere that attracts distinguished and active scientists.
  5. Office politics

    Ideally, an organization will have all its members working together with little friction. Practically such situation is non-existent. There will always be groups with their own self-interests and tendencies of stereotyping the other parties. Being an academic, I've heard administrators say that we academics had it easy. In the days when research is less emphasized, they would say that we had only a few hours to teach, not knowing the many hours we put in the preparation and the hours interacting with students. When the days of research emphasis came, they start saying that we had it easy since we have research students doing all the work for us as if research ideas come from free and our interactions with students and the training for research independence meant very little. Now there are cases of bad apples (like any other occupation) which do the things they accused us of but I certainly do think these are in the minority. To be fair, I have also seen academics treating administrative officers unfairly, sometimes thinking that they must be subservient often with the reason that we are in an academic organization.

    For the institute, I have seen in the past how conflict can emerge from the different cliques, between science officers and research officers, between officers higher up in the hierarchy with those below. Much is due to distrust, self-interest and envy. There is no quick solution to all of these but the longer process of inculcating good values, respect for each other and sharing the common vision of the institute. Each of us has a role to play in the institute and we are not merely cogs in the wheel but are thinking and emotional beings. One should realise that the purpose of the institute is bigger than all of us and our self-interests. In fact, one should highlight the importance of displaying professional and good values given that we will engage more actively with our international partner in the future.
Having said all these, these are merely my thoughts and opinions. People are free to pick and choose what can be accepted and what can be ignored. I still believe in the idea of the institute and I pray that it will continue to progress to be an internationally respectable institute of mathematical sciences.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Getting Things To Work

Tomorrow, finally INSPEM will have a new director: Prof. Noor Akma Ibrahim, a professor of statistics from the mathematics department. Being the previous Deputy Director (before me), she is certainly the natural candidate for the Director's post. There is a sense of relief after some extended period of uncertainty and I will also no longer need to answer the question of who is the new director each time I go to a meeting or meet some people (it can be very embarrassing at times).

Prior to this, I was carrying out the duties of the director and I tried as much not to make major decisions beyond what is necessary then. Officially, it was from 18 March but I was already carrying several different tasks before the date, some of which were very important. For instance, the inauguration of MICEMS happened three weeks after Prof. Dato' Kamel Ariffin's retirement. Much effort was actually put into the event and we managed to pull it off. Some critical discussions were also made for the future programmes of MICEMS. Besides MICEMS, attended other matters that include decisions regarding our EMS-ERCE studentship programs, decisions regarding our ScholarOne usage for MJMS, and discussions of future research collaboration with Securities Commission Malaysia. I am retelling this merely to say we are not sitting idle in the absence of a director and we are trying our best to make things work. No more, no less.

During this period, I attended some meetings that I have not been in before. I learned quite a few things about the running of the university. I'm very much aware of the need to prepare standardised formal working papers or proposals and the need of presenting these papers in a legal-like language (sometimes feeling rather awkward) from my previous experience. Rather new was the different committees (some of which are closely related) each having different purposes. Unaware of some of these, there were instances that I found myself in an embarrassing situation where I presented papers to the wrong committee. Due to my own quiet personality, I often speak minimally during these meetings, watching and learning from others. From all of these, I've learned it is important to be aware of the decision-making structure of the university even if one is not directly involved as such. Some of these structures could also be mimicked at our micro (institute) level and help facilitate matters. Another lesson is regarding the passing down of important decisions or information, which is tricky these days, when one is already information overloaded.

With Prof. Noor Akma on board, I hope INSPEM can now move in full force with her being the new director at the centre of things. I certainly wish that INSPEM will grow further and develop a distinctive rejuvenated identity, in particular with MICEMS.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Fourteenth Anniversary

While others may remember this day as April Fool's day, we, at the institute, celebrate this day as the 14th anniversary of the day that INSPEM is established. It was on the 1st April 2002 that the formation of the institute is officially declared. The groundwork for it is of course went much earlier and can even be traced back to a conceived idea declared during a national conference way back in 1988. I was not there then and also during the beginning of the institute but I joined the institute only four years later. Nevertheless, I believe I'm very much part of the institute now.

Today we will not have a birthday bash or at least have not planned one as yet. Perhaps more meaningful for us is the forthcoming workshop on our KPIs and strategic planning scheduled on 13th April 2016. Note that we are aware that this is considered late but this is due very much to many of our activities early in the year. We are currently in our 'teen' phase, growing up very fast and hence we must plan well the directions that we are going to take, building up a stronger identity.

Personally, I would like to see the following issues to be discussed:

  • Impactful Q1 & Q2 publications - these have been emphasized much by the university and also the ministry. In dealing with these, one should be very well aware of the differences in publication culture even within the specific communities of mathematical scientists. My own take on this is that one should publish in journals where one's own community normally publishes. In this way, one's work gets more relevant and more citations may take place. Again, one exercises caution on chasing citations so that self-citations or close colleagues' citations are not the ones we should be aiming for. Also, are we pursuing relevant fertile areas that the institute can build communities on.
  • INSPEM's role in MICEMS - this has so far being discussed mainly at individual level. We need to bring the discussion to the broader institute-wide discussion to build better and more coherent co-operation with our Italian counterparts. We need to build concrete programs, both research and post-graduate. We also need to discuss our reciprocating actions to the Italian contributions to MICEMS with longer-term views.
  • Building success stories - ones that can build up stronger reputation and visibility. This may sounds cosmetic but it is really a nontrivial matter. The works of mathematical scientists have often being long-term and relegated almost always to the background in a way that people in general hardly noticed our contributions. We need to tell/convince people why we need to be here.
  • Meeting challenges in the face of declining resources - whether in terms of research grants or other financially-related matters. We need people who can champion the cause of the institute among decision-makers, investors and other possible income-generating actions. In a way, this is very related to the previous point.
None of these are easy and we are very much dependent on the support of our members on how to move forward to a brighter future.