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This article struck something of a chord. Actually that's an understatement.

If the article is TL:DR, here's the executive summary: Organisations recruit clever people, but then discourage them from using their intelligence. It could easily have been written about my former employer (one of the Big 4 global professional services firms). And it's one of the things that consistently bugged me the most.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 10th, 2016 05:47 pm (UTC)
"Organisations hire smart people, but then positively encourage them not to use their intelligence. Asking difficult questions or thinking in greater depth is seen as a dangerous waste. Talented employees quickly learn to use their significant intellectual gifts only in the most narrow and myopic ways."

I know this will sound unbearably smug but the absolute best thing about my job is that that's really not true at all.

Universities are certainly not devoid of the ticky-box culture, but in the science part of my life I use my brains to their full. And I try and hire smart people and then encourage them to use their intelligence, ask difficult questions, challenge me and others and think in greater depth. And I'm learning every day. It rocks!

Neuromancer :-D
Oct. 10th, 2016 05:48 pm (UTC)
(but yeah, that's exactly what scientists suspect the corporate world is like:)
Oct. 10th, 2016 07:51 pm (UTC)
I don't thing that sounds smug - and there must be some intellectually stimulating big organisations out there.

I suspect though that outside of academic jobs, universities are actually worse than the corporate world. I remember at my leaving do sitting next to a former colleague who had gone to work for the the finance department of the bigger of Plymouth's two universities (not the little one that I lecture at). She warned me not to do the same because I would hate the bureaucracy and culture even more than she did (she's since quit).

Regarding academic jobs, do you benefit from mostly being research-based in your work rather than teaching-based?

Actually my entirely teaching-based academic job is also pleasingly devoid of the YDHTBSTWHBIH mentality. Tomorrow morning I'm doing the first of this term's accounting lectures for my MBA class. I get to ask "What accounting knowledge do MBA students need?", and then I get to decide what to teach them, how to assess them and I get to mark their assessments (with a second marker to review the grades).

That seems pretty good, but I'd assumed that it was a benefit of working for a very small university with a very new business school. (It's quite an elderly institution, but the business school is only two years old. So when it comes to financial accounting expertise, I'm the best they have by some margin. In fact, I'm pretty much all they have, although the head of the business school is a management accountant.) Would I have that much intellectual freedom at a larger, more established business school?
Oct. 11th, 2016 05:58 am (UTC)
You're right that the research is what I love, but as far as I can tell, my more teaching-focused colleagues also get a lot of freedom in how they approach their work.

Not very relevant perhaps but I just had a good experience with our teaching office. I'd contacted them to say, "Hey, I just heard about this software that enables the audience to answer questions live via their smartphones - can we get a licence for that?" and got the answer, "Yes, we've just signed up for [this] system - here, I've added your username to the site licence, and if you send your slides over [which used the old software with dedicated handsets] I'll convert them for you." Which I thought was pretty good!

Oct. 11th, 2016 08:36 am (UTC)
I do a completely research-based job. There's a potential point for friction in that my work involves writing scientific software and these applications often involve databases, web interfaces and so on such that they must be run on a server.

Of course, a university department often has but one or two IT staff and they usually have no interest in maintaining application servers for researchers to do their work on or time in which to do it; keeping the email and departmental website up and the administrators' Windows desktops running is usually enough for them. On the other hand, researchers aren't very keen on doing any kind of sysadmin; quite often they will quickly install Ubuntu on an old desktop machine (with a public IP address...), put their application on it and forget about it unless the application stops working.

Those of us who have any sort of sysadmin knowledge (e.g. me, having done the RHCE exam years ago) therefore end up maintaining a research group's servers as well as doing development and research. However, if the departmental sysadmin or their boss is particularly suspicious by nature then they often worry about people who aren't actual IT staff going anywhere near anything. I've ended up in the situation before (not in my current job) where the regulations prohibited me from going into the server room at, to fix a failed server and yet the person who was so permitted didn't know how to do it and considered themselves too busy to learn.
Oct. 10th, 2016 07:56 pm (UTC)
Interesting article. I think my boyfriend will relate a lot to this as well so I'll show him later.

Oct. 17th, 2016 09:28 pm (UTC)
I only read the TL;DR but I can say that it was not the case at an investment bank I worked for. There are a lot of bad things one can say about working there but this is definitely not one of them. You could get enormously empowered and start and run with pretty big and completely new things that have never been done before on the trading floor very early on you if you are smart. And that provided an enormous (even scary) scope for putting one's intelligence to work.

Among the (very arrogant and highly ambitious) group of people I went to b-school with and then worked with, Big 4 accounting firms were never viewed as a choice of very intelligent people who wanted to put that intelligence to work. They were thought to go to hedge funds, bulge bracket investment banks, vc, pe, strategy consulting, tech but never to do audits at Big 4, which paid at least a digit less than all of the above and immersed you into the exciting world of putting together audit files for years (nobody sought employment at Big Four after graduation really). The stereotype was that undergrads who do not really have a passion for anything and not enough ambition to really go for it join accounting firms and train as accountants to go with the flow, etc. Accounting firms were never associated in our minds with very smart people shaking things up, changing the game, etc.
Oct. 18th, 2016 07:16 pm (UTC)
I suspect that there's a lot of truth in that. Quite a lot of the people I worked with were not what I would call intellectually curious. (More Big 4 people than you might expect went to third-rate universities.)

I could never understand why anyone would work for a Big 4 firm in the City if you could work for investment banks, hedge funds, PE houses etc for a hell of a lot more money and not that many more hours. I imagine that's why in the City, the Big 4 don't get the best people.

Outside of London, it's different I think because you get people (me for instance) who just wouldn't want to live anywhere near London. It's gut feel rather than the result of an academic study, but I'd hazard a guess that 'provincial' offices of Big 4 firms are staffed by better brains than London.

Tragically of course, it's the plodders in London who get promoted quicker (through a combination of higher staff turnover and more exposure to high-value work) but to be fair they work much longer hours. That ultimately means provincial brains who end up in national or European roles (and here I am talking from personal experience) end up working for hard-working plodders from London. Hey ho.
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