Resource Requirement Swirl (RRS) and how to avoid it

Higher Education

When I met Christi­na G., a direc­tor at a com­mu­ni­ty col­lege in the north­east, she was beam­ing with excite­ment.  Her col­lege had recent­ly approved her bud­get aug­men­ta­tion request of near­ly $250,000 in on-going expens­es for the acqui­si­tion, imple­men­ta­tion, and deploy­ment of a pre­dic­tive ana­lyt­ics ser­vice in the cloud.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Christi­na fell into the trap of a Resource Require­ment Swirl (RRS).

A Resource Require­ment Swirl is the stale­mate that occurs direct­ly after the hon­ey­moon phase of installing a new pro­duct or imple­ment­ing a new ser­vice.  It is the care­ful bal­ance of mis­man­age­ment and naive ide­al­iza­tion that pro­duces an expen­sive and cum­ber­some pro­duct on the left and a lack of human cap­i­tal on the right.  Does this sound famil­iar?

For Christi­na, this effect has haunt­ed her insti­tu­tion ever since they start­ed stream­lin­ing bud­get requests for tech­nol­o­gy with a buzz­word objec­tive (you know, like “Improve Stu­dent Suc­cess”).  RRS is very sim­i­lar to recur­sion, which is when you define some­thing by its pre­vi­ous iter­a­tion.

Recur­sion in nature.

RRS is recur­sive:  you start with a pro­duct or ser­vice, which then cre­ates a resource require­ment;  since there aren’t enough peo­ple to imple­ment, deploy, or use the pro­duct effi­cient­ly, a resource need is cre­at­ed;  since the­se resources (usu­al­ly peo­ple) require fund­ing, now we have to go to the bud­get;  since there’s no mon­ey in the bud­get, we can’t hire more peo­ple, so you’ll just have to fig­ure out a way to make it work.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the “best case” is for the pro­duct or ser­vice to exist in the void known as RRS.  What usu­al­ly ends up hap­pen­ing is the­se prod­ucts and ser­vices remain in a state of RRS until a new pro­duct or ser­vice comes along promis­ing some­thing new — and then the spi­ral starts all over again.

It’s a com­mon prob­lem,” Christi­na tells me.  “We get sold on the­se fan­cy prod­ucts but when it comes time to actu­al­ly use them there’s no one to use it.  Even after we train peo­ple to use them, the nov­el­ty has worn off and now we have to con­scious­ly try to focus our plan­ning around a tool instead of focus­ing on how a tool can enhance our plan­ning.  It’s non­sense.”

No, Christi­na, it’s high­er edu­ca­tion! 

laughing

May­be I should have been a come­di­an!

Avoiding the Swirl

You don’t need to email me about the joke I just made;  I real­ize that some peo­ple are going to scoff at it.  Here’s the thing, though:  every­day, lead­ers in high­er edu­ca­tion are mak­ing deci­sions that will have far-reach­ing effects at their insti­tu­tions based sole­ly off of Pow­er­Point slides deliv­ered by sales­peo­ple of third-par­ty ven­dors.  The­se deci­sions are rarely vet­ted through peo­ple with the tech­ni­cal knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence to per­form an effi­cient needs analy­sis, which caus­es the insti­tu­tion to invest in some­thing it doesn’t real­ly have the means to ful­ly use.

Imag­ine your sig­nif­i­cant oth­er putting a down pay­ment on a 4-ton bull­doz­er, with a 3–5 year con­trac­tu­al oblig­a­tion to make annu­al pay­ments — and you per­son­al­ly have to spend time each day tak­ing care of it. 

The next few years you are going to need to jus­ti­fy spend­ing all that mon­ey, so you’ll need to start plan­ning your com­mute dif­fer­ent­ly and even think­ing up projects you prob­a­bly nev­er would have thought up before, all because now you have this tool with­out first hav­ing a plan.

We should be encour­ag­ing our fel­low lead­ers to stay away from Resource Require­ment Swirls, not facil­i­tate them.  Col­leges can avoid this con­di­tion by pro­mot­ing capa­ble, tech-savvy peo­ple who have shown upward momen­tum through their com­mit­ment to avoid­ing RRS.  Not only should we be encour­ag­ing the­se shin­ing stars to apply for man­age­ment posi­tions as they become avail­able, we should also be going out of our way to cre­ate lead­er­ship roles to provide oppor­tu­ni­ty for up-and-com­ers to shine.  Why?  Work­ing your ris­ing stars up the ranks cre­ates tech­ni­cal pro­fi­cien­cy at the high­est lev­els, some­thing you can­not get by hir­ing from the out­side.

Avoid­ing RRS means you have to ask the uncom­fort­able ques­tions.  Peo­ple who are hyped up on a sales pitch rarely want to hear some­one bring down the mood in the room, but some­one has to pull every­one down from the clouds.

Before you com­mit to that piece of soft­ware, that new ser­vice, or that hyped-up process, ask your­self:

  • Do we have the per­son­nel to use this?
  • Will our peo­ple have the nec­es­sary train­ing to pro­duce the desired out­comes?
  • Will our peo­ple have the time to pro­duce the desired out­comes?
  • Will this project result in MORE work for us? (i.e., are we real­ly being more effi­cient, here?)

If you can answer the­se ques­tions smart­ly and have the answers vet­ted through the peo­ple who will be imple­ment­ing the pro­duct or ser­vice, deploy­ing it, using it, and main­tain­ing it (hint: the­se will all gen­er­al­ly be dif­fer­ent peo­ple and/or groups), then you have your­self a project ready for suc­cess!

Have you per­son­al­ly expe­ri­enced symp­toms of RRS?  What are some oth­er ques­tions we can ask to avoid it?

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