12 Feb 2015 Scientists and their bureaucrat masters

Although I love adacemic research, my heart lies with industrial research. So I enjoy interacting with the researchers in corporations large and small who happen to need my specific scientific skills to help solve a research, development or production problem.

Unfortunately my dealings with larger corporations are often marred by those corporations' insane systems. I'm not against the systems in themselves - they need to have solid systems around legal agreements, procurement and payment. I'm not even made especially mad when their systems make life difficult for me - why should their systems care about people like me? What upsets me is how the systems require an insane waste of time and energy within the corporations themselves - especially the precious time and resource of their own scientists.

Let me give you a specific example which has prompted this blog today. Megacorp (I always use that as a pseudo-name for any of the well-known large corporations) needed to register me as a supplier on their system. Quite right. In general it's a bit tedious for me, but many of them have rather good systems that I can get right on the first or second attempt. But his Megacorp sent me 3 documents to fill in. Naturally the 3 documents contained lots of duplicate information (name, address etc.) so already you know that these people haven't even begun to think straight. But their instructions were to print the 3 documents, fill them out by hand, scan them in, then email them back to Megacorp where they will then have to transcribe my information into 3 (I assume) different systems, no doubt making various errors as they do so. This is a mind-bogglingly stupid way for them to do business. Sure it's a waste of my time. But think of the collosal waste of precious Megacorp resources this involves - resources that might have gone to Research (who currently have a travel ban...).

Out of interest, I protested to the Megacorp people and suggested that it would be in their own self-interest to send me a single form (no risk of cross-database errors) in an electronic format (no risk of faulty transcription of data). A number of Megacorps in the same circumstances (yes, some have excellent systems!) have sent me Excel sheets with some elementary automatic checking that did everything in one go. If they can do it, why can't this Megacorp? After a couple of email exchanges (I admit to resorting to sarcasm) the matter got escalated to someone more senior who assured me that I had to do it their insane way or not at all. I was tempted by the latter option, but the project is actually very interesting and the key researcher is wonderful. So I did their bidding and "reminded" them how stupid their system was when I emailed the 3 scanned documents.

Another typical example is companies' payment systems. They love to play games such as requiring you to send your invoice by snail mail to some country you hardly recognise. Presumably this is in the hope that the mail gets lost or delayed so they don't actually have to pay or can delay payment even further. Others impose arbitrary rules that are easy to get slightly wrong and then "forget" to inform you that your invoice had a comma in the wrong place and was therefore invalid. This all seems to make sense from their point of view. But they are missing something. I have no choice but to ask the scientist in the corporation to help me with the invoicing system, to check up on what's happened, to track down the reason nothing's happened and so forth. So by "saving" themselves a few $ by delaying my payment (and as I don't have cash flow problems I don't especially care) they have lost many more $ by distracting their researchers from researching.

Some bureaucracy is hilarious. I submitted an invoice by email to a French company (the French seem especially good at such things) and got a reply that "monochrome invoices can only be accepted via snail mail". Amazingly stupid, but never mind. I changed Steven Abbott TCNF Ltd from its default black to a pleasant blue within Word and resubmitted the invoice. I got the feeling that they felt I'd outsmarted them but they had to go by their own rules and accepted my invoice. Again my rage is not so much the waste of my time, but the prodigious waste of their time. If they had engaged any brain they would have actively encouraged as many invoices as possible by email - none of that tedious opening of letters etc.

Oh, and the French sometimes still insist that documents are stamped with the official corporate stamp (I don't have one) or with my bank's official stamp. Unable to resist one French Megacorp I went to my bank and asked them to stamp my document. They looked incredulous, disappeared into a back office for some time and emerged triumphant with a stamp. As they'd not used it in years they had to do some practice stamps onto some scrap paper and finally triumphantly stamped my document. That any French bureaucrat thinks that such a stamp confers any security or legitimacy is nearly beyond belief. Have they not heard of Photoshop or on-line rubber stamp creators?

It's not just purchasing. One of the reasons I've largely turned to apps is that Megacorps often make it impossible for their researchers to use programs written in standard Microsoft format. IT must officially vet and approve any software going on a researcher's machine. Fair enough. But then their vetting systems are so bizarre and laborious that it can take months for a researcher to get approval to use software that would have saved them weeks or months of precious development time. The most absurd examples are: (1) a researcher really, really needed my software to do something that would greatly help her. I told her that the latest (free) upgrade had exactly that functionality and she could download and install it right away. It took her 2 months before IT approved the upgrade; (2) a researcher bought my software for a modest price then needed IT to install it. IT were happy to do so, but because it wasn't an official package they would have to charge him for their approval process. And, yes, their charge was larger than the cost of my software.

Of course lawyers can provide plenty of stupidity. A Megacorp required me for a major project and gave me plenty of advanced notice so I could prepare things and sort out my travel. One clause in their "standard" contract happened not to make any sense to anyone and their UK people had already removed the clause when I worked with them. So it just needed to be removed - something that would take a competent lawyer about 2min to approve. Days then weeks went by. I couldn't book my flights and it was getting very close to cancellation of the whole thing - when the lawyer finally approved the trivial change. Written into my contract was that I had to use their travel system. I called them up, they booked the flights according to their own travel policy - and I ended up crossing the Atlantic in absurd comfort (no complaints!) at an absurd cost to Megacorp. What could they have done with that money if the lawyers had been efficient and the travel booked much earlier?

So, listen up Megacorps. It will take you about 10min focussed thinking to work out how to get your researchers to interact effectively with outside resources (it's called Open Innovation) so they spend time on the science and the "support" structures provide the support. Currently you are paying the researchers to support your "support" structures. I'm not asking you not to have bureaucratic systems - they are absolutely needed. All I'm saying is that you could make more money and develop new products faster if you just sorted out your systems. There's a clue in the word "support". Help your support staff to support the researchers and everyone will be much happier.