Google Sheets permissions issue and my beliefs about technology and institutional improvement

I was contacted by one of Middlebury’s schools abroad regarding a Google Sheets issue. It’s a pattern you’ve seen before. The main system didn’t support their edge-case needs.1 A person, who has recently moved to a new job elsewhere, set up some Google Sheets to accomplish the task. Now that this person was gone, no one knew how to fix an issue with the sheets.

Essential systems
built by well-meaning people
who are now elsewhere

It turns out the issue was a little messy. They were looking at the sharing permissions where everyone was editor. Google Sheets also lets you set different restriction at the sheet and range level. In this case, the sheet and a specific range were protected. Once we changed things in both areas, this issue was fixed. I made some general statements that I’d either protect at the sheet level or the range level. Doing both was a recipe for confusion and unhappiness. I gave my normal statements encouraging simplification and documentation.

The conversation could have ended there. Problem solved.

I wanted to know a bit more. I asked if they had time to look at an example I made using the IMPORTRANGE function. I talked a bit about how you could create a summary sheet that just imported the content and that they could then avoid having the summary pages in each sheet, the permissions hassles, etc. Turns out they were hand-building larger budget sheets to turn in to finance to get people paid. This took a great deal of time and is not the kind of work we want people doing.

One of the participants said something like “You like doing this kind of stuff?” in a fairly disbelieving tone. And as I replied, I realized I didn’t. Not really. What I like is solving problems for people. I don’t really care how or with what. I like making people happy/happier. I feel strongly that technology can do certain things really well (like automating data collection). That matters because it frees up people to do the things they do well and hopefully that bring them joy. That freedom is two-fold. It’s time for sure, but it’s also a release from drudgery and hassle. Maybe by freeing people to do good people stuff, the world will improve.

They also said something along the lines of “We didn’t know that was possible.” in a slightly chagrined tone. And that’s the other thing with stuff like this. It’s really hard to imagine a solution to your problem if you don’t know what’s possible and it’s really hard to know even a fraction of the possibilities. I’ve seen so much time and energy wasted in every organization I’ve ever worked in because people didn’t know what was possible. There are certain aspects that might be considered digital literacy, some of it is just knowledge of what systems exist in the organization, but a lot is probably specialized enough that people just need a person with some experience and semi-specialized knowledge to guide them.

It’s like watching people dig a hole with their hands, or a stick, or a spoon. If only they knew that a shovel existed and was just in the shed over there. But if you don’t know that shovels exist, you’ll never consider that you really need the Radius Garden Root Slayer). Maybe they don’t even know that sheds exist and are full of different tools. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but it’s close. I see people use a digital hammer to dig holes all the time.

I’ve never seen an organization address this in any systematic way. Lots of stuff is thrown at people when they start. Maybe some of it hits on solutions to certain problems but people are usually overwhelmed and don’t have a clear idea about their jobs let alone the problems that might come up eventually. I could see some real value in reaching out to people and departments on a regular basis to see what things are eating up their time and happiness. That data could drive continuous improvement for core systems. We ought to know if core systems are not working for large groups and we should fix that. We also can’t solve all problems centrally. Maybe we consider it 80/20.

I don’t want to leave 20% of people with no solution. Teams of people could certainly help provide solutions and they could do it within some defined systems so that knowledge and expertise would grow and be internalized. You don’t want people solving similar problems in Google Sheets, online Excel, SharePoint Excel, Zoto sheet, Air Table, etc. That’s what I think happens now.

It could also drive training. We see a lot of people don’t realize we have a solution for X. Let’s address that. Give them the power to address their own issues. Having larger groups of people in the community solving problems in the same tool would have all kinds of advantages. Set up some ongoing user groups to share with each other. Set up a discussion forum2 of some kind.

The group I’m in does some of this but in a reactive way. Department X can’t accept funds the way they need to for trips abroad. We find out in a random meeting. We end up working through a solution in Stripe which leads to another process being developed with Finance to reconcile accounts. These things are now part of an established solution for a certain kind of problem but they aren’t well known. I am sure other groups will end up finding other solutions or doing the same thing from scratch.

Seems like this kind of thing falls under business process improvement or something like that. I don’t know if that title is a good one for people in education. It also tends to rely on people coming to you with problems. When I worked in HCPS, Dell had a tiger team which would come an address major problems. I feel like that kind of approach would be a positive one for the institution and for the right individuals. Cross-functional teams with knowledge of technology, project management, documentation, etc. working to find and solve institutional problems just seems like such a good idea.

If you’ve seen this working well somewhere, let me know. Maybe there are gaping holes in this concept? I’m still wading through comment spam so feel free to give me a reason to keep doing it. Or go crazy and trackback your blog post.

1 Shadow systems like this are probably a blessing, a curse, a necessity, and inevitable.

2 You can use Slack or Discord to make it cool if you must.

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