The Dynamics of Scheduling

One of the common assignments during NYU Stern undergraduate classes is some kind of group project in the hopes that repeated group work will better prepare you for the corporate world.  Which makes sense.  It also allowes students to work on a more meaningful, larger project over the course of one semester than they would have been able to complete by themselves – such as developing an entire international marketing plan or creating a marketing strategy for a new product from scratch.  It’s also an opportunity to meet some people you might not have met otherwise. Yet for Stern students (and those of us non-Stern students lucky enough to beg/borrow/steal our way into Stern classes), these group projects come with one big disadvantage – having to schedule seemingly endless group meetings.Just to give you a little background – every school within NYU has different procedures for things like the number of credits per course and the number of classes you can take outside of whatever school you’re enrolled in.  Gallatin is all about creating your own course of study, so the later requirements are pretty thin.  And because I was shaping a concentration around marketing, I took a lot of Stern classes; my transcript actually tells me I took 28 out of the possible 32 Stern credits (I certainly wasn’t counting).  Stern classes are generally two, three or four credits, and while the normal course load is 16 credits per semester, you can take up 18 if you’re feeling motivated.  So if you spend some time looking through class listings, your schedule could easily get a bit convoluted.  My personal best was six classes in those 18 credits (two two-credit, two three-credit and two four-credit classes spread across three different schools).

So now let’s set the scene.  It’s sometime during the second half of the semester, and all of your group projects have kicked into gear.  For each class you’re looking through secondary sources, maybe sending out some surveys, maybe putting together a mockup of whatever it is the project is about.  You’re probably starting to write the final report.  You’re definitely putting together some kind of presentation.  It’s also probably a good idea to actually go to all of your classes, not to mention your internship or job, and also try to have some kind of social life (wait, what’s that again?).

This is all generally doable.  Right up until someone says during class “We should probably meet to discuss [insert some part of the project here].”  Because now you’re not just juggling your schedule but also everyone else’s.  If you’re lucky, the professor has cancelled a few classes and you’ve got your meeting time.  But chances are, he or she hasn’t, as that would decrease the amount of time they had to “impart their wisdom upon you” – plus part of the corporate world is working out scheduling conflicts and consulting with colleagues while getting the rest of your work done.  So now you’re all standing around after the lecture as the next class files into the room, smartphones and/or planners out, trying to figure out a meeting time (it’s actually worse if you’re trying to do this over e-mail or text message).

My Management and Organization Analysis professor called the difficulties associated with scheduling coordination costs.  As more people are involved, coordination costs increase.  In other words, it’s harder to schedule a ten person group than a three person group – and trust me, I’ve had to do both.  This could be related to individuals rearranging their schedule, or it could be because of the costs associated with communicating information to group members who couldn’t be there.  If you search Wikipedia for coordination costs, you’ll actually end up at the entry for “transaction costs” instead.  While the entry doesn’t actually define coordination costs (it just links to a blank page instead while using a completely different definition), it started me thinking.  Given the ways that technological developments have changed the way we communicate, what can they do for future classes of students faced with the same tasks I was?

  • The most obvious role that technology can play is to make it easier to schedule meetings.  There’s at least one website that can do that – Doodle (I actually really started using this during my last semester).  Doodle lets you create a poll with dates and times, users check off when they can attend, and you end up with a nice chart showing which times work for which people.  Finding a place to meet is considerably harder……but that’s what you get for going to school in the middle of Manhattan.
  • Technology can help there too though.  We can video conference instead of sit in the same room, or meet in Second Life instead of real life (never actually tried this), or substitute our physical presence with telepresence.  This doesn’t do much to address scheduling issues, but it can reduce the time and energy costs associated with getting to a physical meeting, not to mention the monetary costs if travel are involved.
  • What new media and Internet services can also do is change the way we expect to work together.  I’m thinking specifically of cloud computing here, but there are a lot of potential sources of change.  Collaborative services like Google Apps could allow us to timeshift group work like TiVo did for television.  Students won’t be using their Blackberrys and iPhones to check their calendars when someone proposes meeting – they’ll just jump online instead and use any number of digital collaboration tools.  Maybe they’ll post links to research or work on a draft of their report or annotate a completed presentation.  Maybe they’ll collaboratively create surveys and send them to their social networks.  Or maybe they’ll synthesize trending topics and comments into a market research report for use in their project.

These are just a few ideas I’m throwing out.  I’m sure I’ve read some of these elsewhere, not that I know where right now.  What is perhaps most important out of all of this is that students are going to be able to explore these collaborative technologies and take them beyond the hallowed halls of their academic institutions.  And maybe then they’ll make their way into the hallowed boardrooms of the corporate world.

Of course, none of these tools will keep you from doing most of the work for your group – but that’s another post entirely (you’ll just have to check back for that one).