Today I used Cornell’s online purchasing system for the first time. If you needed more evidence that modern universities should be categorized among the hallowed ranks of bloated bureaucracies, look no further.

Let’s quickly get past the fact that it took me a good 45 minutes to make a purchase that would have taken three if I were using my own credit card. By now I’ve become completely desensitized to how much human capitol is wasted by bureaucracies, be they academic, governmental or industry-based. If you don’t believe me, check out the 106 page ‘buying manual’ that I’m sure I was nominally supposed to have read before even thinking about buying anything.

I understand that the university needs accountability for how its money is spent, but this is ridiculous. It’s tangled mess of incentives that’s perfectly embodied by the ‘Supplier Utilization Hierarchy.’ If you can, go with the supplier who’s cut a deal with the University – if not, go with the most politically correct supplier.

Nowhere is time or price efficiency mentioned as a consideration for a purchase.

Confused, bloated systems like Cornell’s are waste of valuable human capitol. (This, of course, makes the big assumption that professors and graduate students would be doing more useful things otherwise. )

Like many inefficiency problems the solution to this one has two components – technological and institutional.

Modern computer technology is very good at combating the type of inefficiency embodied by this system. Machine learning algorithms are great at recognizing anomalous behavior and should be able to reduce the amount of time that humans need to spend writing and reading purchase justifications.  Database and search technologies should be able to spider across the different suppliers – compiling and sorting products rather than requiring the user to know beforehand where to go for which item and filing separate requests for each.

Of course, tech upgrades won’t help much without institutional change. Instead of trying to appease everybody or achieve an agenda, the controllers of these systems need to commit themselves to a single goal – helping us, the users of the system do their jobs as efficiently as possible