Tuesday 4 December 2012

Dear Judge Business School, Cambridge: Whatever your online reference guys are paying you to use their software, it's not enough

Today I filled in a reference for a former student who wishes to undertake a course at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge.   The experience was so bad, so bad, that it inspired me to write this blog post.  

Let's remember the setup.   I'm not being paid to write this reference.   I'm doing it as a favour to my former student, and as a favour to my academic colleagues at the University of Cambridge.  I'm happy to do it to help both sides.   But - and it's appropriate to repeat this when it is after all a business school I am talking about - I'm not being paid for this task.

Also let's straight away take the student off the hook.  They want to do a course at this famous Business School, so they have no choice but to ask me to supply a reference according to the demands of Cambridge University.

You might think in these circumstances - doing unpaid work for their direct benefit - the University of Cambridge might make my life as easy as is reasonably possible.

Instead they use some online reference software provided by - I won't name them because they don't deserve an extra hit on Google Search.    Though now I think about it, the name of the firm is appropriate as it reminds me of Hobson's Choice, an unpleasant choice where no alternative is offered.  

Here are some of the highlights of my experience. Ignoring of the course it being ridiculous to have to use special purpose software in the first place - Cambridge should give me multiple options to make my life easier.   But let's pass that by quickly.

First piece of joy.  I was sent in plain text a username and password.   (Yep, password in plain text because nobody at Cambridge is a world expert on security).  

Well, actually that's pretty standard, it washes by me.  But first thing I had to do was ... be forced to change my password!  For what is to all intents and purposes a one-time logon: it would be a miracle if this login was used the next time they ask me to write a reference.   As usual, non security enhancing requirements were made.   So yeah, they wasted my time making me choose a password I will never use after they sent me an initial password by email.

Another thing I particularly liked was being asked to provide a phone number with numbers only.   Guys, phone numbers sometimes require non numbers, especially the + for country code.  And people like to write spaces and brackets while computers are good at stripping them out.  But the better one was being told the date format for today was incorrectly entered: I think I left out the initial 0 on the date.   It would of course be hard to automatically enter today's date for me.

Apart from starting to mentally write this blog post at this point, I actually got to the bit where I could start to enter my opinions.   Which was not too bad except that ... after being forced to use this web form I was not allowed a text box to enter my comments in.  I  had to upload my comments in a document.   Umm, why no choice to type it or paste it?   I was asked to do it on headed notepaper, because umm, actually I can't think of a reason.   Headed notepaper used to be a very slight fraud deterrent, indicating the letter was from somebody with access to it.  Nowadays of course, it's a mild pain for academics at a University to provide an electronic document on headed paper (the clue is in the name, paper, this is an electronic document guys!)  and of course no problem at all for somebody who intercepted the email to forge if they wish.

All of this shameful non-usability, inconvenience, and complete lack of consideration to the person who is paying with their time and effort, is sadly par for the course in writing references these days.  I probably wouldn't have bothered with this post except for one last vignette.

At one point I was told that my comments were confidential and would not be disclosed to the candidate.    So apparently Judge Business School (or their online reference providers) have some magic exemption to the data protection act?   The irony is, that according to my University, I cannot be forced to provide this reference, but Cambridge might be.   Actually I always assume that references might be shown to the student, and would never write something that fundamentally could not be (even if what I write may not always be what they want to read.)   But a blanket statement which essentially ignores the Data Protection Act - and remember provided by a company who is providing a service so are assumed to be experts?

I titled this post by stating that whatever these choice people are paying the University of Cambridge for the right to upset their referees and thereby disadvantage both the University and their potential students, it's not enough.   I take that back. If it's several million a year then that's enough to pay me £1000 or so for the benefit of my reference and my later thoughts of this blog post.   You've got my address in your reference system.

best wishes

Ian Gent


  1. Reminds me of the Edinburgh event booking system which is one of the major reasons why I hardly ever go to SICSA events.

    I've taken to just emailing in references in situations like this (to the general enquiries email address if there is nothing else). Seems to work most of the time.

  2. Ian

    Thanks for your comments about our online reference system. I am in charge of the MBA admissions but the system is shared across the EMBA and the Masters in Finance programmes. I personally think your comments are valid, and some of the comments would pertain to decisions that we as a school made, and some to system decisions that our vendor made.

    I will start an internal discussion to see what can be done to streamline the process for references. We value the time and effort that references such as yourself put in, and we want to make sure that the process is smooth and secure. I cannot promise that we will be able to address all the issues that you have raised as I am unsure of the extent that the vendor can make changes to the system, but we will do our best.

    Kind regards

    Conrad Chua
    @CambridgeMBA on twitter
    Head MBA Admissions
    University of Cambridge Judge Business School

    1. Hi Conrad

      Thanks very much for commenting. I am delighted that you are taking my comments so seriously so quickly and at least considering improving things.

      In considering detailed changes you might make, I would say the goal is to make things as easy as possible for the referee while providing what you need, and focussing on what you need. The frustration is particularly from knowing that some of the obstacles I overcame (like the date entry thing) are not factors you care about at all.

      Plus of course making sure that statements about data protection are correct - obviously you won't be taking my word on that one but Cambridge will have a data protection expert who can advise you.

      best wishes