Our benchmark for best practice? Ourselves

Universities can improve their procedures by studying themselves instead of others, says Stephen Yorkstone

April 17, 2014

A look in the mirror may reveal unexpected warts - but can also induce smiles as people see that they have done amazing work

Universities are focusing more and more attention on improving their internal processes – and considering the bureaucracy that afflicts higher education, that can only be a good thing.

The phrase “we should go and see how such-and-such does this” is a common refrain in the sector. After all, on the face of it, going out to find the best examples of what other similar organisations are doing and duplicating it does seem to be an eminently sensible shortcut to improvement.

But benchmarking like this can be dangerously seductive in a number of different ways.

While it is human nature to take heed of others’ behaviour, if we spent as much time and effort in extensive scrutiny of our own organisations, perhaps we could discover something more pertinent.

Benchmarking can foster a false sense of security because of the human tendency to focus on evidence that reinforces our own perspectives, allowing us to return content in the knowledge that our original ideas were exactly right after all.

Moreover, although willingness to share know-how is a special feature of our sector’s culture, the tacit knowledge underlying many processes and activities is always likely to prove elusive during a flying visit. Universities are pretty idiosyncratic places, and there is probably something going on that people are not, cannot or just will not be able to share.

Another pitfall is that implementing anything useful can rarely be done quickly. By the time you have managed to get in place what you observed at another organisation, that institution may well have made more advancements, leaving you just as far behind as when you started.

But perhaps the most serious argument against benchmarking is that it results in increasing similarities in what we do. In some areas, there are certainly benefits to aligning processes; we could, for instance, make efficiency gains by sharing services across institutions. But there are also some things that are and should be unique about each institution. Quite apart from its role in attracting varied populations of international students to the UK, diversity of thinking is also the key to innovation.

This is not to say that we should give up on benchmarking. We just need to do it in a more intelligent way. One idea is to benchmark against ourselves, our own department or university, over time. After all, we understand our own institutions uniquely well. It is tough to take a long, hard look in the mirror, for doing so may reveal a few unexpected warts – but it can also induce smiles of recognition as people realise that they have already done some pretty amazing work in the past. And that means they can do some pretty amazing work again.

In my experience, external benchmarking is particularly useful when done in organisations that challenge your perceptions – perhaps by being from a very different sector. Modern logistics could be an area we could learn from: one can imagine comparing timetabling classes to the turnover of aircraft at terminal gates.

In a previous role, my eyes were opened to better working practices when colleagues from the estates team visited a military base. On their return, we successfully redesigned how helpdesk calls were handled, releasing significant staff time.

Having obtained such insights, institutions need the confidence to stand out from the crowd and to implement the new ideas. This is easy to say but much harder to do, especially in an era of performance measures and league tables. But surely it is misguided to spend an excess of effort on examining how competitors have done on such measures or to try to copy blindly those to whose positions we aspire. Going out on a limb is likely to be the best way to maximise our own performance, and the example we set will also enrich the sector as a whole.

As any bright school child will tell you, trying too hard to copy what the cool kids are doing only ends in tears.

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