Universities are mismanaging performance

The misapplication of private sector HR techniques harms individuals without raising performance, says Rob Briner

May 7, 2015

For all but the most careerist academics, it is difficult to feel committed to goals that seem, indeed often are, arbitrary

Are universities the same as businesses? At one extreme is the view that yes, they are pretty much identical. They exist to generate income, expand, turn a profit and reward senior managers who make all that happen. At the other pole is the view that universities are not much like businesses at all – and never should be. While they must take care of commercial fundamentals, their mission is entirely different. And more than that, operating them as businesses undermines their very purpose.

This is a long-running debate. But, whatever your perspective, it is increasingly clear that universities are being managed as though they are businesses.

One example is the rise of new management practices. Nearly always, this means copying what is assumed to be “best practice” from private sector businesses – an affliction that blights much public sector management reform.

For people management or human resources, this has meant more elaborate selection and promotion processes, more training and development – and more performance management.

Performance management refers to anything organisations do to improve the individual and collective performance of staff. It includes practices such as awarding bonuses, setting performance standards, and supporting or actively managing out those deemed to be poor performers.

On a personal level, I’ve been horrified by reports from some universities of what seem to be at best cack-handed and at worst nasty, macho performance management practices. Some stories I’ve heard personally, some have been reported in Times Higher Education, and others were described by respondents to the THE Best University Workplace Survey 2015.

As an organisational psychologist interested in evidence-based practice in management, I’ve been disturbed in quite a different way. These stories suggest that universities do not understand performance management or the theories and evidence behind it. Techniques are being misapplied, causing distress to individuals on the receiving end while doing little to raise performance in a meaningful or sustainable way.

Take goal-setting. Much research shows that, used properly, it can improve not only performance but also job satisfaction and skills. But as with any management technique, it works in only some contexts, to some extent, and only if it is carefully deployed.

Targets are more likely to motivate, focus and sustain effort if they are tough (but still attainable), specific (not vague) and relatively short-term (days, weeks or months). Contrast this with the goal-setting that takes place in our grant-hungry, publication-exhorting, customer-focused institutions.

The goals they set are often extraordinarily hard or just plain impossible to achieve. Academics may be asked to obtain a certain level of funding, to publish a particular number of articles in “top” journals and to gain high student satisfaction scores for their teaching – and to keep doing it year after year. Yet the fierce competition for grants and publication slots means that there is no direct or predictable link between one’s efforts and the attainment of such goals. And objectives are often set yearly during the mostly pointless annual appraisal – far too long a stretch for effective goal-setting.

We need also to consider what makes goals motivating. For all but the most careerist, obedient and authority-respecting academics, it is difficult to feel committed to goals that seem, indeed often are, arbitrary – such as publishing x articles a year or bringing in y thousand pounds of grant income. Another important factor is regular feedback about progress. Finding out simply that you have succeeded or failed – as with article acceptance or rejection – is not useful.

Finally, goal-setting works best when the task is not too complex. But, of course, many academic tasks are intrinsically complex and involve non-routine processes with unpredictable outcomes.

Not only does the failure to set goals properly do little to boost performance, it can also make academics feel failures. This, in turn, causes untold damage to our profession, our disciplines and our universities.

If universities insist on mimicking the management techniques of businesses, then they might at least do so a little more, well, professionally.

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Reader's comments (2)

This is an absolutely superb article, and lucidly characterises the regime of micro-management and constant monitoring (bordering on bullying) of academics that is now deeply entrenched in so many British universities - yet any complaints by academics are haughtily dismissed as 'fear of accountability', or the insidious 'if you are doing your job properly, what are you afraid of?'. It is ironic that while successive governments have endeavored to created a free market between universities (competing for student 'customers' and research grants), the managerialist regime inside many universities is worryingly similar to aspects of the Soviet Union under Communism - a plethora of five-year plans, innumerable targets, constant monitoring exercises, audits and inspections (to measure progress or success), and an ever-expanding cadre of bureaucratic functionaries to enforce this insane regime. Moreover, failure to achieve a target is always blamed on the individual or Department, never on the unrealistic or unattainable character if the target itself. The system is treated as infallible, so any 'failings' must reside with the staff themselves, who thus need even closer monitoring or more rigorous training courses! To give one example, many universities now specify a response rate (%) for how many students complete the annual National Student Survey (NSS) - and if this figure is not reached, academics staff and Departments are berated by university managers. Yet beyond exhorting students to complete the NSS survey, academics cannot control how many (or how few) students actually do so; it is out of our hands, yet we are somehow held responsible. The consequence is that more and more academics - for the sake of their sanity and self-esteem - are mentally 'disengaging', and paying lip service to the deluge of targets and performance indicators imposed upon them each year. If I apply for a research grant (which I don't even want or need, but am required to apply for as a target) and don't get it, I am not going to think 'I must be useless' - even though the managerial response will be that your application (or your research) are somehow deficient.
Having been on the sharp end of performance management in another career, I agree the model should be applied with caution. In an effort to provide some balance, my experience of FE is that faculty staff are often afforded a great deal of freedom to pursue personal agendas (and income) which aren't always in the direct interests of the University or the paying punters. So perhaps some balance is required before bemoaning one's fate. I'm reminded of another commentary I read today about the ridiculousness of corporate life. It commented that, in future, 'workers (will) identify with occupations, not organisations' - hasn't the academic world been in this happy state for some time now?