Monday, 2 May 2011

'Metrics Puppies' or why Deming should be read by HE managers...

I've been reflecting on an interesting talk I attended at the IoE two months ago by Professor Rob Cuthbert called "Failing the Challenge of Institutional Evaluation: how and why managerialism flourishes". The talk and the discussion did miss an important point, alas...

An interesting anecdote was shared of a university with overall NSS scores not statistically significantly different from the norm. So instead of targeting the headline figure directly and cascading it aggressively down to the front line, they looked at the detailed responses and reviewed their practices in a considered way. Over the next few years the scores went up. But a few years later response was changed and ran using the management by objectives playbook - scores then back went down to where they were...

But this not just an HE issue - it illustrates the point that MBO can be dangerous.

Of course academics who can't teach shouldn't expect to be paid, but the vast majority want to do a good job. Interestingly there was the usual hand-wringing about managerialism in the discussion, but no concrete discussion of what an alternative would look like (apart from allowing academics to do as they please - quelle surprise?).

One name that was not mentioned was Deming - I guess engineering management isn't really in line with the overabundance of postmodernist or Marxist analyses of university management in the literature. To illustrate, the above situation could easily be retold in terms of his Red Bead Experiment. His proposal in essence is that the system of work determines most of the performance, so measurement is best used to understand how the system can be improved rather than aimed at exhorting the workforce to work harder/smarter/faster.

This applies to all sectors and arguably it is IMHO equally important in services as it is in manufacturing. For those interested in the debate between MBO and the more humanistic engineering management approach, Art Kleiner's 'Measures that Matter' article is an excellent introduction (albeit from an accounting viewpoint).

I close with by coining a new phrase: a 'metrics puppy' to describe the unthinking advocates of MBO. Those from the UK may have visions of the puppy that advertised toilet paper by chasing rolls of it with great energy. The blind chasing of measurements by making their transmission the object of management without understanding the work system is really no different - just not as cute.

PS. Posted using BlogPress from my iPad - so apologies if things go awry while I get used to it.

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