Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Staff performance measurement in Australia's universities

According to a story in the Australian Financial Review (Monday 24 August 2009) by Joanne Mather, and I quote:

Vice-chancellors are deploying corporate style tactics to lift employee output and create leaner, more responsive workforces before a new era of performance-base funding agreements with the Commonwealth.

This example of modern corporate-speak took me by surprise. In the same story, Joanne quoted the VC of the University of Canberra, Stephen Porter. Speaking of the introduction of performance based at his university, he said: This wouldn't raise an eyebrow in the corporate sector.

I am sure that Professor Parker is right. My problem is that I am far from sure that the corporate sector is in fact the right model. I thought this before, but since then we have had to global financial crisis caused in part by by the combination of performance measurement and performance based pay.

To extend this argument consider the words used by Joanne Mather in her first paragraph quoted above.

Note, first, the use of the word employee. Of course university staff are "employees", but they are also more than this. I wonder how the focus on "employees" fits with other (perhaps outdated) concepts - community of scholars and academic freedom are two that come to mind.

Still continuing with Joanne's word, the aim of the new approaches is to increase "output". This got me wondering. Just how the universities are to measure this? How might this be related to individual performance?

I tried to think through just how I might measure output. Universities are complex multi-variate institutions. To really develop a working output model, you first have to specify the outputs, then determine the relationships between these outputs and the various elements (inputs) contributing to the outputs. I can see how I might do this in a general sense, but I find it hard to see how to it with the degree of specificity implied by Ms Mather's comment.

The use of the word "lean" in the way that Ms Mather uses it originally came from lean manufacturing, the slimming down of manufacturing systems to gain maximum value in process terms while minimising inventory. Later it became fashionable in corporate restructuring - getting rid of fat to create the lean organisation.

The results of this approach in the corporate sector have in fact been very mixed. A particular problem has arisen in balancing short term gain with long term risks and costs. In Australian electricity distribution, for example, the newly corporatised or privatised entities cut the number of linesmen. This did provide a short term gain that flowed to the bottom line, but later led to severe shortages with added costs in recruitment and training, as well as reduced operational efficiency.

Of course, a more responsive workforce is (in general) a good thing. Here, however, a question has to be asked: responsive to whom? In the university case, responsiveness to corporate demands can conflict with corporate objectives or indeed academic and professional responsibilities.

I actually do think that Australian universities need to be more responsive in meeting student needs and in the development and modification of courses. One project that I worked on involved the development and introduction of a new vocational course. This should have been relatively simple. The project failed because the university, a major metropolitan institution, simply could not get its act together.

The point about this example, however, is that the delay linked to the interaction between people and systems. This was the core reason for delay and final abandonment.

Apart from my own concerns about what I see as a decline in the real standards of Australia's universities, my experience as a consultant makes me very cautious. Speaking as someone who argued strongly for the adoption of corporate approaches into the public and not-for-profit sectors, I no longer see the gains I used to.       

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