Saturday, 18 September 2010

Managing academic staff

It has always seemed to me that managing academic staff and getting the best/most work out of them must be a totally thankless task. After all, why become an academic if you’re happy to have someone telling you what to do? The whole attraction – for me, at least, and I think for many of my generation – is that being an academic working in a university meant that aside from the basic teaching duties that everyone had to do, no one really hassled you about anything else. Hence it was possible to get on with doing research on anything that took your fancy, however obscure. If that just involved reading, thinking and writing, it didn’t even cost anything; and if it involved collecting data, interviewing people, and travel, then you could always apply for a research grant to do what you wanted. Either way, no one told you what to do. And where else could you get a job that offered such remarkable freedom?

But nowadays, a variety of fairly dire management practices have been creeping into our universities and spreading their tentacles far and wide. I’m quite sure, from talking to colleagues elsewhere, that my own institution, Heriot-Watt University, is neither better nor worse than many other places, but since it’s the place I know best it’s the one I report on here.

Now, in an earlier post I did mention some of the bizarre management-speak that has already reached us, with our PDR system (Performance and Development Review) set up to monitor staff performance through setting targets periodically and then reviewing their fulfilment via interviews with line managers. I suppose these systems are not fundamentally bad, but they are quite costly in terms of staff time and effort – filling in the necessary forms, participating in interviews, and so on. So for me, such systems can therefore only be justified economically if it can be shown that they give rise to marked and measurable improvements in overall academic staff performance (sufficient to justify the costs of operating the systems). Unfortunately, I’m aware of no solid evidence to demonstrate this.

The latest notion, circulated to all staff this week, is the idea that we should be thinking in terms of Performance Excellence (yes, capitalised – but I have no idea, as yet, what it’s supposed to mean), and there will even be Performance Excellence Expectations linked, apparently, to the Spirit of Heriot-Watt. It sounds pretty exciting stuff and I can hardly wait to find out whether it means anything of much relevance to what folk actually do in their jobs. Meanwhile, I’ll watch out for this mysterious spirit that might be lurking in the corridors….

This all makes me wonder, though, how we managed academic staff in the old days before these wonderful new management systems came along to ‘help’ us. The answer, I would have to admit, is generally ‘not very well.’ Given that, it’s easy to see why our top-level managers might imagine that introducing the new systems mentioned above ought to improve things, though personally I remain unconvinced that we are moving in the right direction. Let me explain.

Just over a decade ago, I was for about two and a half years the first head of our newly formed School of Management (expanded in 2002 to the School of Management and Languages, or SML). It would not be inaccurate to say that the three departments coming together back then were a bit reluctant, and not many people were really all that enthusiastic about the new venture. But no matter, it happened, and we made it work. More relevant to this post, when I was first appointed a surprising number of my colleagues would stop me in the corridor and say things like ‘right, now you can sort out X’, X being a colleague widely regarded as extremely lazy and unproductive. And the same X was drawn to my attention by many different people.

So how did I deal with this reported ‘problem’. First, I looked in X’s personnel file and found precisely nothing. In other words, not a single complaint about X had found its way into his file, neither from students nor from colleagues. Second, I sought advice from the university’s then HR director about how to proceed, and was advised that if I was minded to discipline anyone in any way at all, I would need to assemble extensive paperwork documenting the person’s alleged misdemeanours and shortcomings. Third, I duly followed the HR advice over a period of several months and did indeed assemble quite a pile of paper reporting things like unexplained absences, missed teaching, unavailability to students, failure to complete assigned administrative tasks, and so on. I also held some informal discussions with the person concerned to draw his attention to various issues about his work. Fourth, I took the pile of paper back to HR and asked how I could proceed in regard to initiating disciplinary action against X. They told me in no uncertain terms that I had nothing like enough paper to support my case, and that I could take no action. At that point, I concluded that I had better things to do with my life, and abandoned the venture in disgust. A year or two later, X was awarded a rather generous early retirement deal by the university, which disgusted me even more. But at least he was finally out of the system.

But what a shockingly bad way to manage academic staff. Did no one think what a terrible message this conveyed to other staff, namely that nothing all that terrible would happen even if you chose to be bone idle. Appalling! Or perhaps at that time our HR people just wanted a quiet life and didn’t want any trouble from the unions, etc. I don’t know for sure, though I have my suspicions. And I do wonder whether our HR people now are any tougher than they used to be then. I certainly hope they are rather more robust these days.

While this discussion has indicated how bad we were at dealing with underperforming staff, I’m afraid we have not been notably better at rewarding exceptionally good performance. True, sometimes a junior academic might gain promotion relatively early, or might occasionally be awarded a merit increment or two. So rewards for these staff have not been uniformly zero, but they have generally been very small. Likewise for senior staff, those already at the professorial level, there is provision for either salary increases and/or merit awards, the latter being tiny bonuses – in my own case I have never received a bonus that exceeded 3% of my basic annual salary (which might mean, of course, that I was never especially deserving, though at times I was told that I had done exceptionally well). Luckily, productive academics are not motivated solely by financial rewards, for if we were the university would never elicit good performance from any of us.

Overall, therefore, universities seem to have a very strange reward system in which there is usually no penalty for the most blatant of underperformance, and at best a modest reward for outstanding performance. Given this, it’s amazing that most people work as well and as hard as they do! Now, how do we expect our PDR system and its new variants to change any of this? It’s not clear to me that it’s really offering more reward to those who do well, except perhaps a few kind words from the Head of School – and I must admit that such personal recognition is sometimes appreciated. And how will the PDR system affect those who work less hard and deliver much less? I suspect very little. For all those in the middle, already working quite well, it will surely just be an unwelcome additional burden, with little impact on what they actually do. This curious mix of weak financial incentives and an over-bureaucratic PDR system is surely not the best staff management framework we can come up with.

After thinking about all this, I’m almost tempted to open a management textbook to see what pearls of wisdom I might uncover there!

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