Monday, 15 November 2010

How to decide on academic promotions

The latest research findings on promotions practice could save us all a huge amount of trouble, and even save some resources.

For a recent study by three Italian researchers has shown that random promotion is pretty much as good as anything else we can come up with. Their analysis was based on a multi-level hierarchy in which, in each period, some promotions were going to take place, some people left the organisation, and new people came in at the bottom. At each hierarchical level, people were ranked according to their performance in the tasks needed for that level. And then selection for promotion could be based on choosing the best, the worst, or a random person at each level for promotion to the next level. If, as is often the case in real life, and demonstrably so in academia, the skills needed at one level of the hierarchy are not highly correlated with the skills needed one level higher, then good performance at one level is not a good predictor of how well someone would perform when promoted. Under such conditions, the finding that random promotion is pretty effective in terms of overall organisational performance is perhaps less surprising than one might have thought.

But what does this mean for the way we ought to handle promotions in a university? All that form filling, interviews, promotion boards and the like, is it all a waste of time and effort? Well, perhaps much of it is! For even with all the effort we put into the process, it's still quite common for people to ask, 'why did he get promoted this time?' and 'why didn't she succeed as expected?'. For despite all our efforts to be 'objective' and thorough, I'm sure there are still big elements of subjectivity in promotions exercises - we promote people like ourselves, we promote 'agreeable' people who don't make too many waves, we promote a 'safe pair of hands', sometimes we even take a risk and promote someone known to be outspoken and opinionated.

And do we always get it right? No, of course we don't. We can all think of folk who've been promoted and somehow flopped at their promoted level, not really delivered the goods. Equally, now and again there is the unexpected promotion, someone not thought to be 'ready', whatever that means, who rises to the challenge and does surprisingly well.

So if universities in the UK are coming under pressure to cut costs, here's an area where some savings could be made. Introduce random promotions, saving on HR and administrative costs 'at a stroke'.

No comments:

Post a Comment