On Managing…

I’ve just done my stint as head of group at a research-intensive university’s management school.

It’s been an eye-opener. As you would expect from a bunch of management school academics, in charge of managing a bunch of management school academics, there was a lot of practicing what we preach – restructuring, reimagining workload models and certainly spreadsheets were more in evidence than in previous years. And of course meetings. Lots of them.

I was lucky it wasn’t too hard to manage my colleagues who are highly motivated, passionate academics. But operating in an audit and accountability culture can demotivate even the highly motivated.

The constant filling in of forms or on-line databases, the constant monitoring of our effectiveness, either as teacher or researcher, possibly makes sense if you weren’t the bunch of people who came up with all these governing devices in the first place. What you end up with if you’re not careful, is a bunch of demotivated colleagues who see these performance management techniques as part of a gradual process of de-professionalisation.

Basically, we’re not trusted to do what we do best.

Take the REF, the audit of our research output by the Government. They dish out billions of pounds a year. Clearly they want to see that money well spent. Before the REF and its predecessor the RAE, the vast majority of that money went to the research intensive Universities.

We’ve had these audits since the 1980s and guess where the vast majority of the money still goes? To the same institutions that it always went to.

The “cost” of the REF, in money, time and, in at least one extreme case, an academic’s life, can create a miserable environment to work in. It also encourages a merry-go-round whereby the “best” academics move from post-to-post, normally just prior to the next audit. This is common in Schools like mine where colleagues aren’t tied to massive research grants that fund hi-tech labs.

Excellent, world-class research, science or social science, arts or humanities, takes time and resources. Some of the world’s most eminent scholars would not have survived in the dog-eat-dog world of the REF.

My colleagues want to do a good job. Some want to engage or deliver impact, while others are motivated by intellectual curiosity. They all want to produce excellent research – but it’s not easy publishing in the small list of world elite journals expected of us. They want to engage their students with research informed teaching. They want to provide solutions to the problems we, as a society face, or to provide evidence to inform policy. Some even want to help businesses do business better.

But they can’t do it all. And, increasingly, this is what we are being asked to do by the managers that manage us.

We try and build teams. Teams can do what individuals can’t. Teams can tick all the boxes that any individual will find hard to do. But because performance, promotion and pay remains at the level of the individual, it’s hard to build teams with any longevity, as self-interest inevitably wins.