Thoughts From Professor Terry Threadgold on Performance Management
The first Performance Management Working Group of the year was hosted by Leeds Beckett (thank you) and well attended (despite the solar eclipse) with a good mix of participants covering teaching, hybrid and research intensive, as well as small and very large institutions.
Having spent the last six months almost completely immersed in Academic Workload Planning & Management it made a pleasant change to be discussing Performance Management – although I believe that the two are inextricably linked in the academic context.
As we experience an unprecedented range of challenges in our sector from reduced funding to the increasing impact of student choices I am very keen to understand the ways in which Universities are working to harness the full potential of all of their staff in meeting those challenges. For the sixty or so Universities we have spoken with so far this is very much a journey rather than an end, with a variable starting point dependent upon the progress made in the last few years. Most are still at the quantitative stage, with the imperative being to ensure that all staff at least have a review within the prescribed time-scales and in a standardised format that is accurately measured. For others the challenge is qualitative, trying to improve the quality of conversation, objective setting and development planning.
The participants from Leeds Beckett were able to share some of the outcomes from their first year using the PFA Living Review system. The survey of staff using the system showed: 91% of reviewers and 80% of reviewees found it useful. At the same time the quality of conversations increased with over 85% of reviewees and reviewers reporting significant improvements in the quality and value of their appraisals.
There are some challenges inherent in our historical way of working that need to be overcome before we can begin the journey. One of which is establishing a clear, transparent, equitable and fit for purpose approach to performance management.
The working group agreed that managing performance is an important contributor to a University’s overall success but, that managing the performance of professional services staff was less challenging than managing the performance of academic staff, or at least that the same approaches do not work for both. A similar distinction was seen as existing between teaching only/teaching and scholarship staff and teaching and research staff where the emotional engagement and identification was seen to be with the field of research and not the role or the institution.
Overcoming these traditional barriers to effective reviews requires good leadership and management within the context of which performance management has to fit into a wider management culture. All of the representatives at the working group agreed that a High Performance Culture is when management and leadership are involved in creating the conditions which:
Further the alignment of organisational and individual objectives, contributions and outputs within a context that enables all staff to understand their purpose and direction, engendering a solid sense of personal value and engagement in and with the institutional aims.
Allow each staff member to achieve their full potential by having clear objectives, fit and direction.
Support trust, good citizenship and engagement.
Communicate appropriately and constantly.
Are demonstrably fair and reasonable across all staff.
As a key enabler to this culture the group felt that the once a year annual appraisal process is no longer really fit for purpose – and the experience of the appraisee who has one conversation about career direction in twelve months cannot be viewed as adequate.
Whilst creating the right culture and supporting it with regular interactions moves us a long way forward, there remains the challenge of defining ways of rating or ranking performance so that excellence and levels of success could be measured. Some of the Universities I talk to are considering skill, competency and behavioural frameworks as a way to provide institutional standardised approaches to measurement. From the working group one university was using HEA guidelines on academic competencies for Teaching and more generic competencies to assess areas like good citizenship. Another was using a set of competencies derived from HERA and set out on a performance grid of expectations of specific roles (definitions of career pathways).
Frameworks do provide at least some yardstick for measurement, but in our complex environment we need to take a vast array of additional information into account within the performance process. Many of the PFA members are working with us to establish ways in which they might bring in information from Research systems, Student Systems, NSS, REF and others into the review process to make it more meaningful to both the institution and the individual. We are also embarking on a research project to find a way to apply some intelligent analysis tools to the diverse data to assist in finding the patterns of behaviour, workload, and student numbers etc. which give rise to improved outcomes. I will provide updates on this as it progresses.
We at Performance For All and at Simitive have found these discussions extremely useful and very helpful in guiding the directions in which we will take further workshops and development of the systems. We are very grateful to everyone who has shared their views with us so generously. We hope the discussions have been as useful for the participants as for us and we look forward very much to seeing more of you at future events.