The next capacity development “thing”: Management for Researchers

13 August 2015
SERIES Think tank’s governance and management 18 items

This has made the news in the business world: In big move, Accenture will get rid of annual performance reviews and rankings.  Think tanks are not known for having large and complex annual staff performance reviews (most think tanks are small enterprises with a few staffers) but they have been increasingly aware of them and interested in adopting them. Funding is a key driver: how can we nudge our staff to go out and fundraise more? Publications or outputs is another: how can we maximise the number of publications per researcher?

Ex-post: assessing performance of thinktankers

More importantly, though, staff performance assessments are seen as a central part of many think tanks’ efforts to improve their management (for much more on management to the Topic Page on Governance and Management). They are seen as or expected to introduce new ways of thinking about management and new formal tools for it.

They are an attractive tool for two key reasons, as well:

  1. They can be copy-pasted into any organisation, which is relatively easy (even if this cannot guarantee success); and
  2. They can lead to a change in behaviour (of managers and managees), which is harder.

Some staff performance review frameworks are linked to salary levels and rewards (such as bonuses and salary increases). Others are linked to non-monetary rewards, too (such as training days, leave days, etc.).

But in the end, they all rely on a rather typical annual cycle model:

  1. Set objectives for the year (or for each third, quarter or half of the year)
  2. Review progress and the objectives (at least once a year)
  3. Evaluate performance and set new objectives for the following period
  4. Repeat

Some are more nuanced that others and, for instance, run in parallel to organisation-wide annual planning processes.

There are differences in the kind of objectives that are set, too:

  • Quantifiable: such as number of publications or income targets
  • Qualitative: such as satisfaction of team members and clients
  • Task based: such as focusing on the things that were done
  • Capabilities based: such as focusing on the skills acquired

Then, there are some that are delivered Top-Down (boss to employee) and others that are 360 degrees.

But they all struggle with the same issue: it is an ex-post model. It is designed to evaluate performance (however that is assessed) rather than to support performance.

The pros and cons: where is management in all of this?

My own experience has been mixed in relation to annual reviews. I’ve been and advocate of them and also very critical of their value.

Positive effects

As a manager in a think tank and at the head of a 12 person team, I found that the move from “tasks” to “capabilities” was an improvement and the formalisation of the planing and review process meant that I could set aside time to think about my own work and that of my team.

I found it an excellent tool to argue for change (upwards and downwards) and I encouraged others (in my role as union representative -see more below) to use it to ensure that they received all the support they were entitled to.

In other words, the framework, if used properly, could provide structure (the rhythms and spaces) for better management. Accompanied by some management support (for researchers) it could deliver good results. I was rather lucky in that my boss offered some of that and that I worked in a team focused on studying the performance of think tanks (and policy research organisation); so I felt that the annual reviews were a useful tool.

Negative effects

But the system had a negative side, too. First, and foremost, it is very hard to assess the performance of a thinktanker. Not everyone in a team is or should be expected to perform in the same manner. This is seldom considered in setting targets. Also, fundraising and policy influence, two of the main indicators preferred by leaders (and their funders), are often beyond the control of individual researchers. An organisation-wide system has to be fair on all but it seldom can.

A second point to consider is that the exercise is ex-post. It evaluates rather than supports. It is designed to separate the high-performing staff from the rest -and them from the low performing staff. An organisation (or team) of 100% high-performers would break the system. It would end up with a situation in which senior management would have to  reward everyone -but then, if everyone gets it, what kind of a reward is that? And is it possible? Pay-linked review systems often set aside funds to provide bonuses and pay increases to a small proportion of the staff -they need to create divisions.

And here lies one of the main sources of opposition to this management approach. It can be divisive and slightly cruel. Annual evaluation time (and especially the days after) was a period when many, particularly young, researchers and support staff, would come to me as their union representative to complain about the process. Some would be furious, felt let down and even betrayed by the organisation. It is inevitable that this kind of system, that ranks staff, will end up with some at the top and others at the bottom. Even if nobody is underperforming (objectively speaking) they will be perceived to be (relatively so). And they will be made to feel that way by the entire process -worse even if it is linked to payment and bonuses. In these circumstances, even tiny bonuses (of a few hundred pounds) would become a matter of great worry and stress. It wasn’t the money, though, it was the feeling that they had been judged, unfairly, to have underperformed.

Finally, for me, the main problem of the performance review process was that it replaced serious investments in good management. In a context in which researchers had little time as it was (they were doing research, attempting to influence policy and fundraising) managing teams was not a priority -and managing the youngest in their teams was even less so. Many confused managing staff with getting them to deliver, which, in essence, is “in-project” management. These are different things. Managing involves a lot more and demands more out-of-project time.

The performance assessment process simply established formal moments in the year when they had to sit with their staff. It provided many poor managers with an easy way out: as long as they spent the mandated hours to complete the tables and forms involved, they could claim to have done their job as managers. It meant that for many, the few hours they had been getting in support, mentoring and real management from their team leaders or line managers, were lost to be replaced by structured discussions to fill rather inflexible assessment tables and forms.

The ex-ante approach: better management needs management skills for researchers

In the end, the point is that organisations want their staff to perform as well as they possibly can. This is possible but it requires the to worry less about ex-post assessments and more about ex-ante planing and support:

“The art of leadership is not to spend your time measuring, evaluating,” [Accenture CEO Pierre] Nanterme said. “It’s all about selecting the person. And if you believe you selected the right person, then you give that person the freedom, the authority, the delegation to innovate and to lead with some very simple measure.”

This is true for quality control, too. A greater effort needs to be placed on management skills for researchers than it has so far.

Management for researchers is not quite the same as research or project management. The latter can be heavy on systems, processes and tools. The former allows people to use these systems, processes and tools to manage.

In many think tanks, management is still considered a burden. Led by researchers and staffed by researchers they consider that research must come first. Communications, finances, accounting, project management, admin support, office management, etc. are often considered and labeled “support” services. Junior or low paid staff are charged with these issues.

This is the same when it comes to the skills that researchers ought to have: Senior researchers’ job descriptions prize academic qualifications and research methods above communication skills and sometimes leave out management experience and skills. A mention of leadership and fundraising is sometimes meant to make up for this but it is not the same. This would make sense if all that researchers did was research but they are always also in charge of staff, fundraising, project management, etc.

And organisations have a responsibility of care for their staff. Allowing a researcher without the skills or the interest to manage others to take on young researchers is, in my view (and with my union hat on) an irresponsibility.

Hence, better management is necessary because:

  1. It is good for the organisation: good management breeds good research and good communications;
  2. It is good for the organisation’s sustainability: better managed organisations are better at dealing with risks; and
  3. It is fair on everyone: better managed organisation are more likely to take others’ needs into account.

Over the last decade we have seen great improvements in think tanks’ and researchers’ communications skills. Funders have invested millions in their grantees communications capacities and it would be hard to find a think tank now that did not, at least understand, the value of communications.

Management remains a bit of a taboo. Maybe not in US think tanks where the idea of a think tank like an enterprise is not met with repulsion -in fact, it is embraced. Good management, in US think tanks is understood to be central to their performance. Good management is understood to be as important as a good idea; see, for instance, the emphasis that the Center for Global Development places on management. (While we are at it it is remarkable that the quote above is almost the same as CGD’s fourth lesson:”Hire great people and give them plenty of freedom and responsibility”.)

But it remains a taboo across many developing countries and among many of the leading and older think tanks. There, academic seniority still wins over management competence. There, the most senior researchers end up with the top management jobs -regardless of whether they want to or have the capacity to.

There are models to address this: hiring a CEO, for instance, to support a more academically inclined President or Director. But the aversion to “management” often prevents this from even being considered.

In the end, I think that the best way forward will be to follow a similar path as was followed to strengthen think tanks’ communications. Research on management in think tanks, awareness rising workshops, training -ideally more formal than through one-off workshops- on management for researchers and research centres (which is not the same as project management, please), and investments in new cadres of young managers with an eye on leadership positions in the future.

Here is one such opportunities: International Workshop for Managers of Research Organizations in the Western Balkans and the EU: 19 October 2015

Let’s seem more!