Managing To Get By

At a glance..
  • A Gallup survey demonstrated the importance of good performance management in industry
  • Management philosophies in higher education lag those in business, where staff appraisals are commonplace, with serious implications for contract research staff.
  • A Concordat, signed by the major research funders in 1996, offered better conditions for contract staff but there has been little financial investment
  • In 1999 the Cambridge University Engineering Department funded a Concordat implementation focused on perfomance management; recruitment and induction; rewards, terms and conditions; training; and career guidance
  • The strategy proved that significant improvement can be achieved with modest investment
  • The management culture in higher education is a constraint on improving practice.
Talented Employees need Great Managers

"Managers trump companies". This was one of the conclusions of a major research project run by Gallup, which surveyed over 1 million employees and correlated some of the results with performance data forover 2500 businesses. The most significant finding was that talented employees need great managers to improve their business performance. While the central administration of an employer may show commitment to the career development of its employees and advocate fine policies and procedures, unless an employee’s line manager is similarly committed, excellent performance management is unlikely.

Part of the Gallup research aimed to identify what the most talented employees need from their workplace. It identified 12 criteria by which to assess the strength of the workplace, all of which related directly to employee conditions. Six of these are considered below as part of a study on contract research staff (CRS) career management at Cambridge University.

If we accept that talented employees need great managers,where does this leave academic staff working in higher education? The systems in higher education still do not monitor the performance of the highly educated (and talented) staff. Staff appraisals are now common in industry,and at the leading edge of the business world you will find sophisticated management philosophies involving team building and visionary leadership.However, in higher education, little or no account of managerial ability is considered with promotion, which is almost exclusively based on research activity.

Successive governments have tried to reshape practice in higher education to include management ideas commonly and effectively used within industry. In response to the 1993 government white paper Realising our Potential, the principal UK funding organisations agreed a Concordat in 1996 aimed at improving career management of CRS in particular. In 1997 the Concordat signatories established the Research Careers Initiative (RCI)to aid its implementation. The current government has made a commitment to develop "targets for, and better monitoring of, institutional performance in managing contract staff" in this year’s white paper Excellence and Opportunity.

In the June 2000 issue of Science & Public Affairs,Sir Gareth Roberts, Chairman of the RCI Steering Group, summarised its achievements and objectives. He listed three priorities for addressing problems in higher education concerning CRS:

  • Institutional commitment to personal career development of research staff
  • Funding systems which give incentives for this commitment
  • A culture change within higher education

These are reflected in several universities. Sir Alec Broers,

Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, said in this year’s address to the Congregation of the Cambridge University Senate House on 2 October 2000: "The key to making progress is improving the way we manage ourselves. We are not doing justice to the talent we have at Cambridge if we take a ‘sink or swim’ attitude to career development. It is fundamental to the success of a university that it provides an environment that allows every student and member of staff to fulfil their intellectual potential."

Despite fine words from senior personnel representing higher education since the official launch of the Concordat in 1996, there has been little financial investment and limited senior commitment to implement the Concordat.

A personal note

In 1998, over seven years after starting at Cambridge University a contract researcher, I was frustrated with the lack of interest from my employer in my career. Several career development situations I faced were very unprofessional and unpleasant, particularly during my children’s early years, and I was lucky that a career in the offshore oil industry had left me robust enough to cope with a harsh management culture.

After discussion with my head of department (engineering) and the director of research, they allowed me to address the issues raised by the Concordat on CRS career management. Commitment of both financial and staff resources to its implementation at the engineering faculty was unprecedented at Cambridge at the time, as it was in many other UK universities. From April 1999 to October 2000, I was responsible for the implementation of the Concordat.

A case study

I wrote an implementation plan for the Concordat, which was agreed in the faculty for Cambridge University Engineering Department in May 1999. Recommendations were made against the five key areas of the Concordat: performance management; recruitment and induction; rewards, terms and conditions; training; and career guidance. Implementation of the recommended support systems required appropriate system design and documentation, improved communication and training of associated staff.

Contract research staff comprise over half of the engineering department’s academic staff, including men and women from a number of nations, dispersed across different divisions and sites. Communication between CRS and the departmental administration is therefore difficult. To address this, all 130 CRS were invited to attend a workshop in autumn 1999. The aims of the Concordat were introduced, the departmental implementation plan presented, and feedback was collected from the 36 staff who attended. Networks of volunteers have since evolved to act as communication channels between the departmental administration and the CRS in different divisions. Regular contact has also been maintained with CRS, using e-mail groups, internal newsletters, and questionnaires.

A performance measurement system was implemented in October 1999 using a questionnaire written to collect information on the five Concordat areas and sent to all CRS. Replies were received from 57%. The results are now considered alongside the six questions arising from the Gallup research:

1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?

2. In the last six months, have I talked with someone about my progress?

Of the respondents, 38% were given clear performance targets at the start of their employment. There were 18% who had been appraised and 58% wanted an appraisal. In response to this, a new appraisal system was designed and implemented in August 2000. Also, a mentoring system was developed and launched for a pilot group of female CRS in May 2000. Volunteer mentors were identified and trained before the launch and to monitor its effectiveness the university initiated a study coordinated by the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative Mentoring Families project. Plans are in place to extend the mentoring system to include all CRS.

3. Do I have the materials I need to do my work right?

4. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?

Of the respondents, 52% agreed that their work area was ready for them to begin work on arrival. Therefore, to improve the induction of new CRS, a structured departmental induction event was introduced. This has now become a regular occurrence for new staff and provides a forum for identifying problems earlier than before.

5. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?

6. At work, have I had opportunities to learn and grow?

Of the respondents, 30% had participated in some form of training and 13% had been encouraged by their managers to do so. Cambridge University offers a comprehensive programme of training, which is available to all academic staff. So this result was doubly disappointing and demonstrates that systems are ineffective unless line managers are committed to staff development.

The questionnaire was issued again in October 2000 in an attempt to monitor changes in CRS views; results will be available soon.

Securing a firm foundation

It is clear that significant progress can be made at relatively low cost (in our case less than £20000). However, success will elude us unless the resistance to improved management practices can be eliminated and managers in academe can be empowered to embrace the concepts described above through education, training and incentives. Then they might become ‘great’ managers of a very ‘talented’ workforce.

According to Sir Gareth, the RCI will report in 2002 on whether or not the management and development of our contract research staff have been put on a secure footing. He also reports that the Higher Education Funding Council for England has used money from its Developing Good Management Practice fund to support a joint project "to achieve a clear understanding of the major constraints on successful implementation of improved practice, and of effective ways of addressing these."

Based on my experience at Cambridge University Engineering Department and from discussions with workers at similar institutions, I believe that improved practice can only be achieved through a major culture change in higher education at every level.

Over the last decade, as part of my research and teaching activity in manufacturing management, I have witnessed and facilitated a culture change at the leading edge of manufacturing industry. Its advent in higher education is overdue and will require commitment at senior level and teambuilding at grassroots level. This culture change will not only benefit CRS but all staff, academic and non-academic, British and non-British, male and female, young and old.