Two alternatives to the prevailing “social technology” or habit of using arbitrary targets to help us measure performance:
1. The Vanguard Method. Vanguard has done ample research into “how we do what we do”. Mainly they work in the public sector, so it is not about agricultural research projects. But still, I can’t help but feel that much of what they say is relevant in my world too. A load of their research has been into how targets not only don’t help, but they actually make performance worse. How can that be? Have a read of John Seddon’s 2007 letter to the UK Minister for Communications and Local Government to understand how it happens. Anyway, the alternative he suggests is actually asking those directly involved to define what measures would help them understand and improve their work. Meaningful measures. Bottom-up measures. Makes sense to me.
2. Theory-driven approaches. This is such a cool idea. Chris Skelcher and Helen Sullivan of the University of Birmingham propose that to measure performance we work deductively from the theory that drives the performance rather than looking at what can be measured and kind of working backwards inductively from that, which is what we usually do. Their paper (not Open Access I am afraid :() is looking at collaborations. How can we say a collaboration has been successful? Well there are lots of claims for collaborative working – that it is more democratic and brings in more voices, that it improves coordination, that it allows new outcomes from synergies that would not be possible for each single agency, and that collaborations are needed to achieve public policy outcomes. A fifth and last aspect about collaborations is whether they create lasting change, or only change for the length of time of the collaboration. Skelcher and Sullivan (if i may paraphrase for them) say “OK, these are the underlying claims for promoting this kind of working. What are the theories supporting these claims?” They then look at appropriate theories and pull indicators from the theories. For example, Democracy, there exists a body of theory called democratic theory, in which academics have empirically identified and described criteria of democratic principles (like Legitimacy, Consent and Accountability (Held 2006)). So, you can use those descriptions as measures for how democratic your collaboration is.
And so on and so forth. What I like about this is the approach: asking what are the claims made for doing things this way? What are the theories to understand those claims? Could we use this approach to come up with performance indicators at work? Or is that a completely different kettle of fish?