Social Innovation Conversations: Jeffrey Pfeffer

Arc TrainerNow that Open Source Radio has closed, I’m having the opportunity to catch up with some other other podcasts in my five hours a week on the Arc Trainer. Yesterday was the first time I’ve listened to an offering from the Social Innovations Conversations, with a presentation by Stanford Business School Professor Jeffery Pfeffer, author of the classic Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management.

I’ve been working full time in higher education for nearly 25 years now, and one of the things that continues to puzzle me is why our institutions can be so committed to evidence, research and theory development in the academic enterprise and yet operate as an “evidence free zone” when it comes to administrative decision-making. At times it’s seemed almost unethical that organizations that grant advanced degrees in organizational sociology and psychology, business–even higher education–so often ignore and totally discount the very research and theory that students are paying us to study in those disciplines.

For example, 50 years of interdisciplinary research on performance appraisal has shown that most of these “incentive systems” do nothing to improve productivity and often demoralize employees and sow dissatisfaction:

Performance appraisals impede genuine feedback, and there’s no solid evidence that it motivates people or lead to meaningful improvement. In fact it usually produces distorted and unreliable data about the contribution of employees. Consequently, the resulting documentation isn’t useful for staffing decisions and often doesn’t hold up in court. Too often, appraisal destroys human spirit and, in the span of a 30-minute meeting, can transform a vibrant, highly committed employee into a demoralized, indifferent wallflower who reads want ads on the weekend. Source

Yet, virtually every college or university that I know of wastes hundreds of hours each year in a process that almost everyone agrees does no good. Puzzling.

Pfeffer’s talk is a good reminder some ways we might approach our organizations in a evidence-based way without giving up the soul of the university. He calls for increased reflection, integration, experimentation: many of the characteristics of the type of learning we’ve referred to as Real School. In many ways, he’s calling on us to actually return our administrative practices closer to our souls.