Performing miracles

22nd January 2016 at 00:00

There’s a well-known saying: “If you can’t measure, you can’t manage.” That may well be the case, but it is important that managers give serious and ongoing consideration to not only “what” is measured but also “how” measurements are taken. If managers “underperform” in this respect, there can be various undesirable consequences.

In business, a potential error in the design of a performance measurement system is the overstressing of financial performance measures at the neglect of non-financial indicators. More common nowadays is the inclusion of a balanced set of key performance indicators (KPIs), both financial and non-financial.

Like all organisations, today’s schools have multiple stakeholders, all of whom want different outcomes. Of course, they all want students to do well, but what they class as a “good” outcome for the school can differ. Some prioritise good exam results, others a happy, well-rounded child, those in charge of the financial security of the school will prioritise financial matters and so on. But it is important that headteachers instil balance across their measurement radar.

Subscribing to a more balanced management style means that headteachers will be holistic in their perspective on school activity. So, for example, while the management of costs and revenues is undeniably critical for any school, they should arguably not be tackled in isolation from other aspects of school life that cumulatively determine success – or failure – over time.

A school is unlikely to require a long list of KPIs; overkill on the number of measures highlighted can complicate a system and make the management process more difficult than it probably needs to be. Nor should school leaders necessarily try to manage every KPI all of the time, there will always be a need for (flexible) prioritisation.

Further still, snapshot measures are not always the most helpful; rather, some organisational leaders rate more highly the measurement of trends in particular areas over time, or the benchmarking of specific achievements set against comparable organisations.

Schools should develop their local performance measurement system, for a particular purpose, and take into account the very specific context of the school in question. There will be no one-size-fits-all performance measurement model for the schools sector, though obviously some shared characteristics across certain schools are possible.

It is also important to appreciate that no performance measurement system should be allowed to become taken for granted and untouchable. All school’s performance measurement systems, indeed each and every potential KPI, should be questionable, fluid, and adaptable.

John Burns is professor of management and accountancy at the University of Exeter Business School

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