Can Universities do better? A people based approach to digital performance management

Can Universities do better? A people based approach to digital performance management

Pinar Guven-Uslu and Lisa Jack

Managers in UK universities increasingly use digitally generated performance management and measurement systems to monitor and benchmark teaching, research and administration. Digital platforms are used to collect, maintain and manage an immense amount of data about academics, students and managers, for example Heidi-Plus and HESA Benchmarking. The danger is, of course, that once the system of extraction, analysis and control of data becomes seen as normal its use could become coercive, adding more stress and strain than before. It is one thing for key performance measures to be discussed in an annual review, another for them to be continually updated and monitored on dashboards. This might work in a sales environment, say, but has potential unintended consequences in an educational environment.

However we see the current state of digitalization in higher education sector as a valuable opportunity for shaping the future of academia. What if academics—and students—are proactively involved in designing platforms that are fit for the values and principles of higher education institutions? What if academics and students reciprocally measure management performance? We envisage a platform for academics that provides evaluative feedback on management performance, including the nurture of creative academic space. This avoids many of the lurking dangers in top down systems. In pragmatic constructivism organisations thrive when everyone in a mutual space (or topoi) co-authors what happens within that space. Values, facts, communications and possibilities evolve from enriching dialogue orchestrated by empathetic leaders. As the academic community, we can react to the current state of digitalization in many ways; we can dismiss completely the role of digital platforms in academic communities, or we can work to understand, to audit and critique how they are being used, and how they could be used differently.

To unpack these ideas further, we can look at how Williamson describes the current state of the higher education sector in the UK. He sees it as a monitoring and management of processes, institutions and individuals through digital platforms. These systems are made operational by certain kinds of political, bureaucratic, managerial and educational actors and organisations. They are diffused into the sector in order to shape the actions of human actors located at different levels of higher education institutions. The digital systems of the sector include a wide range of technologies, including software packages, various forms of platforms and associated machine learning technologies. There are platforms such as Pure, Research Gate and Google Scholar that collate and analyse data on research outputs. Several universities use workload management software (Workload Allocation Management or WAM), curriculum mapping software, student performance systems alongside spreadsheets. Media attention accumulates via platforms like The Conversation and press monitoring software provides yet more data.

Theoretically, data analytics can be used to link these together to monitor academic staff, student and management performance, searching for nebulous cause and effects. And there is the problem. Who controls the inputs into the systems, and who decides what makes useful information? As researchers in accounting, we know that performance measurement systems have only one real measure of their own success – the conversations and discussions that they generate, with the learning (not sanction) that emerges in a creative knowledge environment. These human and non-human actors are framed by political, economical and social contingencies that shape the higher education market. By unpacking this market and studying the processes that make these systems, we might better understand the political and theoretical issues surrounding them. The results might challenge our thinking about what a new academy might be and have the potential to improve existing processes, or create new ones.

According to Srnicek, digital platforms, where such an immense amount of data is collected and controlled, emerged as a response to a broader set of economic changes. Monopolization becomes almost inevitable given the character of these platforms. The extraction, analysis and control of data are crucial for the continued existence of these platforms. There is a tendency for the management and input into any system to be ‘top down’. More dangerously, they are seen as providers of unbiased, best possible performance data and benchmarking reports. They are often used as the most reliable resource for making decisions. With the winner takes all dynamics and network effects, the quantity of data leads to complacency and lack of critical checks.

What can academics and other actors do to construct a reality that enriches the whole university topos? If there is, within the academic body, sufficient willingness to learn about the effects of digital platforms, to audit and critique the embedded algorithms and to co-author the environment in which we work, then something very unexpected might emerge. The narrative of any platform needs to be understood and if possible consciously constructed with involvement of all stakeholders and for the benefit of the communities that it relates to. We believe such an attempt requires deliberate action and continuous efforts, and vigilance regarding these platforms and information that they produce. Digital platforms should not just be the object of arm’s length, neutral research but studied because they affect the way in which they change the narrative of our teaching and administration. They are far from being neutral mediators – no performance measurement system is – but who is taking part in, and taking co-ownership of, the narratives that are not going away any time soon? The essence of education is personal experience and a conscious effort is needed to design platforms where human agency is at the centre. Total reliance on information produced through machine learning systems is alienating and confounding – it loses the human interaction that is still part of learning.

Instead of letting a very fast moving technological environment dictate the narrative about how higher education and the people in it should be evaluated, an academic initiative from social science and education research could interfere with this narrative to make it a better fit for modern higher education.

Pragmatic constructivism points us towards the philosophy and culture we want to co-create, a social reality with human actors at the centre stage. This would require a dialogue between platforms and human agency: an understanding of the facts, values, communications and possibilities on offer. Can we construct a new academy that co-authors continuous learning, nurturing creativity and collegiality with performance measures to fit these objectives? As part of a network of academics from European Universities, we believe that such an attempt could produce a useful outcome for the improvement of digital performance management in higher education. The starting point is to understand what might be enriching from digital platforms for all those involved.  A dialogue based platform could be an impartial intermediary to assess the effectiveness of all stakeholders in the community; university management, academics and students, so that all in the university are part of a mutually accountable community in society.


Pinar Guven Uslu is senior lecturer in accounting at Norwich Business School,  University of East Anglia. Lisa Jack is Professor in Accounting at Portsmouth Business School, University of Portsmouth. For further information about the network, visit Actor Reality Construction Network –ARC-


We thank Hanne Nørreklit, University of Aarhus and Lennart Nørreklit for their comments and suggestions.

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by ev on Unsplash